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A Church For Whom?

Greg Paul from Sanctuary Church in Toronto once said something to this effect: “If you plant a church for the middle class, the poor will not come. However, if you plant a church for the poor, the middle class will come”. Planting a church which celebrates socioeconomic diversity is a picture of God’s kingdom to come and a means by which we can participate in the Kingdom of Jesus now.  At the same time, socioeconomic diversity in churches is brutally hard. Most churches in North America grow through affinity groups. Like attracts like. Someone I know tried to attend a church in which the majority of people were quite wealthy. Everyone was friendly enough. The Word of God was preached. And then one of the congregants invited her to a tropical vacation next weekend. She respectfully declined and never went back to the church again. Based on her economic status, it would be unwise to pay for a trip to Mexico and heaven-forbid the thought of someone paying for her.

This dynamic amplifies the further down the hierarchy of class one goes. I invited one of my friends who was experiencing homelessness to my church. I unfortunately gave him the wrong address and he went to another nearby church to ask for help. The church told my friend that they couldn’t help him and they immediately closed the door on him. As one can see, socioeconomic diversity is brutally hard.

Those living in poverty are generally seen as people to serve, not members who contribute.

In their book, A Church For the Poor, Charlesworth and Williams argue that the vast majority of churches have become “firmly middle class in its internal culture.” [1] Despite humble beginnings churches went through a kind of gentrification process. Just like the allure of power and wealth transforms a marginalized space of the city, similar forces invaded the church and conformed it into its own image. 

Today, most churches are located far from those living in poverty and are guided by middle class leaders. Those living in poverty are generally seen as people to serve, not members who contribute. Such has devastating theological consequences. Susan Durber argues that a church without those in poverty in their midst will have “deeply distorted values”; they will be blind to certain aspects of the gospel and, ultimately, cease to be the church.[2] The void left by the church’s real presence would be replaced by a caricature modeled after the superficial inclusive narrative of a nation whose real history is founded on exclusion. Tentatively drawing from Nietzsche and Foucalt, Volf agrees with the notion that the current narrative of Western ‘inclusion’ - the progressive rise of liberal, egalitarian democracies - is haunted by a shadow narrative of ‘exclusion’ inflicted on minorities such as Indigenous and African peoples, which persists until today.[3] The lack of voices from the margins in church space represents a comfortable coziness to the narrative of inclusion and lack of imaginative awareness of the exclusion narrative.

The table recognizes our mutual brokenness and need for grace.

The challenge today is to recover the radical nature of the gospel in which, as Greg Paul says,  “people who are poor are not merely the subject of outreach efforts, but are found right at the heart of our worshiping communities.” [4] When marginalized peoples become the heart of a community of faith there is great joy. Sandra Maria Van Opstal argues that the church must move from hospitality (we welcome you) to solidarity (we walk with you) to mutuality (we wouldn’t be ‘us’ without you) in regards to diverse communities.[5] 

Durber uses the picture of the communion table to describe mutuality.[6] At the Lord’s table are reminded of our dependence on each other. We need each other to pass along the bread and wine. In a similar way, mutuality recognizes our need for the other. At the table, we participate in giving and receiving the gifts we and the other have. We are also reminded of our dependence on God. It is his table and only by grace are we invited to sit at it. The table recognizes our mutual brokenness and need for grace. Our brokenness enables us to have a proper posture at the table of the Lord. Corbett and Fikket argue that “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.” [7] This mutuality, Durber argues, must occur though not in a way which diminishes the difference between the two experiences - especially one which downplays the horrendous violence that poverty inflicts.[8] When true mutuality occurs, the church itself will undergo a transformation. They too will embrace a form of poverty. The church will “want to embrace another kind of poverty, a simplicity of life, a new relationship to creation and a true and deepening sense of dependence on God”.[9] With renewed eyes, the church can return back to the gospel of Jesus and his kingdom. What greater joy is there?

1 Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams. A Church for the Poor (David C Cook, 2017), 137.
2 Susan Durber. Poverty: The Inclusive Church Resource (Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2014), 25.
3 Miroslav Volf. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996), 59.
4 Greg Paul. The Twenty Piece Shuffle: Why the Poor and Rich Need Each Other (David C Cook, 2008). 77.
5 Sandra Maria Van Opstal, “Chasing Justice with Sandra Maria Van Opstal” n.p. Cited 18 August 2020. Online:
6 Durber. Poverty, 87.
7 Corbett and Fillert, When Helping Hurts, 61.
8 Durber. Poverty, 88.
9 Ibid., 93.

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