Invite Low-Income Neighbors To Worship

Imagine inviting someone to church. What a novel idea! Now imagine inviting someone who struggles to make ends meet and keep a roof overhead. Church leaders could “go the second mile” with people they serve, by bringing them along with them to church. Why doesn’t this happen more often?

Church growth can be built on a missional worship model more effectively than an attractional model, which seeks to draw people based primarily on the brilliance of their worship offerings. In the missional model, churches grow through the expansion of the church leader’s “personal mission field,” which, if you work on a regular basis with the economically marginalized, includes them as well. In this model, you are not inviting them into worship, but to share the life of faith.[1]

However, be warned that a simple verbal invitation may not be enough. This proved to be the case for a United Methodist church in the downtown section of Troy, New York. The church, known for its commitment to social justice, holds a block party every year for the neighbors. This city of 50,000, located near the state capital of Albany, experiences the economic problems of many cities in the Northeast, including a low tax base, limited job opportunities, building vacancies, homelessness, and drug use and crime. Given its location within blocks of low-income and subsidized residential housing, the church would appear to be well positioned to serve those in economic need. The church’s annual block party, held in September, offers free lunch, a concert, and children’s activities for the neighbors. While noting the large attendance at one of its block parties, a church leader lamented that none of those who attended bothered to follow up on on his invitation to attend church on Sunday. “I have invited many of them, yet no one ever shows up.”

What could have gone wrong? Perhaps this leader had not taken enough time to make a genuine connection with those he invited, showing an interest in their lives, before asking them to new a new community. Or perhaps he failed to take into account the shame often felt by those who receive free food, or the perception held by others that church represents a solidly a middle class place, and therefore not for them.

Low income residents face particular challenges not faced by well resourced middle class parishioners. Susan Crawford Sullivan, a sociologist, interviewed forty five mothers on public assistance about their faith life. Though faith and spiritual practices mattered deeply to these mothers, many of them had given up on church. Many expressed frustration at their inability to secure transportation. One mother, Elisa, used to receive rides from a family in her Pentecostal church, but then the rides stopped and it was too far to walk. Others, such as Aletta, experienced housing instability. As a twenty-two year old black/Latina mother of three young children, Aletta had to quit attending her Seventh Day Adventist Church twice a week when she and her husband moved out of the neighborhood and into a long-term transitional housing shelter. She cited rules such as curfews at her housing shelter as an obstacle. “Once I get my apartment, we will attend church. But in the shelters it’s kind of hard. You’ve got to do a lot of things, follow the rules. So I don’t really attend church right now.” Others experienced stigma. Fully one-third of the forty-five mothers Sullivan interviewed told her they felt stigmatized for being poor and being on welfare. Whether the judgmental attitudes of others was real or perceived, these mothers felt ashamed to be on welfare. Shantelle said, “Growing up in church, most of the people there were working people. They wasn’t on welfare.” For others, it came down to feeling poorly dressed. Some women felt that church is more appropriate for middle class persons, not the poor. Still others had been publicly criticized. Most women in her study had experienced criticism or discrimination in other places, such as welfare offices, stores, when applying for a job or attending health clinics. Those who had worked previously, prior to going on welfare, felt the sting even more intensely.[2]

How can we take into account the real life experience of the marginalized even as we invite them to church? A San Antonio,Texas church offers a model. The leaders of Travis Park United Methodist Church struggled for years to to revive their dying, downtown church located in a neighborhood with economic need. The leaders felt exhausted by their efforts to revive the congregation. According to the pastor, John Flowers, the turnaround began when the youth group initiated “Cafe Corazon” (Spanish for “heart”), a breakfast program for anyone who was hungry, regardless of the ability to pay. After five years the Sunday morning program averaged one hundred twenty volunteers and fed two hundred people. At the same time, church leaders spent two years studying books on how to revitalize the congregation, a crucial step in achieving change. At one point the church began making changes to its worship offerings, with organ and choral music at the early service and contemporary music at 11:00 a.m. At this point, a number of members left the church, citing their discomfort with either the worship changes or its ministry to the poor. To emphasize the church’s new commitments, worship leaders framed the worship services using biblical stories about the marginalized. Finally they decided to begin the process of systematically inviting the poor. “We first invited the homeless to come to worship. Then we began to tell them, one on one, that we needed them to be in church with us. We were too white, too privileged, and too churched to be real.” After that, the numerical decline of the congregation was reversed and the “spiritual apathy” disappeared.[3]

Inviting those we serve to worship with us would seem to be a natural outgrowth of Jesus’s commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 23:39). Jesus assumes that self-interest motivates much of what we do, and he does not condemn it outright, but asks that we consider our neighbor’s interest as well as our own. With regard to worship, this means wanting others to get the same spiritual benefit we receive from worship. We can love others by inviting them to participate in our faith life.


[1] Cathy Townley, Missional Worship: Increasing Attendance and Expanding the Boundaries of Your Church (Chalice Press, 2011), 23-25.

[2] Susan Crawford Sullivan, Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011), 157, 160-161.

[3] John Flowers and Karen Vannoy, “Growing Mission With God’s People on the Margins,” Net Results (January/February 2004).

Photo: FBC Youth, 2.18.06. Flickr Creative Commons.


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