Mark D. Roberts

Recently, in one of my Daily Reflections, I talked about the challenges of having people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds in the same church. I gave a couple of specific examples of challenges I have faced in my own ministry, but I did not explain what I did in response to those challenges.

Here is the text of my Reflection, to which I add an explanation of my responses:

In yesterday’s reflection I explained offered some cultural background that helps to account for the odd behavior of some of the Corinthian Christians. In the context of the Lord’s Supper, the wealthier members of the congregation were eating a meal, while the poorer members were going hungry. The actions of the well off Christians makes sense, in a way, when we realize that they were simply “doin’ what comes natur’lly” in their cultural context. It was typical in a large household for the more privileged members to eat separately from the slaves and others of lower status. Because the Corinthians were celebrating the Lord’s Supper in the context of a full meal, they simply did what was common in their experience, without considering the theological implications of their behavior.

In tomorrow’s reflection I’ll begin to consider Paul’s response to this problem. For today, I want to offer a couple of examples from my own experience that are similar to what we find in 1 Corinthians 11. Both have to do with challenges we face when the church includes people from a wide range of socio-economic situations.

When I was Pastor of Education at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, we began a Wednesday evening Bible study and fellowship program that included dinner. Our hope was that our relationships with each other would grow in the context of a shared meal. Since we did not have facilities at church to cook such a meal, and since many of our members worked, so that it would be hard from them to contribute to a potluck, we had the meal catered. The caterer provided a basic but tasty meal at a very reasonable cost.

But, before long, I began to receive complaints from church members. Some were unhappy because the meals were repetitive (too much pasta) and boring. These folks, who had plenty of money, were used to eating fine food, both at home and when they went out to dinner. Others told me that they could not afford such an expensive meal, that it was way beyond their budget, so they weren’t going to be able to come to the dinner anymore. It felt wrong to exclude members of our church family because they couldn’t afford even an inexpensive meal. Yet I didn’t want to lose those who were used to nicer food. Differences in expectations and life experience, owing to economic status, threatened to bring an end to our shared meal together.

The other example comes from my tenure as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. Most of our members were from upper-middle class families. They did not wear their finest clothing for church, for the most part, but wore attractive business or casual attire. I, for example, wore a suit and tie, or sometimes a coat and tie. Nevertheless, on more than one occasion, I had a visitors to the church tell me they wouldn’t fit there because they “were not rich enough.” These were people who simply did not have the money to buy the kind of clothing that most of us took for granted.

Now, the last message we wanted to send to visitors was they had to be in a certain economic class in order to be members of our church. And, in fact, we did have a few members who were in the lower-middle class. But, as I listened to those who felt excluded because of how we dressed, I could understand their hesitation. Yet I was uncertain what to do. It seemed unrealistic to ask the whole church to “dress down” for church. But it also seemed wrong for some of us to dress in such a way that others felt as if they could not belong.

I’m not going to explain the ways I responded to the class-related issues in the Hollywood and Irvine churches, because I don’t want you to focus on whether my decisions were, in the end, right or wrong. (If you’re really curious, I’ve posted these explanations on my website. You can find them at here.) By leaving these issues open-ended, I hope you will think about how you might have responded if you were in my shoes. More importantly, I hope you will think about ways in which your behavior – that which comes naturally and culturally to you – might put off other people, even though that is not your intention.

How We Dealt with These Challenges

At Hollywood Pres, we found the caterer who offered very good food at a very reasonable price. We asked the caterer to vary the menu as much as possible. At dinner one evening, I explained the challenge we faced as a diverse church, and asked for people’s understanding. I also said that if someone could not afford the dinner, they were welcome to come and bring their own food, and to enjoy drinks and dessert “on the house.” A few families did take us up on at offer. I didn’t like the idea that they had different food, but we didn’t have the resources to offer a free meal. They didn’t seem to mind, and did appreciate the free drinks and dessert.

At Irvine, I did a couple of things differently when I heard about how our dress was off-putting to some. First, I changed my welcome statement in the worship service to say a little more about diversity and the fact that people are welcome “even if we don’t all look the same or dress the same.” I didn’t do this every week, but did upon occasion.

Second, I changed my own dress in worship services. I stopped wearing suits and ties every week, and only wore a suit occasionally. I would sometimes wear a sport coat and tie. At other times I would wear a sweater and no tie. I got some flak for this from some folks were more more traditionally oriented, so I explained my behavior in a few settings. I did not feel as if I should ask others to change what they wore to church, but I believed that my example might offer a little more welcome to some who weren’t able to dress up.  I don’t know how well this worked, but it was a step.

By the time I finished at Irvine Pres, we had a couple of contemporary services in which the dress was much more casual, and anyone would wear just about anything, as long as it was decent.