Автор: Andrew Sears
Category: Бедность и богатство, Примирение
One of the most common topics in the Bible is God’s compassion for the poor. In the Old Testament almost every time Israel left God, they were rebuked for two things: serving idols and mistreating the poor. Jesus also clearly showed strong compassion for the poor. Yet despite the fact that the Bible talks frequently about the poor, Christians often still have a hard time talking about class and issues of poverty. The focus of this document will be to help promote a more significant dialog to aid in discussing class and serving the poor. For the purposes of this document, when we use the term “the poor” we are referring to the lower classes.
Class is something that is hard to define and even harder to understand. Many academics focus only on objective measures of class such as family income, assets, education and job type. Other people might focus more on cultural elements such as lifestyle, language, dress, food, spirituality and values. Some might view it as your status level in society and your access to social capital (resources that come from relationships). Others may define it based on your community, your level of exposure to group trauma and oppression and the class that those closest to you that you identify with (friends, neighborhood, community, family). Class includes all of these things. It is also important to recognize that class is only one lens through which to understand injustice. Other lenses like race, gender and ethnicity are also extremely important. Exploring the lens of class does not discount those perspectives, but in fact enriches them.
Why We Don’t Understand Social Class
To understand social class, you have to first understand that nearly all the discussion on class has been distorted by the lens of the dominant culture. The best way to understand this is to remember back to when there were once “Negro Studies” programs at universities that were taught entirely by White professors, as if they had a better understanding of what it was like to be Negro than even the “Negros” did. These academics paternalistically defined the “Negro” using majority culture terms, values and methods. These days something like that seems absurd because we now see how paternalistic and condescending such an approach is. There are many African American Studies or African Studies programs that are led by people of African decent. In short, society has made progress toward a general understanding of the importance of a people to self-define. Groups across the world have begun to self-define and to replace, for example, the “Oriental Studies” programs of White people describing Asians with Asian-led Asian Studies or Chinese Studies, etc.
However, the one area where this trend of self-definition has not made much progress is in our understanding of social class. This is because the institutions that could enable this expanded understanding are dominated by the middle and upper class. To become an academic, even if you come from a lower-class background, you essentially must assimilate to the dominant class (middle/upper class) values. The same is true for media, publishing and other major institutions. In our understanding of social class, we still live in the “negro studies” era.
Our understanding of social class is defined using the dominant class lens with their terms, values and methods. This is seen most in academia, where class is defined through the majority culture lens, which emphasizes the objective, quantitative, analytical, theoretical and individualistic approach. It is like putting on green-tinted sunglasses, and suddenly the world looks green. Using this lens, the only things that look real are the objective, quantitative, analytical, theoretical and material. The problem is that these values are entirely opposed to the dominant values of lower class communities which think much more in terms of the subjective, qualitative, holistic, practical and nonmaterial.
What is needed is an understanding of class that is self-defined by a community from the non-dominant class. The problem is that in order for someone from a lower class background to get to a position to be able to communicate this perspective, they almost always have to assimilate to the dominant class values. It is almost impossible for someone in academia will keep their job and get tenure unless they learn to comply with the dominant class values of academia. There have been many books written about this class assimilation process in academia, but in all my reading of them, I have yet to find a story of someone in academia who came from a lower-class background and still self-defined as lower-class after staying in academia.
The result is that the entire dialog on class is from the majority culture lens. Usually the first thing people think about when they hear the term “class” is the communist and socialist perspectives on class. One of the many problems with those perspectives is that they defined class in the objective, material terms of income and job. The whole capitalism-communism debate was a debate using the dominant class lens of materialism. It reminds me of an old quote: “The best way to win an election is to own both candidates.” Regardless of which side won the debate, materialism (the dominant class value) would win.
One of the most significant things to understand about class is a person’s class identity. It is important to recognize that many people will have very complex class backgrounds and avoid oversimplifying class into objective definitions. Class identity is one of many elements that make up your identity, including your personality, gender, race, ethnicity, geographical background, etc. For each element of class identity, I’ve also listed the direction a “Godly goal” of growth. Class identity has four components which include:
Area of IdentitySteps of Growth
Class BackgroundUnderstand unique background and purpose
Class AccessUpwardly mobile
Class IdentificationDownwardly mobile
Class ConsciousnessGrow in class consciousness
toward class groups (money, work, time); your accessibility to a class group based on your culture, appearance, language, location, etc; your role in addressing (or perpetuating) classism. Godly goal: to identify with the lower classes (“the least of these”).
Class as Culture
Probably the most significant thing missing from the common understanding of class is being able to perceive class as culture. While objective measures of class are important, the subjective understanding of class is central to providing a perspective that is self-defined by the non-dominant class. To simplify the discussion I will use the terms “non-dominant class,” which includes the lower and working class, and “dominant class,” which includes the middle and upper class.
The intent of this document is to help bridge the dominant and non-dominant classes by providing language that the dominant class can understand using a framework that emphasizes lower-class values. My own perspective is that I come from a lower class-background. While I have received the benefits of a strong education and now have high class access, my identification is with the lower class. In other words, I am bi-cultural and fluent in both dominant and non-dominant cultures, but I still prefer non-dominant class, which is reflected by life, values, friends, work and community. Living and working in a non-dominant class community for nearly all of my life, I have worked with hundreds of volunteers, staff and friends helping them to bridge the dominant and non-dominant class worlds. From this, I have observed the most common cultural/values clashes that occur across class. To satisfy people coming from a majority culture perspective that strongly value academic research, I’ve sought out secondary research on hundreds of studies of class as culture to verify that my observations apply more generally.
Based on this, I’ve developed a list of the most common value differences that people of different classes experience. This list generalizes the value differences that often apply across class—indicating where people from the dominant and non-dominant classes often have differences. While understanding a culture is helpful, making generalizations applied to individuals is not. Many individuals will have values different from those commonly held by others in a similar social class. Class is only one component that makes up an individual’s culture and values, so often individual personality type, race, ethnicity, religion, community or other factors will trump class. Race or ethnicity may play a more significant role in a given cultural area than class, but that class tendency might still be true within a given ethnic group. Understanding generalizations of class as culture is helpful especially when identifying whether a conflict may have a class component related to class culture. However, generalizations of class as culture can be damaging if you use them to make assumptions about an individual based on those generalizations.
Contrasting Class Values Your Value Preference
Non-Dominant Class Value (N)
Dominant Class Value (D)
Relating to Others
Relating to Others
Structured order & planning
Relating to the World
Relating to the World
Respect for Authority/Hierarchy
Trauma is common
Trauma is avoided
Ministry to Middle Class Needs
Ministry to Lower-Class Needs
Work is a Means
Work is an End/Identity
Strong Property Rights
Active Problem Solving
Marry earlier; more children
Marry later; fewer children
Lower class food, dress styles
Middle class food, dress styles
Honesty and Directness
Politeness and Tact
Oral Tradition and Storytelling
Most Common Sins
Most Common Sins
Antisocial Addictions: substance abuse and sexual
Socially Acceptable Addictions: Control, Work, Power
Narcissism, Perfectionism and Superficiality
Increased aggression, rage and violence
Overemphasize physical appearance, having it together, career accomplishments
Less Church Attendance
Use Church for Status
Lower Value on Education and Stewardship
Materialism, Excess and Intellectual Elitism
Middle Class Ministry and Lower Class Needs
One example of how our class culture lens causes problems is when middle-class ministries try to serve the poor, but instead focus more on middle-class needs. One way of understanding this is from a concept called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see adjacent).
The basic idea is that some needs that a person is experiencing can take precedence over others—if you are about to die of dehydration or hunger, then you aren’t worried about your social calendar on Friday night. The issue is that the primary needs of members of the middle class churches (social, esteem, self-actualization) are different than the primary needs of under-resourced communities (physiological, safety, social). Most of the programs, tools and ministry of most middle-class churches are focused on middle class needs, so when they serve the poor, they use a ministry model that serves middle class needs. For example, I once came across an upper-middle class church ministry that was a job program for the homeless. The entire focus of their program was based around asking the participants, “If you could do anything you want, what would you do?” and then helping them prepare for a career in that. The problem is that this is a self-actualization question, one that is a great question to ask if you already have a home, food, friends and savings that might allow you to pursue self-actualization. Effective job programs for the homeless almost universally focus on preparing them for a limited range of entry-level jobs that will enable them to quickly gain employment and get off the street.
The most common ministries in middle-class communities are ones that help members find their calling (self-actualization), peer leadership development and personal identity development (esteem) and small groups (social). Some of the most common ministries in under-resourced communities are often after-school programs (safety), educational/job programs (economic security), food pantry/soup kitchens, housing and medical care. It is easy for middle class communities to say that their needs are the “spiritual needs,” while the more practical needs of under-resourced communities are not spiritual. The reality is that they are all spiritual needs because Jesus was always holistic in his ministry, meeting both the physical and spiritual needs of people. He fed the five thousand; he didn’t tell them not to worry about eating because he was meeting their “spiritual” needs.
Ministry needs is just one value difference between dominant and non-dominant class cultures. There is a lot of depth in just this one value difference, and there are many other value differences. The only way to really understand all these cultural differences in full depth is to experience them directly by immersing yourself in under-resourced communities (and resourced communities), but this document will attempt to provide an introduction to these differences by providing some examples of cultural conflict across class. To protect individuals, these examples do not represent any particular person, but rather represent caricatures based on an amalgam of people that I’ve had experience with over the years.
Cultural Conflict across Class: Sam
Sam is a recent college graduate with a middle class up-bringing who goes to work in an after-school program in an indigenous organization that serves children from a lower-class community. He is used to an orderly environment, where people are emotionally reserved and are isolated from frequent exposure to trauma. Each day in the after-school program he can barely handle the chaos of the children running around. He constantly judges the organization for not doing things with enough quality—the building is not well kept, the lessons with children are not well-planned, things are constantly changing and there is little organization. When the after-school program director speaks to the children in a very stern, loud, commanding voice, he can’t believe how rude the after-school program director is being to the children, but he observes that the children do respond. There is loud music playing in the staff office every day, which initially seems “cool” to him , but later begins to drive him crazy after listening to it every day. He judges the organization for how disorganized it is, and blames it on the staff. He finds it very difficult that he is not given much direction and views that as bad management. He is frustrated that it seems like his job description changes every day.
He also judges the other staff for insisting on wearing dressy clothes every day, because he goes to a church that considers itself progressive because most people wear shorts and jeans. He also judges the other staff for not eating healthier foods. He judges the staff for following a strong hierarchy that makes it clear that the children are below them in the hierarchy. Initially he tries to meet the children “on their level,” acting very polite and encouraging them to have “open” time where they can do whatever they want, but he quickly loses control of the children. He is shocked by the trauma of finding out that another staff was robbed. He feels out of place because most of the other staff have a traumatic background and have family members that are in poverty, jail or are addicted. He is having a hard time sleeping at night, and is not sure what to do.
This is what interpersonal class conflict looks like. What should he do? Should he just “suck it up” and take everything as it is even if that means barely being able to keep his own sanity? Should he just leave? Usually what happens in this scenario is both—he is so overwhelmed that they just suck it up initially until they can’t take it any longer and then they just leave.
The short answer is that Sam needs to find his role in the Body of Christ in addressing injustice (understanding his class identity), stretching himself cross-culturally (identifying more with lower class communities), but staying within the limits of how God has made him to serve sustainably. Middle class people who have travelled abroad understand that when visiting another country, they should just try to take the culture as it is without trying to change the country to fit their needs. They might find a group of friends to help ease the transition either from their cultural background or natives that are good bridge-builders. They will be intentional about learning the culture and language and immersing themselves in ways to grow cross-culturally. They might also moderate their exposure to elements of the culture that they can’t handle in order to make their experience enjoyable and sustainable. They will understand the historical reasons why others in the country might be initially hostile to them and act accordingly while calmly drawing a firm boundary against abuse. They will try to find a niche in the country where their own cultural background and skills are an asset.
The problem is that while many middle-class people understand these ideas in approaching another country, they somehow don’t understand that the same principles apply when operating cross-culturally within their own country. They miss the concept that in moving from a middle-class white community to a lower-class minority community, they are likely making a cultural shift that is at least as significant as if they had moved to a European country. The same cross-cultural principles above apply.
It is important for people from middle and upper class backgrounds to try to stretch themselves to find an area where their skills and cultural background can be an asset in serving lower-class communities. Lower class communities are often desperate to have more people with the skills and cultural competencies of those coming from the dominant class.
We are living in an epidemic of social leprosy in the Body of Christ. The way leprosy works is that the body loses its ability to feel when other parts of the body are damaged. The reason why lepers end up losing parts of their body is that a body part will get injured, but because they cannot feel it, they cannot take care of it. The result is that a finger or toe could receive a crushing blow that will end up destroying it because the wound is not cared for. This is the social condition of the Body of Christ when different parts of the Body do not feel the pain of other parts. It is caused by isolating the parts of the Body experiencing the pain from the parts with the resources to heal that pain. There are intense spiritual and systemic forces that drive the world and the Body apart. This is what happens when we become relationally and socially isolated from the pain in the world through suburbanization, segregation, geographic detachment and cultural and other barriers.
It is helpful to understand how the Body of Christ is intended to work across class, and how to fight the systemic tendencies that most often perpetuate injustice. The basic principle of healthy missions is that people are most effectively served when they are being served from within their culture. This is just following Paul’s principle of “being a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks.” Most progressive Christians understand this principle in theory, but it is something that you can’t really learn until you’ve experienced it. It is from the experience that you understand the depth of the systemic reasons for this principle being incredibly difficult to apply.
This is how the system works to unintentionally perpetuate injustice. A lower-class community will be most effectively served by those sharing their lower-class cultural values. In short, often the most effective organizations in serving the “poor” will be those with non-dominant class values. The challenge is that because they have non-dominant class values it becomes very difficult for the organization to access the resources of the dominant class. The very things that make them so good at working with under-resourced communities are things that are at the other end of the value spectrum in terms of what the resourced communities are asking for. The spontaneous street-culture personality needed to adapt to the chaos in under-resourced communities is very different from the organized, orderly personality needed to manage accounting, write grants, relate to funders, track detailed outcomes and provide the structure needed to retain dominant class staff and volunteers. What most organizations will do to adapt is to have different staff, but even with that, the challenge is that usually one class-culture or the other dominates. Most often it becomes a question of “Will you adopt a culture that is good at serving the community or a culture that is good at attracting funders?”
This tendency can also keep much of the resources from middle-class churches from reaching the poor. Middle-class churches will often set up volunteer programs where it takes more resources to manage the volunteers than the volunteers are providing to under resourced communities. The end result is that the volunteer programs are serving the volunteers rather than under-resourced communities. This is fine because programs like this are needed to connect people to the needs of the community to change their hearts. It becomes a problem when the church considers these resources meeting middle-class volunteer needs as their primary means of “giving”, and does not focus more of its resources for the poor in ways that actually reach the community. There is a similar tendency of middle-class churches to give most of their resources to middle-class missionaries serving the poor. This helps the poor only if those people receiving the resources are able to multiply that gift into more resources for the poor, otherwise it would be better to give directly to effective indigenous ministries serving the poor (where “indigenous” means reflecting the class culture and ethnic culture of those being served). My guess is that for most progressive middle-class churches that try to give resources toward the poor, about half of their resources go toward middle-class volunteer programs and about half go toward middle class missionaries, with less than 20% of that making it to actually serving the poor.
The end result is that the vast majority of resources go toward organizations that have the dominant class culture organizationally, but are not very effective in serving under-resourced communities. The reason is that program participants have to essentially operate cross culturally in order to receive any services. A recovering addict, for example, might have to learn how to act “middle class” to be able to receive treatment services. On one hand, this is helpful because some of these skills will be needed to make it in the world, but on the other hand, it raises an unneeded barrier that combines cultural class assimilation with becoming sober. The same principle could apply to kids in an after-school program or other programs.
The solution is for both sides to value the other. When working in an under-resourced community, the dominant culture person needs to respect that they are essentially “in another country” and to accept that for the organization to be most effective, it needs to be close to the culture of those it is serving. That person will have to stretch themselves to adapt to many uncomfortable aspects of the organization. Similarly, the leaders in the organization need to realize that if they do not stretch themselves to accommodate people from dominant class backgrounds, then the organization’s effectiveness will be limited because they will not be able to access the resources they need.
While this is easy to describe in theory, the process of actually doing this is extremely painful. Usually the problem is that the cultural divide is so wide that both sides are stretched to their limits (meaning sleepless nights, effects on marriages/families, depression and rage). Usually one side or the other wins, and the organization either ends up being close to the community but without resources or very resourced but culturally distant from the community. What is needed is to stay in this cross-cultural tension within the limits of what we can handle—in other words we are called to a path of suffering for the sake of others to the extent that God has enabled us.
How Systemic Forces Isolate the Poor: Sherry
Sherry comes from a middle class background. In college, she has a powerful experience with God related to serving the poor, and decides to pursue that as a calling. She moves into the inner-city with an idealistic view and attends a Black church in an under-resourced community. After a few months she leaves the Black church, judging the pastor for a number of reasons. She has a hard time receiving much in the worship because it is different and more expressive than she is used to. When she goes to a Bible-study it more often feels like a mini-sermon than the inductive Bible study that she is used to and enjoys. She also feels like they put too much emphasis on the Holy Spirit and experience in their relationship with God and wavers between judging them and feeling ashamed for not having as many personal experiences herself with God. She is offended by such strong appeals for giving during offering time at church. Her understanding of class has to do with income, so her primary effort in class reconciliation is to spend hardly anything, causing her to become bitter at others in the church who don’t do this. Sherry starts thinking her thriftiness makes her more authentically “lower class” than others who grew up in the community. Finally, she leaves the church, and moves to another church and has a similar experience and leaves again until finally she finds a community of people with a middle class culture living in the city. She invests her resources there and almost none of these resources make it to indigenous leaders in the community. Her own ministry shows limited success, and the net effect of her effort is that little or no resources end up going to those who are having effective ministry.
The challenge is that Sherry only had the dominant culture lens for understanding class, and was not able to see that most of the issues she was judging others on were class related (she was not fully class conscious). If she had understood that, she may have explored further. She may have observed that the things that she didn’t like about the church (strong leadership, experience/Holy spirit, worship style) were exactly what attracted the local community and made the church effective. She may have found out that the offering appeals were because the church was about to lose its heat and electricity because of lack of funds. Because she was not fully class-conscious, she could not identify with the poor in ways that counted the most (respecting their cultural values and sharing her social capital and resources). She may have realized that limited spending and lifestyle is only one aspect of class culture, and she might have put more of her effort into adapting her values to match the class culture of the community. Her problem is not that she eventually ended up in a community of middle-class people. Many people with a middle-class background serving the poor will eventually end up in a community of bridge-builders that may come from a middle class background or are currently middle-class. The key issue is how that community of bridge-builders use their high class access to bring resources to indigenous leaders in under-resourced communities. Class reconciliation involves fighting the systemic tendencies to limit resources that go to lower-class communities, and to do that they need to give out more resources than they are taking in. She needs to understand that the systemic tendency is that often middle-class groups serving the poor can become a net loss of resources serving lower class communities. This is because while they may get donations from churches that are giving to groups “serving the poor,” the middle class community still takes in more resources than they give out to indigenous leaders. If the middle class community serving the poor is not multiplying the resources it receives to give more to indigenous leaders, it would probably be better to just let those funds go directly to indigenous organizations.
One challenge is that there are strong systemic currents that strongly push people to live almost exclusively in either the dominant class or the non-dominant class culture. Even for those who try to bridge this divide between resourced and under-resourced communities, there is an intense current that drives them apart. Here is how it works. Often, a dominant class individual will volunteer or intern in an under-resourced community. During that period they experience the strain of living in two worlds with two different value systems. As they become more immersed in under-resourced communities, they may experience a moderate feeling of being crazy as they try to internally reconcile the different worlds. Eventually, they will have to decide which community will be their primary community and which class culture they will primarily operate in. This is fine, and the way it should be, because people can serve the poor from both resourced and under-resourced communities. What is important is learning how roles change depending on which class environment you are immersed in and how to effectively play your role in the Body of Christ in serving the poor.
Another challenge is that often someone from a resourced background will serve in an under-resourced community and adopt many of its values. Later they will realize that they are not called to be immersed in that community long-term and return to the dominant culture, but sincerely desiring to retain the values they gained from their experience. As they are re-immersed into the dominant class culture, there will be a heavy current that will try to re-assimilate that person back into the dominant culture values. Their values and lifestyle may gradually change back to what they were before, and they might live with a nagging guilt that they sold out. Because of that guilt and the fear of conflict, they might avoid their friends who are still immersed in under-resourced communities. The end result is that they have lost touch with the pain of under-resourced communities.
Class Reconciliation for Those Living in Resourced Communities: John
John is a professional graphic designer who feels called to serve the poor and comes out of a church that strongly emphasizes relational ministry. He once had a great experience for a week of working at a camp for inner-city children. He tries working on the “front lines” in a low-income Latino community. Each week seems to get worse as he is having difficulty connecting with the children and gaining their respect. He keeps trying harder and harder until finally he burns out. He decides that serving the poor just isn’t for him, and moves to the suburbs and makes a lot of money as a professional graphic designer. As he goes to a suburban church, he quickly gets caught up in the cultural momentum of the church and loses touch with his friends in the city. A few years later, he gets married and has two children. They buy a house that stretches the limits of his income and buy two new cars that put them in significant debt, so he has to work overtime to pay the bills.
The issue for John is that he needs to realize his unique class background, and not feel guilty if God has called him to live most of his life in a dominant class setting. Being in full-time ministry is not the only model for serving the poor, but often that is the expectation that people are taught. John needs to recognize that his life is about following Jesus and ministering to others regardless of his class environment, and a significant part of that is serving the poor. He needs to understand his role in class reconciliation in the Body of Christ given his class identity and the likely difficulties that he will face. In following that path from within a dominant class environment, he should go into ministry with an understanding of how intense the pull will be to assimilate to middle class values. He should make an intentional effort to surround himself with people, books and video that reflect his values for the poor in order to offset the materialism he encounters in in the rest of his environment. He should be frugal with both his money and time in order to give both monetarily and of his time to effective indigenous ministries serving the poor. He should recognize that God doesn’t call everyone to work at the front lines, and he is still following a relational ministry model if he is resourcing those on the front line who are building the relationships. He could provide volunteer or discounted graphic design to indigenous ministries serving the poor. When he works with those ministries, he should have a lot of patience and tolerance for any shortcomings, recognizing that the organizations most effective at serving the poor will often not match his own class values.
The following are a few key learning points from these stories for those coming from resourced communities.
I provide a more thorough description of the steps involved in the process to build class consciousness and identify with the poor through a Class Identity Development process described in “Ethnic Identity Development for Christians.”
Class Reconciliation for Those Serving in Under-Resourced Communities
For those that choose to be immersed in under-resourced communities, often they will experience a cultural “tipping point” where they essentially “go native” in terms of their values. At this point, they will often get into conflicts with their friends in resourced communities out of anger because the dominant class values now seem crazy. This person will then lose most of their dominant class friends, and have more and more friends in under-resourced communities. After this initial season of anger is over, they find that they have lost most of their old friends both because of their own initial anger and because their friends avoid them out of guilt. It is in this way that social leprosy is perpetuated.
Mary is from a lower-class background, and later joined a middle class church where she started leading their outreach ministries. As her passion for the poor increased, she started working full-time in a Christian community development ministry and moved into a low-income neighborhood. Each time she commuted back to her church, she would experience culture shock because of the differences between her church and her work environment. She spent her days working in an environment where if there were only a few thousand dollars more available, she could help keep a family intact and off the streets. Then she went to her church where she could not relate at all to their concerns. The stress of living in two worlds started to keep her from being able to sleep and was affecting her marriage. She did not want to leave the church, so she angrily confronted her friends to try to get them to understand where she was coming from. Finally she decided that the stress of living in two worlds was too much, and because she knew God had called her long-term to serve the poor she left her middle class church to serve the poor. Because her friends in her church felt guilty and judged by her, she lost most of her resourced friends. Since most of her new friends were under-resourced also, she lost most of her connections to bring resources into her community development organization. Her work in the community is transforming many lives, but she is concerned that the utilities might be cut off to her community development organization for a lack of resources and they are having a hard time making payroll.
It would have been helpful for Mary to realize what was going on for her during the stress of living in two worlds. She should have focused more on her own needs rather than trying to change her friends. She should do her best to keep her resourced friends connected with what she is doing, and not be ashamed to tell them about the financial needs of the ministry and ask for help. She should be intentional about maintaining and rebuilding her relationships with those in resourced communities, without fully expecting them to adopt her class culture. She should develop a relationship with the leadership of her former church where they might bring her in as an expert with some authority to help the church understand class. She should use that authority to then explain to the church how systems of classism work to isolate the poor, and to recruit their help and suggestions of how to work against those systems.
The common theme across all of these cases is that what is needed is for each side needs to understand how the system and spiritual forces work against reconciliation and to be intentional about working against those tendencies by keeping the connections alive.
Megachurches and Middle Class-Ministries
Another issue is understanding some of the class implications of the emerging megachurch model. The issue is not so much about the size of megachurches as it is about allocation of resources because they are often made up of the middle/upper classes. Most megachurches in the USA follow business models which are costly, involving expensive equipment, buildings, staffing structures and marketing budgets. Most lower-class churches follow much more thrifty models of ministry. The result is that for the middle class megachurch business model to work, the average member must have at least a middle-class income. If a middle-class church were to become class diverse to the point where half its members were poor, then they would have to significantly change their model to make more efficient use of resources. What is more common is that middle-class churches that pursue racial diversity, often do so without pursuing class diversity. These churches end up being accused of “cream skimming” the high income members from Black and Latino churches serving under-resourced communities. The result of this well-intentioned push for diversity could be that the resources of the middle Christians that were going to a church primarily using those resources to serve the poor, are now going primarily to serve the middle class.
This is not to condemn megachurches, because they have many advantages. Many megachurches in developing countries are more thrifty than smaller lower-class chuches in the USA. The important thing to recognize is the systemic tendency to keep resources from the poor and to work against that tendency. This also isn’t an argument against megachurches pursuing diversity. The point is if they are going to pursue racial diversity, they need also pursue class diversity in terms of the members, the culture of the church and the background of its leaders. If they cannot achieve authentic diversity across members, culture and leadership, then they are better off partnering with ministries that can. The key questions for middle-class churches pursuing class diversity are:
The best megachurches are those that know their role in the Body of Christ. They recognize God’s gift that they have 2 to 10 times the resources per church member than churches of the poor, and recognize their stewardship roles based on this. They may recognize that given geographic and cultural factors, they may not be able to achieve the full-depth of racial and class reconciliation that they might like. They recognize that the very culture, values and methods that make them successful in serving middle-class communities would make them unsuccessful in serving the poor if they were to do it on their own. They recognize this class cultural barrier, and respect and support the different culture, values and methods of ministries with a lower-class culture serving the poor.
Based on this recognition, they make their ministry model as thrifty as possible so that they can give the majority of their resources away. They are intentional about focusing the majority of their giving on indigenous ministries serving the poor, and they give without trying to control those ministries to get them to match their middle-class values. The majority of their volunteer programs intentionally focus most of the resources on reaching the poor through indigenous ministries. They have some “middle-class” volunteer programs that are primarily serving the volunteers, but recognize that most of these resources are not reaching the poor. They encourage their members to “tithe” their skills to charities by providing pro bono work for nonprofits. Their members also are intentional about extending their social capital to the poor by connecting others with relationships that could provide jobs, grants or donations. For any resource or service that they offer to the wider body of Christ that they may charge for, they provide scholarships and discounts for those coming from low-income communities.
While this trend of middle-class dominance often applies to megachurches, it is also frequently true in other churches and ministries. One of the most significant reasons for this dominance of middle-class ministries, especially among parachurches, is the pervasiveness of individual relational fundraising. Many parachurches have been able to grow to have thousands of staff because they require that each staff raise their own support from their own network of relationships. The problem with this model is that it effectively limits staff to be those who come from middle or upper-class backgrounds. One main advantage of this model is that it scales well to thousands of staff and it works well with the human dynamics of fundraising. Some progressive parachurch ministries have started to allocate a percentage of every staff’s fundraising goal to go toward funding staff from under-resourced communities. The problem is that these goals are often too small (2-3%) to make up for the systemic forces of class. If the goal of the parachurch is to have their staff match the demographic of those they are serving, then most ministries will need to set much higher goals to achieve this staff diversity (likely 10-50% depending on the demographic they are serving).
Whether it is middle-class megachurches or parachurches, what is important is that these ministries are stretching themselves to serve the poor. The pastor is responsible for leading the organization and should at least push hard enough that the organization feels moderately stretched. In parachurches, this may mean that each individual feels stretched in their individual fundraising goals rather and bearing some of the burden for those from less resource background. This is not some demand that a church or ministry ignore all of their other goals and priorities for the sake of the poor, but it is a call that we each stretch ourselves to so that we two can feel some of the suffering of the poor.
Vision for Class Reconciliation
While all of this may seem hard, there is enormous potential for God to move as we pursue reconciliation. In the 20th century, over 80% of the growth of the Christian church has come from the southern hemisphere and Asia, and in the future, over 95% of the growth of the church is projected to be in these areas. Over 70% of this growth has been in urban areas, which is projected to be 75% of future growth. The problem is that the majority of the resources of the Body of Christ are trapped in the suburbs of the Western world. Imagine what could happen in the next century if the resources of the Body were connected to the life and growth of the church in under-resourced communities. I believe that the Global Body of Christ could rapidly increase its ability to transform the world, and revive the Western church. I’m convinced that class is the most significant barrier to that happening.
People often like to disparage the Church, but they often fail to see its potential and past successes. I recently read a prominent secular historian who was asked, “What was the most significant historical event of the 20th century? Was it the world wars, the cold war with communism or what?” His answer was that if you project the long term impact of historical events, probably the most significant event was the growth of Christianity to over 1 billion new Christians, largely of the poor.
While Communism claimed to be “for the poor,” it was essentially rooted in a focus on materialism (a middle class value). The poor have decided that what is more important to them is a movement that they are leading, one that reflects their values and is bringing transformation to their communities. That movement is the spread of indigenously-led Spirit-filled Christianity in under-resourced communities. Many sociologists have noted that a major side effect of becoming Christian is that people then become “upwardly mobile” in terms of their class resources. Reflecting on the 20th century, Christianity has had the effect of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, while Communism ultimately failed (and arguably put more in poverty). Indigenous local churches represent the most effective institutions of the lower-classes, and they have shown the most significant results in advancing their own cause.
If you look at the global Body of Christ and the fact that Christianity is shrinking in the West, but growing in the Southern Hemisphere and in Asia, we can begin to understand which parts of the body are alive, and which parts are stagnant or dying. If we as Western Christians do not pursue class reconciliation, God’s Kingdom will still continue (though more slowly), but we will become irrelevant. In the words of General Shinseki, “If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less.” One benefit of class reconciliation will be to bring more resources to the parts of the Body that are growing, but the other benefit is that class reconciliation will enable Western Christians to connect with the rest of the body in ways that will bring life back into the church. This is already happening in places likeBoston, which has served as a symbol of the declining church in America. Boston is now experiencing its largest revival in a century—largely in ethnic churches planted by movements originating in other countries.
Historically in the Bible, when the Israelites turned away to other gods and cared for the poor, there was revival and God blessed them. If we believe the promises of the Bible, then as we pursue class reconciliation, we can expect that not only will we help bring the Gospel to the poor, but we will also experience revival ourselves.
Questions for Discussion
1. Go through the list above of contrasting values in Class as Culture. For each value, mark what your personal preference is. Mark each box either Dominant (D) or Non-dominant (N). Try to list what your actual preference is, not what you think it should be. Discuss what you found out about yourself.
2. For those of you who have had experiences either in under-resourced communities, what has been your experience of the issues of class conflict and reconciliation discussed in this paper?
3. How do you think Paul’s principle in missions of “being as a Jew to the Jews and being as a Greek to the Greeks” applies to class as culture?
4. What are the common areas of “strain” that you have in relating to lower-class communities?
5. What would happen if organizations took on either all non-dominant class values or all dominant class values?
6. Understanding your community. Does your community of people closest to you consist primarily of people with lower-class access or higher-class access? Does your community primarily match with dominant class values or non-dominant values?
7. Given your unique class identity and the class identity of your extended communities, what could be the unique role you could have in class reconciliation? How can you serve as a bridge between communities with high class access and those without? How could you stretch yourself to more effectively work toward class reconciliation?
8. What are ideas you have in how you could grow in your own class consciousness and your connection with the pain of the poor?
9. What can you do to direct your class identification more toward the poor in your lifestyle, resources, use of skills, time, etc?
10. What are some ways that your church can grow in class reconciliation? Are their ways that your church can adapt its models to increase the resources reaching ministries with lower-class culture that are effectively serving the poor?