Thinking Outside the Middle Class Box

Note: This is the 2nd part in an ongoing series called Beyond Multiethnic, in which we're talking about ways that we can honor the image of God in diverse people. Please see part 1 for context.

“My greatest challenge is that many people [at middle class churches] haven’t been exposed to anything but middle class life. When a poor person comes in, it almost feels like we’re invading their space. We’re first analyzed through a series of devaluing questions that focus on our ‘disadvantages’ of being poor…They like to save you from yourself more than acknowledge and embrace you.”

My dear friend and neighbor shared this with me last week while we were talking about her experiences as a low-income person who attends a church in our city that is almost entirely full of middle-income (or higher!) people. Many of my other neighbors have shared similar sentiments: when they attend predominantly-middle class churches, they feel like outsiders and they feel devalued, as if they have nothing to offer.

Even pastors of multiethnic/multiracial churches often admit to me that their churches tend to lack class diversity, are heavily populated with upwardly-mobile college grads, and typically fail at truly valuing and honoring people who hail from lower income backgrounds. Class continues to be a major divider – even in churches that are pretty good at overcoming racial divisions.

JESUS AND THE CLASS DIVIDE

These days, as the income gap between the highest, middle and lowest classes widens, many social scientists assert that class divisions in American society are at least as powerful as racial divisions. As jobs, schools, and neighborhoods become more segregated based on class, many people spend the majority of their time interacting with people who are members of their own economic class and engage in almost no meaningful cross-class interactions. And if all else fails, relatively wealthy community members can rely on any number of “avoid the ghetto” GPS apps that help them to avoid lower-income neighborhoods as they go about their daily travel.12levittown.CA01

It seems as though many Christians have succumbed to society’s pattern of class segregation, so much so that many well-meaning people lack the cross-cultural tools to love well across class differences. Many Christians have also forgotten about how much our leader Jesus went out of his way to value and embrace people from lower economic classes.

Jesus seemed particularly passionate about connecting across class lines (e.g., Mark 10:17-22, Luke 4:18), addressing the physical needs of the poor (e.g., Mark 8:1-8; Matthew 8:1-4) and even commanding his followers to ensure that poor people are central to the life of the community:

12Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…” (Luke 14:12-13)

FOLLOWING JESUS ACROSS THE CLASS DIVIDE

More often than not, the low-income people who attend predominantly middle-class churches are marginalized as “recipients” rather than invited in as “irreplaceable participants.” They’re directed to apply for benevolence fund money, but they’re rarely seen as individuals (with insight, perspective and skills) that can contribute to the central life of the church. As a result, they aren’t seen as “influencers” and are often overlooked for leadership positions in the church.

If we want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we must remind ourselves that Jesus addressed people's physical needs, but he also affirmed people’s dignity.  I’ll probably write an entire series on “class in the Church” in 2014, but for now I’m going to offer a few tips on inviting poor people into leadership positions in the church and giving them space to contribute to the life of the community. I know that this is just one aspect of the issue, but more often than not, social groups are marginalized because they are not well-represented within the organizational leadership…they are not the voices being valued and heard most clearly. If we want to change the culture of a church or community – so that the “space” is no longer exclusively controlled by middle class people – we must start with diversifying leadership.

1. Remember that financial independence is not one of the fruits of the Spirit. Chalk it up to the “protestant work ethic.” Blame it on our class-based culture in which high income earners are perceived as more valuable than low income earners. Attribute it to our false belief that money buys happiness. Regardless, we seem to think that people who are financially dependent are somehow less “holy” than people who are financially independent. In fact, financial independence is such a prized characteristic amongst Christians that it can blind us to people’s true, inner qualities. Mark Van Steenwyk, author of The Unkingdom of God, said it best: “A selfish middle class person is respected more than a generous homeless person.”

So often, poor people are not identified as “leadership material” simply because they are poor. Rather, they are banished to some sort of “benevolence fund purgatory” in which they must languish until they are no longer in need of assistance. When did churches decide that leaders need to be utterly and completely self-sufficient? And how much insight are leadership teams missing out on because they overlook people from lower income levels?

2. Identify the financial barriers to being an influencer at your church. Almost every form of leadership has hidden costs. For example, it costs money to be a small group leader at my church. Now, the church doesn’t charge people to be small group leaders, but there are certainly costs associated with leading a group – from conforming to the norm of bringing baked goods to the quarterly “small group fair”, to buying concert tickets to support a fellow small group member’s musical ambitions, to making photocopies of handouts, to paying for childcare during small group as well as during regular leader trainings and retreats. These costs can be real barriers for those whose discretionary income is nonexistent.

Just last week, a small group leader at my church said that he and his wife purchased a DVD series to show at their weekly group. They have money so it wasn’t a strain on their budget, but it made me wonder if our church has funding available for lower-income people to make similar purchases for the sake of their group.

Once churches identify these financial barriers, they can look to provide supplemental funding so that all people can feel financially-equipped to lead.

3. Remember that leisure time is a privilege. Many forms of leadership require an inordinate amount of time and that alone can be a significant barrier to leadership. It’s hard for people who are economically-privileged to keep this in mind. It reminds me of privileged people’s affinity for unpaid internships. Privileged people have the financial freedom to work for free and can’t seem to get enough of unpaid internships! I encountered this a lot when I was in college. As a student, I worked 3 jobs during the school year in order to pay for college. Unpaid internships were a luxury I simply could not afford. That’s why I’m grateful for the psychology professor who helped me apply for grant money that would fund my internship in his lab. He knew I couldn’t do the internship without earning money, so he figured out a way for me to make money while serving. That was a game-changer for me.

Churches that want to invite everyone to participate in the life of the church need to recognize that a) influencing is a time-consuming enterprise b) a lot of influential volunteer positions in the church (e.g., leading a ministry, serving on the church board, etc.) essentially amount to an unpaid part-time job and c) not everyone has the freedom to work an unpaid part-time job.

What would it look like for churches to offer modest stipends for low-income people who feel called to serve in the church but (like me when I was a college student) are unable to do it without compensation? How would it ascribe worth to people that are typically marginalized in society? What would it say about how much the church values input and leadership from diverse viewpoints?

You only have to look at a church’s budget to see where its heart is.

(A couple of other suggestions for maximizing people’s influence while minimizing their time commitment:

- Invite low-income people to preach in the pulpit on a regular basis

- Pastors: include low-income people in your “brain trust.”  Seek their input, run major decisions by them, ask them to speak into your sermon planning, etc. We all know who really has the ear of the pastor. Make sure that group includes people from lower classes.)

4. Re-define what it means to be “efficient.” So often, we think that being efficient means being fast. So we expect people to respond to our e-mails quickly, we expect leadership teams to make decisions quickly, and we expect projects to get done quickly. But efficiency doesn’t just mean fast, it means better. When we’re truly efficient, we’re making decisions that are healthier and including more people’s valuable perspectives. This often takes more time – particularly as the group becomes more economically-diverse. If several of the people on the leadership team are low-income and are working several jobs, or lack easy access to the internet, it may take a little longer for them to read and respond to the 45-page budget document that you sent them. If you’re focused on the idea that efficient = fast, and make decisions without waiting for their responses, you’ll miss out on the valuable insight that they have to offer.

5. Identify your own leadership biases. I wrote a blog post on identifying leaders who are culturally-different than you. Check it out to learn how to see greatness in people who are nothing like you.

6. Remember that as far as Jesus is concerned, we’re all poor And we need each other like nobody's business. Tim Keller, take it away!

“When you come upon those who are economically poor, you cannot say to them, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!’ because you certainly did not do that spiritually.  Jesus intervened for you. And you cannot say, ‘I won’t help you because you got yourself into this mess,’ since God came to earth, moved into you spiritually poor neighborhood, as it were, and helped you even though your spiritual problems were your own fault… My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating toward the materially poor.”  (from Generous Justice)