The Difficulties of Economically Segregated Worship
American churches are often comprised of people with similar economic status – churches comprised of a healthy balance of poorer and richer are rare. As a result, we often ignore the words of Christ to be present for and with those who have little and thus miss a primary mode of engaging with Christ himself. Highly controversial and quickly denied, economic segregation is widespread and ultimately limiting to our development as followers of Jesus.
The economic segregation within American churches is widespread, deeply rooted, and valiantly defended. Few issues within churches have more power to elicit justification than discussions of economic status – particularly those that question our comfort – physically or emotionally. While all segregation in worship is inter-related, in this fourth installment in the “Segregating Worship Series,” we will explore the impact of economic segregation. You can read my articles about Worship Segregation here, Music Style Segregation here, and Racial Segregation here.
Churches are often distinguished by how much money people make or how educated they are, and the two are often connected. Churches tend to be primarily comprised of people who are richer or people who are poorer. A church with a healthy balance of parishioners from varied economic backgrounds is uncommon. Why is this so? While the issue is complex – rooted historically and even theologically – allow me to begin the discussion through the following observations:
• People like to be a part of groups where they are able to carry their fair share; however, the “fair share” of a wealthier church is not the same as a poorer church.
• People tend to choose worship spaces that are similar to the homes in which they live. You can usually tell the overall economic make-up and class division of congregations by observing the accouterments of their worship spaces.
• People often choose churches by whom they enjoy socializing with outside church. While the problems and challenges of the wealthy may be nearly equal to those of the poor, they are indeed different.
• The language we use in worship offers readily identifiable clues to our economic status. The stories we tell from the pulpit are windows into the economic values of those who worship there, and even the jokes we tell and our choice of humor can segregate. A key ingredient into language has to do with the assumptions we make about what is normal.
• Buildings and worship spaces are filled with power objects that demonstrate opulence or simplicity. Technology, sound systems, musical instruments, artwork and decorations, furniture design, and overall facility upkeep reveal financial status. Buildings and worship spaces are filled with power objects that demonstrate opulence or simplicity. Technology, sound systems, musical instruments, artwork and decorations, furniture design, and overall facility upkeep reveal financial status.
• Outward appearance – building design, parking lots, and landscaping – offers insight into the economic circumstance of those who worship inside. What may be welcoming to some, may be a deterrent for others.
• Money represents power, and to worship with people who are lacking your primary source of power might be challenging. Likewise, for the poor to worship with those whom they perceive to be more powerful because of their economic status can also be perplexing.
• Many do not want to acknowledge that economic segregation exists in our churches. Denial offers contentment.
• Many long-established congregations have chosen to leave their existing neighborhoods when the economic status of those who live nearby shifts. While widespread, few have questioned this frequent practice. Yet, new church starts have seldom planted themselves in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Even leaders at the denominational level have encouraged and held this practice as a primary method of growth and expansion.
Further frustrating this already complicated issue is the reality that often wealthier people (even Christians) don’t want to be around poorer people, and poorer people don’t want to go to church with wealthier people. It is hard to level such unleveled places – even in the name of Christ. A prime example has been the attempted desegregation of schools within our country. Even with the best attempts of the government and the courts, racial, economic, and education levels seem to follow predictable patterns.
Granted the problem of economic disparity in our churches is deep and challenging. There are no easy answers, yet, to deny the current reality limits our ability effectively to be the presence of Christ in the world, and it hinders our capacity to worship within the broader love of Christ which should welcome and affirm all regardless of economic status.
What can we do? What options do we have?
For starters, move from denial to acceptance. Recognize that this challenge is widespread and stop justifying your actions and attitudes even if they represent your present congregation or your personal comfort level.
Secondly, ask questions about your church’s worship – What words do we use? What economic power symbols do we regularly employ? What messages are we sending through our building, our dress, our worship space, etc.?
Thirdly, begin to take small steps to move toward greater economic inclusiveness. Model inclusivity through who leads in worship – prayer leaders, liturgist, and others.
Fourth, employ inclusive musical choices. A wide variety of music has greater possibility to connect across differences.
Lastly, take steps to move beyond the misguided perception that the wealthy always serve the poor. A more realistic model is one in which we acknowledge that true hospitality is reciprocal; gifts are freely exchanged among all.
While difficult to see among our culturally misguided perspective that wealth and status trumps everything, we all need each other more than we may be able to fathom currently. Jesus’ admonition that he resides among the poor and the outcast is nevertheless undeniable.
These are big issues. I look forward to your responses and suggestions.
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