The Third World is alive and well within North America. The poor are in the apartments with black mold; they are in the food stamp offices and being run out from under bridges. Difficulty and disease and shame mark their lives; they’re stigmatized like lepers. Jesus is among these people; living with them, encouraging them and doing miracles among them.
But you’d never know this by looking at the churches of North America.
A few churches cater to the upper class, but the massive majority of churches throughout North America see themselves as ministering to “communities”, by which they mean communities of the middle class. The poor are left out of the equation of the normal, everyday life of the church. And because of this, the church itself is poorer. Below are four areas in which the poor are marginalized in most modern churches:
1. Cultural uniqueness
The third world of North America is unique, and has unique features. For one thing, its inhabitants tend to use foul language, even the most religious of them. More poor people smoke than middle class people, and they are also more likely to have obvious addiction issues. Poor people tend to be less educated and focus more on survival. But, paradoxically, the poor are more likely to give their last dollar to someone else in need. Poor folks are more likely to rely on God instead of a system or even their own work. These are unique cultural characteristics, not right or wrong, just different. There are weaknesses and strengths in this culture, just as there are in the cultures of the middle or upper classes (or, indeed, in any culture).
The cultural uniqueness of being poor isn’t celebrated, but preached against in the everyday church. Not that every facet of poor culture should be celebrated; but the same is true of the middle and upper class cultures. When we praise the middle and upper class trait of making and following a reasonable budget, for example, why can we not also praise the lower class trait of sacrificial generosity? The church cannot be a culture-free environment, but in our middle-class model of church, where can the poor worship in a manner cohesive to their culture?
2. Stamped with otherness
This does not mean that the poor do not go to church. They don’t go as frequently, but since many know that participation with God is participation in the church (which is, all too frequently, not really Jesus’ body, but only a form of Christendom), they will go. But when they do, they are considered outliers. A church made up of the poor is traditionally called a “mission” because the poor aren’t naturally considered a part of a church. Instead, they are often considered “converts” when they regularly attend a church, because after all, if they were actually spiritual they’d be financially self-sufficient, right? The poor aren’t fully “sanctified” until they give up the ways of the poverty class—smoking, drinking, “low” language—even though these requirements aren’t made by Jesus. Even those things (like the aforementioned generosity) which should be considered “good” are simply considered foolish or wasteful if one is not on solid financial ground. Until the poor can afford to dress and use educated language like the rest of the church, they aren’t considered part of the norm. Because of these church norms being shaped by middle class norms, the poor have developed a notion of individual spirituality, without a corporate component. Because they don’t “fit” in the average church.
Even a church that is very oriented toward the poor participates in this hierarchy. They are told they need to “go out and serve the poor”, because the poor aren’t a part of them, but a group that is outside of them. And rather than welcoming them and their insights, often reserved for the middle class potential member, they are told to “serve” them out of pity or even guilt. But this service is that of the haves to the have-nots, the higher to the lower. The poor are not asked to participate in spiritual service, let alone lead it, in an average church context.
3. Limited participation
The social activity of even the most open churches are based around many activities that the poor cannot attend; due to their poverty. Of course, public worship, small groups, bible studies and potlucks are free to all who wish to come. But those contexts are only the formal meetings of a community (although some small groups are an exception). The real social connection with other members of a community, the support network, happens at informal gatherings. These informal gatherings often happen in restaurants after worship, and at retreats and camps. The youth have this same structure where some activities are free, but the activities where deeper connections happen cost money. When the middle class take retreats and after-worship paid meals for granted, the poor feel separated and shamed because of their lack of participation.
4. The Leadership Gap
Leadership in a church is reserved for the middle or even upper middle class. Part of this has to do with practical considerations: the upper middle class has more leisure time and so they are able to participate in meetings, while the poor must spend time working to survive. National or regional conferences are often expensive and require travel. This creates a class-based leadership perspective, which cannot imagine the spiritual or physical needs of the poor, because few of them have ever been in that circumstance.
We Need the Poor
In bringing up this issue to the moderator of MCUSA, I was told by him, “For those I’ve talked to, the poor don’t even want leadership, so why is this an issue?” Of course the poor don’t want leadership. The culture of church leadership is so foreign to them, that the idea of speaking out in a meeting with their very different perspective and language and communication styles scares them. But that misses the point. The point is, our churches need the poor, we need them to be equal partners and we need them in leadership.
We need them because the poor are an essential part of our church life—not as service projects, but as fully human people we need to interact with, to love and to learn from and to minister to and to receive ministry from.
We need poor people in leadership because we want to meet the actual needs of the poor—not the needs we have imagined for them when we try to put ourselves in their place. We need the poor to be equal because Jesus is among the poor, living with the poor and, frankly, alive among the poor, more than in many of our churches.
If we are going to have Jesus in our church, we must have the poor, even though that disturbs our middle class “order”. Accepting the poor as equals feels, to the middle class, chaotic. And it often is chaotic, like any exchange of ideas. But marginalizing the poor, as Christendom has done for centuries, is marginalizing Jesus.
“Did not God make the poor rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor…” James 2:5-6