What does a ‘church of the poor’ look like?

Outside-In Church
Some inspiring thinkers have been helping us to develop our vision of how churches could engage better with poor communities. Communications Manager Liam Purcell shares what we learned.

For two years now, through our ‘Church of the Poor?’ programme, Church Action on Poverty has been talking to churches about how we can build what Pope Francis calls “a poor church that is for the poor”.
Sometimes, though, the language we’ve been using is a barrier. Pope Francis’ message is rooted in Latin American liberation theology, but in the UK context the phrase ‘the poor’ is much more problematic, labelling people and denying them their agency. And we have had countless discussions about prepositions! Is it a church of the poor? With the poor? For the poor? To the poor?
More importantly, the ideas are completely new to many churches. Churches, generally, are comfortable with running food banks and helping people in need. But this programme challenges them to confront difficult questions about who is included in church membership, who has the power – and how to see the face of Christ in people in poverty, rather than treating them as problems to be solved.
So, it’s difficult to define what a ‘church of the poor’ is in words. But we know it when we see it, and when we tell stories of what churches are doing in poor communities, people respond very strongly.
This week, we met with our ‘worship and theology collective’ – a group of ministers, writers, theologians and others who support our work. Together, we explored how we can better tell people the story of what it means to be a ‘church of the poor’.
So – this is the kind of church we might be talking about when we say ‘church of the poor’:

  • It is interested in building the kingdom, not growing the church.
  • It listens attentively to voices from the margins and works to be visibly present to the community around it (especially ‘those who don’t sit in the pews on Sundays’).
  • It expects to be challenged and changed by its neighbours, especially by people on the margins. (Revd Al Barrett, a member of the collective, talks about being a “radically receptive, outside-in church”.)
  • It puts an emphasis on sharing food and hospitality.
    (‘Social communion before holy communion!’)
  • It is hungry and thirsty for justice.

And here are some other ideas and phrases that suggest what we mean when we say ‘church of the poor’:

  • Servant leadership
  • Growing a kingdom community
  • Guests, not hosts
  • Receiving, not giving
  • Learning, not teaching
  • With, not for
  • Listening, not speaking
  • Journeying with, not taking charge

What do you think?
Do you see these signs in your church?
How could we help churches to travel with us on this journey?
Are there other signs of ‘church of the poor’ that we should be looking for?

Comments (03)

  1. Further ideas / words:
    relationship building – mutuality (but see next)
    giving up of status
    church which celebrates the “being” of people (as concept and practice) rather than their doing or producing or consuming

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