Much has been written about the need for diversity in church and the challenges facing a church that desires a multi-ethnic worship experience. While these discussions have been helpful, I find that very little is written about the dynamics and challenges of creating an economically diverse church. Economic diversity presents the church with often-unseen barriers to understanding, fellowship, and oneness. At some level, issues of economic diversity and ethnic diversity will naturally overlap, as people from all walks of life and all areas of the city meet in one space to worship together. However, just as it is possible for a church to achieve some level of multiethnicity and still be largely mono-cultural in its expression, it is possible for a church to attract various ethnicities but never meaningfully include people outside of one dominant economic status. Sometimes, economic status and the unspoken class rules within each status present bigger barriers to unity and oneness than skin colors do!
This post does not pretend to be a research paper on social and economic classes, class rules, or the sociology of poverty. Instead, these are some practical suggestions for a church that desires to really include people, especially those from lower economic classes, in the life of the church. I have had the privilege of working among both the wealthy and the impoverished, and count some of the best years of my life so far as those lived in a low-income neighborhood on Seattle’s south side. As a pastor, I often found myself as a bridge person between the worlds of black and white, upwardly mobile and impoverished, suburban and urban, and all the clashes those divergent communities represented. I am still passionate about planting churches that embrace a gospel big and beautiful enough to make families out of strangers and friends out of enemies.
Note: When I describe a person or community in poverty, please do not read, “the Black community.” Poverty is multiethnic! (The unique causes of poverty within Black, Hispanic, or other minority communities in America is a separate topic and very much worthy of discussion elsewhere.)
The following suggestions are written primarily with the middle-class American church in mind.
- Recognize there are different “rules” and values among different economic classes. Just understanding that different classes do not think the same way or value the same things is huge! I have seen Christians who have a love for missions and a passion for cross cultural work overseas show no interest or curiosity when it comes to people in poverty here in America. I would encourage the church to rekindle a sense of humility and missional curiosity when it comes to crossing economic divides. Pick up A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. Do some of the same community mapping, observing, and prayer walking you would expect your overseas missionaries to do. Think of the economic barriers in America as a foreign language you do not know but need to learn and understand if you are to see a diverse church thrive.
- Remember that poverty isn’t just about money, but a lack of options. People in poverty do not have the same array of options that someone of means has. When planning church programs, try to look at them through the lens and experience of people in other economic statuses.
- Do not make all your fellowship opportunities “pay to play.” If all your fellowship and social events cost money, don’t be surprised if you only get people with disposable income at those events. What may seem like an insignificant amount of money to spend on a food truck, a youth group restaurant outing, a round of golf, or a night at the ballpark might not be to others. You could be asking them to spend their weeks’ worth of grocery money on one night of church activity. This has the potential to become a double-bind situation, since the church encourages people to gather as an act of spiritual growth and devotion. Now there’s both social and spiritual pressure.
- Consider transportation. When possible, offer rides to events or plan around public transportation. Communicating up front that transportation is available lets people know you have thought about this potential barrier in advance and there is no shame or stigma associated with needing a ride.
- Examine your view of time. In general, middle-class people see time as money. They are future oriented with goals for wealth-building and independence. They want a plan, a start time, an end time, and structure. People in poverty culture tend to see time as relationship and are less structured and less future-oriented. It’s much easier for someone in poverty culture to understand the concept of the ministry of presence – the value of simply showing up to be with others to play, celebrate, grieve, eat, or fellowship. In middle class settings, though, there is often not a margin for unhurried relational time. Projects may get done, but sometimes at the expense of connection. Neither view of time is inherently wrong, though both sides can get out of balance in sinful ways. Middle class people don’t have to completely ditch structure and agenda but can plan unhurried and flexible time into their agendas.
- Watch what expectations you are communicating. Does your church verbally or nonverbally communicate that their events (or even home groups) must meet a certain refined standard, i.e., can only be done by people with more means? Do only the rich practice hospitality? Do only those with nice houses and paid housecleaners host Bible studies? As a person experiencing poverty, it is incredibly isolating to know you could never reciprocate hospitality, host an event, or contribute at the same high level that has come to be expected by the church culture. It is not wrong to enjoy fine things but find ways to make events more accessible and simpler when possible.
- Ask yourself honest questions. What if you suddenly had half the income you currently have? Would you still have the same options available to you? Would you be able to fully participate in church body life? What would all the sudden become difficult for you? Would you need to make some difficult choices about what you could and couldn’t do with your church family? Would you feel awkward asking for scholarships? Let your answers to these questions inform how you would include people of limited means.
- Check your judgment. In poverty culture, money is to be used and shared. In middle class culture, money is to be saved. Many times, I have seen middle class people judge or disparage people in poverty for how they spend their money. I have also seen impoverished people share more generously and meet needs quicker than their richer counterparts. Again, we are bumping into different values assigned to money; neither is necessarily wrong, but both have downsides. Learn from each other and seek understanding before judgment. (If you want to take $125 and buy plants to landscape your house and a person in poverty wants to buy new Jordans, are you right and he is wrong? He might argue that he will get more use out of his shoes for longer than you will enjoy your flowers! Accommodate differences.) When planning church outreach, make sure that people of lower economic means are in the discussion and have a say in how money is used. They will often have insight into what type of investment will be seen as a blessing in an impoverished neighborhood.
- Carefully plan fundraisers. As I mentioned above, hopefully not every opportunity at your church costs money to participate. (It amazes me how many times churches assume all the youth will go to summer camp and assume the camp fees of $400 per person are perfectly within reach. Don’t make this assumption!) Churches don’t have to cut out good opportunities that cost money, but they do need to make sure there are opportunities to group fundraise. People in poverty may know the same amount of people as middle-class people, but donation letters to 50 people in a poverty network will yield far less money than the same number of letters to a middle class network. For these reasons, find ways to group-fundraise so that everyone has the dignity of doing the work of fundraising, but no one suffers the shame of disproportionate results.
- Recognize the assets that people in poverty bring. Because of their economic status, people in poverty learn to adapt in ways others do not. They bring a unique creativity, spontaneity, gritty survival instinct, ability to be in the moment, and generosity that would be assets in any church – if you let them. People in poverty should not be the church’s projects; they have wealth to share, even if their wealth is not in dollars. Like everyone else, they need the dignity and discipline of work, the encouragement to persevere in their faith, and the opportunity to develop into all God has for them. Their highest need in life might not be your Dave Ramsey course (though that could be a benefit); their highest need is to know they have an equal place in God’s family.