Where the Poor are Welcomed

I have lived and ministered in inner city Philadelphia for almost 20 years now. During those years, I’ve had a number of encounters with my neighbors who were “unchurched.” When I had the opportunity to do so, I would invite them to a church service. Some accepted; many declined. The number one reason for declining, by far? It wasn’t “I don’t share your doctrinal position,” or even “I don’t believe in organized religion.” But rather it was this: “I don’t have the right clothes to wear.”

The easy, and most obvious, response to this is to say, “We are not a stuffy, dressed-up traditional church. We have a casual dress code; come as you are.” Indeed, this fits nicely with the ethos of mega-churches that sprang up in the US suburbia during the 80’s and 90’s, as well as with that of emerging/missional groups of the new century. “We got that area covered; no need to stay away.”

However, I believe the “no proper clothes” response in my neighborhood is indicative of something far deeper than the church dress code.

Among other things, it speaks of the perceived difference in the socioeconomic status between the unchurched and those within the church, as well as of the perceived welcome these outsiders would receive from the insiders.

I say “perceived” because perceptions are not always accurate. Nevertheless, perceptions are real and important to those the church seeks to reach; they are often based on real experiences; and they need to be listened to and understood if the church is to examine itself and grow missionally. For the purpose of this brief blog post, I will keep the discussion to the unchurched urban poor who said, “no proper attire,” and by necessity I will need to generalize somewhat.

The unchurched urban poor perceive that a church is a group comprised of those who can afford “Sunday Bests,” from which he is excluded. In other words, he thinks of the church as those who enjoy more means and privileges than he, who have historically isolated themselves from the poor. “People like me aren’t welcome there among those ‘decent’ folk who got their stuff together.”

It is true that many (though not all) churches have distanced themselves from the poor and sought to isolate themselves in privileged locales where the poor are often unseen and rarely encountered. This is a due in large part to the great demographic shifts that have taken place in US during the last century. In many urban communities, churches were started and developed by neighborhood believers. Over time, though, those who were able to moved up and out to the suburbs while continuing to worship in the same building. Those who were unable to leave were left behind in the urban communities where poverty was getting increasingly concentrated, and only saw the more well-to-do churchgoers on Sundays driving to and from their church services and functions, coming in and going back out to their wealthier homes. Hence the perception on the part of the urban poor is that church is not for them.

This perception is hard to combat, even for the churches that have tried to address the needs of the poor by developing active ministries and programs for the poor. When well-meaning churches see the poor solely as objects of their ministry, it further solidifies their status as outsiders, ends up fostering dependency, and undermines their worth and dignity. This is the subtler, more insidious side of discrimination, and it is called paternalism.

Coming from a development perspective, Jay Van Groningen in Communities First (Faith Alive, 2006) identifies 3 different kinds of churches: churches in the community, churches to the community, and churches with the community.

  • Churches in the community are those whose buildings are simply located in the community. Think back to the commuter congregation we described above.
  • Churches to the community are those who serve the community, but the relationship is a one-way street. For instance, a church decides to have a neighborhood cleanup day, and the event gets carried out by the church members. Meanwhile, the neighbors watch from the sidelines.
  • Churches with the community are those who partner with the community and invite leadership, not simply attendance or reception of ministry. There is a conscious cultivation of our equality at the foot of the cross, no matter our socioeconomic status.

In other words, is it possible for a church to be a people and a place where the poor are fully welcomed as God’s image-bearers, not only receiving service, but exercising their gifts and contributing and yes leading for the good of the whole? If we believe that the church is a witness to the kingdom of God, a model home of the future eschatological community of shalom, should we not expect to see congregations where the poor are not only served and welcomed but play an active role in the leadership of the church as the norm rather than the exception?

Something unexpected happened while I was helping to plant an inner city church. When we began, we had a meal together after every service. Because we had our door open, people came in from the street, especially during food time. Some folks didn’t stay but made platters and left. Some of us felt a little bit upset about that. To our surprise, the next week, some of them brought their own contributions to the table. As I looked around, I realized that quite by accident, we had a soup kitchen, except instead of the rich serving the poor, rich and poor alike were sitting at the table as equals, each bringing something to share with the community of God.

A gracious glimpse of the future? I believe so.

About the Author

Kyuboem Lee

Dr. Kyuboem Lee

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as Adjunct Faculty at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission


0 # Sandra Lopez 2014-01-19 19:06
This is truly inspiring, a vision of shalom.
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0 # Kyuboem Lee 2014-01-21 10:01
Sandra, great to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words, and may the Lord's kingdom come.
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