This article originally appeared in the November-December 2013 issue of the 9Marks Journal.
Let’s be honest. When churches talk about “reaching out across socioeconomic boundaries,” they are talking about middle class (and wealthier) people reaching out to poorer folks. You don’t see many rundown churches in economically depressed areas starting outreach programs for Volvo-driving soccer moms who live in housing developments with names like “The Pines at Oakbrooke Gables.” I don’t know, maybe they should.
In any case, a lot of churches find the socioeconomic barrier to be the most difficult one to overcome in their evangelism. Ethnic barriers, by contrast, are more obvious, and mature congregations will sensitively work to ensure they don’t create division in the church. But so-called class differences can be more subtle. People from different socioeconomic backgrounds might look the same and speak the same language but still have a very different experience of daily life.
A Few Lessons
Here are a few things I’ve learned from leading a church that’s trying to reach out to folks from different backgrounds.
1. We’re not all that different.
It’s often intimidating to try and build relationships with people who experience life differently, especially in things that can seem so important: clothing, work, education, expectations, living arrangements. But in reality, such matters are a tiny fraction of what makes us who we are.
You probably have a tremendous amount in common even with people who seem very different from you. Everyone—perhaps with the exception of a few Brits I’ve known—wants to be loved, known, and accepted. We all love our children and are grateful to people who are kind to them. We are all prone to worry about what the future holds. But most importantly, we are all “in Adam” and in desperate need of a Savior (1 Cor. 15:22).
Churches who want to reach out across socioeconomic boundaries need to make their first step toward others on the basis of these commonalities. It’s fairly simple: treat other people with unfeigned sympathy and respect, as fellow travelers to the grave (to steal a phrase from Dickens). This approach will help prevent the sense of condescension that spoils a lot of well-meaning attempts to reach across class lines.
2. It helps to be a blessing.
You really don’t want to build your outreach solely on the basis of giving people things—food, money, gas cards. Those things can be helpful, but if that’s all you do, you’re giving people the chance to come for just the handout and remain unchallenged by the source of the love behind the handout. Still, you can use resources the Lord has given you to help build connections with others. A few examples:
- A Christianity Explored course for people from the local homeless shelter begins with a home-cooked meal in a church member’s home. For some people living in a shelter, it’s real blessing to eat a home-cooked meal in someone’s dining room. It feels normal; it feels good. It’s much easier to start conversations and build relationships over a good meal.
- A grandmother is opposed to her child participating in our youth outreach because she’s suspicious of Americans. When we dropped her granddaughter off after a meeting, we sent her with a couple of bags of groceries from our food pantry. After that, we were greeted with smiles when we dropped by to pick up her granddaughter.
- A local restaurant closed down for an evening and asked us to invite poor and needy people in for a meal. About 75 people enjoyed a delicious Italian dinner, an experience they’d never have been able to afford. Members of the church built relationships over laughter and good food. The gospel was presented, and an evangelistic Bible study grew out of that dinner.
In each of these cases, we leveraged our resources to bless people, connect with them, and eventually share the gospel.
3. Environment matters.
If you want to reach out to people less affluent and privileged than you, look around at your church and your everyday life. Try to imagine how someone less fortunate than you (sorry, I’m running out of euphemisms) might perceive them.
Do your sermon illustrations assume everyone has been to college? Or owns a car? Or has access to a computer or cable TV or designer clothing? These things speak volumes to people about whether or not they’re truly welcome to be part of your congregation.
Is your house—its size, neighborhood, furnishings—intimidating to someone with few resources? Would it immediately make them feel uncomfortable or shabby? If so, you will probably have to work through extra layers of defensiveness in order to reach people.
Is your home in a location where poorer people (who may not have a car) can walk or take public transportation? If not, it will be more difficult to be hospitable.
4. Know who you are talking to when explaining the gospel.
Finally, if you want to reach out to people with different backgrounds, consider how you’re explaining the gospel. To be clear, the message must remain unaltered. All men, women, and children need to hear of their sin, God’s holiness, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the need for repentance and faith. But you may need to find new methods of delivering that message for people who aren’t comfortable with the English language or with reading as a way of gaining information.
If I’m sharing the gospel with an educated professional, I may well invite him to read a book with me in order to help him investigate the claims of Christ. And some poorer folks with education also enjoy reading. But we need other ways of communicating for people who aren’t readers. Two examples: use videos (like Christianity Explored) or stories (I like the ones being used at Soma Church) to communicate the movements and themes of Scripture.