Understanding the economic divide in the Church

I had no understanding, prior to my life in ministry, that socioeconomic class is a powerful divider and an underestimated phenomenon within the church.

We live, and do, ministry in a nation that is experiencing an ever-widening gap between economic classes. While this gap is a monetary one, it also creates geographic boundaries. The upper and upper-middle classes may develop self-contained communities that exclude outsiders. Generally, they are located farther from public resources needed by lower income families. Thus, the rare level of interaction between classes becomes less and less frequent.

An article in the New York Times states:

 People tend to interact almost exclusively with people who share similar educational histories, incomes and occupations—and when they do interact with others from different social classes, even as friends, those relationships seem fraught with misunderstanding and tension… As comedian Kevin Hart jokes, “I stay in my lane, people. I stay in my financial lane.”

It doesn’t take a missiologist to see that everyone staying in their own ‘financial lane’ is problematic for the spread of the gospel and for showcasing the unity it produces.

We are beginning to see the beauty in an ethnically diverse local church and continue to work towards a structure that welcomes minority brothers’ and sisters’ strengths and preferences. However, the opportunity to display the power of the gospel through a wealthy child of God worshiping and working alongside a brother or sister in poverty is still missing.

This lack of diversity in income within our churches is most likely unintentional. Since most of us rarely interact on a relational level with persons from other socioeconomic classes, we have a limited idea of the barriers between us. Most of our pastors have a higher education, often gained through years of exclusion in socioeconomically homogenous institutions. Therefore, most American churches are led by the middle class and, unless much conscious effort is exerted, designed for the middle class.

Take, for example, a recent event in our young church plant. My husband prayerfully designed a cohort for developing future leaders within our church. While publicizing this leadership development opportunity, my husband stressed the cohort application process was open to any builder (member) of our church. After the deadline passed, he read through the applications and was struck by the fact that the pool of applicants did not match the diversity of our congregation. Despite having a substantive number of persons in each of the following categories, we had NO applicants who:

  • Lived in poverty
  • Belonged to the upper-middle class
  • Worked in an upper-management position
  • Relied upon public transportation
  • Held less than a bachelor’s degree

As a result, the pastors of New Circle Church wisely returned to the drawing board to evaluate what factors contributed to the unintentional exclusion of those outside the economic majority. Because, as Miroslav Volf point out in his book, Exclusion and Embrace, no matter how unintentional the exclusion, it is never a neutral offense. Someone is hurt by it.

“Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being,” Volf wrote.

When we are class-ignorant, we rob our upper and lower-income brothers and sisters of the opportunity for discipleship, leadership and community. And the damage done by being unaware of class culture differences doesn’t stop there.

I would humbly suggest that our churches operate in a ‘reduced mode of being’ when we neglect to structure them in such a way that invites and embraces—as full participants—members of every socioeconomic class.

Although the group of applicants was varied in ethnicity, gender and age, our church’s leadership cohort would not have been an effective training ground for producing leaders in downtown Indianapolis without socioeconomic diversity. For a church to be a true gospel presence in it’s city, it must have hands and feet in Section 8 housing, middle class neighborhoods and gated communities. For an urban church to be hospitable to everyone in the shadow of it’s steeple, it must have members of every level of income providing input on behalf of their class-mates’ point-of-view, talents and need during decision-making processes.

As always, this concept is easier said than done. Yes, equal class representation of those with income lower and higher than the middle class could require system reconfiguration, ideological shifts and adjusted practices, but it could also require a heart-felt welcome to everyone who enters your church. It could mean reading a book about class cultures to better perceive the strengths of the single mom, who provides for a family using food stamps, or it could mean better understanding the corporate executive’s tendency to dash out of church every Sunday as soon as service ends. It could mean encouraging the high school drop-out to teach in children’s ministry, knowing he may not feel qualified. It may require allowing the working mom to Skype into your lunch-time discipleship gathering, or it could mean considering the local bus route when deciding on a time to host community group. There are small steps we can all take and big opportunities we should all pray about.

No matter what your role in the local church is, you can, and should, contribute to socioeconomic hospitality.

‘My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.’ James 2:1

‘For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…’ Romans 12:4-6a

‘…the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.’ 1 Corinthians 12:22-26

Recommended Resources for further exploration:

Published August 15, 2016