DO THE POOR FEEL WELCOME IN YOUR CHURCH ? by Eddy Hall DOES YOUR CHURCH HAVE UNINTENTIONAL BARRIERS THAT KEEP THE POOR ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN? The couple enters the sanctuary. Their clothes are threadbare, their haircuts do-it-yourself. As a member of a middle-income congregation, you wonder to yourself, Will this family feel welcome here? Your concerns are soon put to rest. Church members go out of their way to be friendly, and the family returns. When the Sunday school class plans a hayride, several people invite the newcomers. You‟re delighted when the couple dedicate their baby. They must be feeling right at home. Then, a few weeks later, they just stop coming. You never see them again. What went wrong? Didn‟t they feel welcomed after all? No, they didn‟t. As a matter of fact, they were actual friends of ours who attended church with us at our invitation. I appreciated, of course, the other church members‟ efforts to make Ray and his family, who were obviously poor, feel at home. The friendliness was genuine, but it wasn‟t enough. To truly make the family feel accepted required a new way of seeing. Our family gained this new sight in 1979 when we returned to Oklahoma after three years away. I was working as a freelance writer, a job that yielded high personal rewards but low and irregular income. We went back to the same middle class, evangelical church we had attended before, where many of our friends were and where we had felt loved. But after a year of regular attendance, we still didn‟t feel part of the body. The difference? We were poor now. We had run into an obstacle course of unintentional barriers that kept us on the outside looking in. Though we had worshiped at the church for years, we‟d never noticed the barriers. In fact, we could now see how we had unknowingly raised similar barriers in a youth program we had directed. Only when we saw the church through the eyes of the poor did the barriers become visible. Admission Fee On the evening of the Sunday School hayride, Ray was at our house, anguishing over whether to take his family. He wanted to make friends, and be a 2 part of the fellowship, but the hayride would cost $4.50. He was forced to make a choice—go on the hayride or buy milk for his children. We‟d gladly have taken them as our guests, but we had even less money at the time. Our family couldn‟t even consider going. In the end our friend bought milk. The price tag on Christian fellowship was simply too high. The next month our Sunday school social was within walking distance of home. No expense for gasoline. Admission was just $1.00 for our whole family. Maybe we could go. But our only income was the $70 a week my wife was earning from a part-time Christmas job, and we had less than $15 a week for groceries. On a budget that tight, $1.00 is a lot of money. We stayed home and used the dollar for baby formula. That‟s why, after a year at our old home church, we still felt like outsiders. Though our Sunday school class had frequent social events, where we could have renewed friendships, most cost money for admission, child care, or both. That left us out. While worship and Sunday school were open to everyone regardless of income, those unable to pay for Christian fellowship were often excluded. The leaders of a woman‟s Bible study my wife attended found some creative ways to eliminate financial barriers. The church provided free child care during the Bible study. Once a month, when the small group ate lunch together, the women brought brown-bag lunches rather than going to a restaurant. To take care of the only remaining financial barrier, scholarships were available- on request- for the $10 fee for materials. But while that removed the financial barrier, another was put in its place. Offers That Hurt In our society, being poor carries a stigma. Even though Jesus called the poor blessed, and singled out the wealthy for stern warnings, the world‟s glorification of the wealthy carries over into many evangelical churches. The result: to admit being poor, even in the church, can be terribly humiliating. To admit you can‟t even afford the $10 for a Bible-study notebook is a humiliation few volunteer for. To get around this, some groups eliminate fees in favor of a suggested donation. That‟s better, but still less than ideal. When I haven‟t been able to give the full suggested donation, I‟ve come away feeling guilty or second class. The challenge is to find a way that doesn‟t hurt and humiliate, but communicates love, and affirms dignity. Our present church does an excellent job of this. While expenses for this year‟s all-church retreat were covered on a donation basis, nobody mentioned a 3 “suggested donation”. Instead, the literature mentioned the approximate cost per person, but emphasized that everyone’s participation was wanted. Those who couldn‟t pay were made to feel just as welcome as those who could cover more than their own expenses. As a result, retreat participation was almost as high as Sunday morning worship attendance, and donations covered all expenses. The method isn‟t important. What‟s important is to find ways for those who can‟t pay to participate on equal terms with those who can. You Don’t Belong Here Visiting a predominately upper-class church can be an uncomfortable experience for a family with less income. To make the less affluent feel welcomed, a higher-income congregation must become aware of economic differences. On the Sunday my friends dedicated their baby, my wife and I also dedicated our first child. As I dressed that morning, I debated whether to wear a suit to fit in with most of the other fathers who‟d be standing before the congregation, or a sports shirt in case Ray didn‟t have a coat and tie. I compromised. I wore a sweater. Ray showed up without a coat or tie. He wife, Sandra, wore the same dress she‟d worn on previous Sundays- no doubt her only Sunday dress. I could imagine how conspicuous they felt. I hoped what I was wearing made them feel a little less so. But to make them feel truly comfortable would have required many in the congregation to change from dressing for success to dressing for the social comfort of others. Does this mean banning coats and ties? Hardly. That would only make more affluent visitors feel out of place. But when visitors can look around on Sunday morning and find blue jeans as well as suits, they won‟t feel conspicuous, no matter how rich or poor. By dressing to reflect economic diversity, your congregation can help both the affluent and the poor feel welcome. What about church facilities? Does your building make people feel less welcomed? Phineas Bresee, a turn of the century pastor and advocate for the poor, thought so. “We want places so plain,” he wrote, “that every board will say „Welcome‟ to the poorest.” A middle-income congregation in Kansas City found itself in a neighborhood fast becoming low income. They decided not to relocate, but stay and reach out to their changing neighborhood. They enjoyed only limited success. When they needed new facilities, they replaced their traditional sanctuary with a sanctinasium- a multi-purpose facility where they worshiped on Sundays, 4 played basketball and ate potluck suppers during the week. To their surprise, more neighborhood people started coming, because they felt more at home with a gymnasium than with gothic arches and stained glass windows. It was more a part of their culture. The building said “Welcome.” Of course, church architecture can‟t be changed overnight. But the next time your congregation buys, builds, rents or remodels a building, consider whether or not the facility will welcome the poor. Social Outcasts Social customs can also hinder fellowship. Once, when our family was looking for a home church, we began attending an affluent suburban congregation shortly before the annual ladies‟ luncheon. Judging from the description in the bulletin and the place settings displayed in the lobby, it was to be quite a formal affair. The price of one ticket was more than I‟d ever spent on a single meal—more than we spend for our entire family to eat out. One woman, trying to make my wife feel welcomed, not only invited her to the luncheon, but suggested she decorate one of the tables. This required china, crystal and silver for 10, a round linen tablecloth, and a centerpiece. She didn‟t know, of course, that our “china” consisted of five mismatched plastic plates, our “crystal” of plastic tumblers picked up at the dime store until we could afford to move our household goods. Her attempt to make my wife feel welcomed had quite the opposite effect. The women planning the luncheon evidently assumed everyone attending that church would have fine dinnerware and could afford the ticket price. Unfortunately, what they said to my wife and others was, “This luncheon wasn‟t planned with you in mind.” We didn‟t feel welcomed in that church. Making the poor feel at home takes more than friendliness and good intentions. It‟s important to develop sensitivity towards others—a prime trait exemplified by Jesus. It also requires learning to see through their eyes, to examine every aspect of congregational life to see if it includes or excludes. The poor, for example, can be involved in decision-making that shapes the life of the church body. With their help, we can find ways to remove the price tags on Christian fellowship, avoid offers of help that hurt, and modify cultural practices that say, “You don‟t belong.” We can learn to make all the basic ministries available to everyone, on the same basis, in settings that include people of different socioeconomic levels. We can learn to demonstrate to the world the Gospel‟s power to break down walls that divide, and make us one. 5 CUTTING THE PRICE TAG When I directed our teen Bible quiz program, I planned regular trips that included competition and recreation. Each teen shared expenses for food, travel and recreation, and each season ended with a “big trip”- with a “big” price tag. Years later, I realized how much financial hardship these charges may have caused teens and their families, perhaps even preventing some teens from participating. Your congregation doesn‟t have to repeat those mistakes. Here are some ways to help all teens be a part: Put youth fellowship activities in the church budget. If biblical fellowship is as essential as worship or teaching, we should no more charge admission for fellowship activities than for worship service or Sunday school. Find less expensive ways to have fun. Instead of a ski trip, how about a camping trip- with donated equipment? Instead of a day at the amusement park, how about a day at the beach? Some teens are surprised to discover that fun and fellowship don‟t depend on money. And spending less makes alternate funding more workable. For unbudgeted events, earn money through group work projects. Cut and sell firewood, organize a giant rummage sale, auction teen laborers to the highest bidder. Working together makes the choir or mission trip available to all, and the work is a great opportunity for fellowship. Have an activity fund to which contributions can be made. Then teens don‟t have to pay a registration fee or a “suggested donation” for unbudgeted activities. Funding at least one event a year this way can help teens and parents better understand and practice the biblical principle of equality (II Cor. 8:13-15). By word and example, encourage sensitivity to the barriers a high price tag brings. Why budget a ball game for your teens if the group goes to Sam‟s Pizza afterward- and those who can‟t pay are left out? “Come on, I‟ll pay your way”, can be an offer that hurts. Help your teens come up with alternate, no-price-tag activities (popcorn and ping pong at your house?), or find ways that include everyone at Sam‟s without embarrassment. “Everybody come. Put something in the pot if you can, but don‟t worry, if you‟ve left your money at home”. Now how many more ideas can you come up with that might work with your youth group? Eddy Hall of Goessel, Kansas, is a Senior Consultant with Living Stones Associates (www.living- stones.com), a church consulting team that helps congregations maximize ministry through coordinated strategic planning of ministries, staffing, facilities, and finances. Permission is granted to distribute this article within your local church. For any other use, contact the author for reprint permission.