the gravitational pull toward margin

a few months ago a dear friend called me and asked me if i knew of any bible study material for poor single moms who needed an infusion of hope (she works for a ministry that provides practical help for them).  i racked my brain for any material that was designed specifically for that demographic and came up with nothing.   i realized as i was talking to her that poor single moms living in section 8 housing aren’t at the top of the christian book marketing lists.   publishers print books for people who will buy them.  and people who buy books usually have margin.  by “margin” i mean sufficient resources to work with–emotionally, financially, practically.

even though my mom was a single mom and we always scraped to get by, ever since i graduated from college i have most definitely fallen into the category of “people with margin.”  i am white, have a graduate degree, a nice house, medical insurance, car insurance, the ability to put gas in my car, and united airlines flight benefits, ha ha.  i whine and complain about money but the truth is that if i made some different choices i could make more of it.

i think about this a lot because in the world that i live in i am painfully aware of how much easier life is when you have margin.  doors open.  people return phone calls.  some practical parts of life are easier.  and churches want you.

a lot of my friends don’t have a ton of margin in the typical ways.  educationally, practically, emotionally, spiritually, they live on the fringes.  they struggle to get by. to make ends meet.  to feel loved.  to feel hope. to feel change is really possible.  life is hard for everyone, but when you don’t have margin, i think it’s definitely extra hard.  simple solutions don’t work.   there’s not an exit route or an end around or just one-smart-move-away-from-digging-out-of-the-hole-forever.

the most interesting thing to me, though, is that regardless if we have “margin” or not,  i think all people share something deeply in common:  our desire to love and be loved, to be connected to other human beings and something bigger than us, to taste freedom and hope and joy and purpose in the midst of real life. i believe this is our common denominator, the thing that we all share.

i spend an inordinate time thinking about the church, the wild and beautiful and absolutely frustrating body of Christ.  i know that God is at work in all kinds of wacky and wonderful ways despite us, but i can’t help be frustrated by the gravitational pull the church seems to have toward margin.

toward people with resource.  toward people with power.  toward people with voice.  toward people who are “gifted.”  toward people with margin and ability to contribute financially and practically. there’s a gravitational pull toward margin, resource, and power–and those with power and voice make the rules and influence the systems.

unintentionally or not, because it’s made up of humans, the church often aligns with the ways of the world and naturally gravitates toward margin. i don’t think anyone intentionally mean to do this; i really think it’s just so engrained in us that we don’t even notice it.  so we end up creating and perpetuating  structures and systems that don’t really make a lot of room for real, authentic, lasting relationship together across the divide between those with margin and the marginalized.

 it’s always interesting to me that on the whole, there are usually lots of people with margin grouped together or lots of people without it grouped together but very rarely are they all intertwined and interconnected together in true loving equal community.

and when we settle for this, when we segregate instead of integrate, we continue to perpetuate the divide.

to me, a true reflection of the kingdom is when those with no margin and those with lots of margin live together in brotherly and sisterly love, where economics and education and mental health and gender and all kinds of other things that separate us don’t get in the way of loving freely.

 

i have to say that i get glimpses of this in our nutty little community sometimes, the weird combination of people who are learning the ways of love together even though honestly it appears they have absolutely nothing in common.  i have so much respect for my friends who could do just fine in an average church but have said in their hearts–i have something to learn here that i can’t learn when i keep hanging around people who look like me, think like me, believe like me, buy like me, are like me.    and i will be honest, sometimes i get really sad that the people who tend not to stay with the refuge are usually the ones with the most margin.  there’s no doubt, we have become more lopsided than we could and should be.

and then i look at the gospels.  and the nutty life of Jesus.  and how the kingdom he proclaimed looked radically different from the ways of the world.  that in his economy the first are last and the last are first.  that he had a gravitational pull toward the marginalized, to the ones on the fringe of life and faith.  and so when i see the christian-marketing-wheel-go-spinning-round and the boys at the top of the heap and the salaries and the money floating around and the resource available at people’s fingertips after a good round of golf i have to take a deep breath and say “yes, God, the disparity is real, but i can’t worry about that or change that.  help me focus instead on what i think the gospels are saying and do my best to keep walking this path despite the usual pull. help us be brave and stay the course and focus on what we have, not what we don’t have–because what you’ve given us it’s awfully pretty.”

i think this topic needs some attention in the whole new-community-cultivation-conversation because we want the cultures that we are nurturing to be infused with kingdom values, not worldly values.  yet, so many of the church planting and natural-human-tendencies-that-we-bring-to-the-table make it really hard to stay the course when it comes to resisting the usual attractions toward margin.

i know it is possible.  but i think we need to respect that it is a much harder path.  to fight against the gravitational pull toward margin, i think we need to:

  • examine our own hearts. i am reading a book about personal and organizational change called deep change by jim belcher.  the key point he makes is that any systemic change that happens has to first come from personal change in an individual.  and true, deep change is much easier said than done.  we need to get radically in touch with what’s going on inside of us, what God is stirring up in our own hearts related to this, what we are afraid of, what we hope for when it comes to living out the kingdom in more than just words.
  • respect that margin is not bad, the world needs it! sometimes i can make it sound that way, but that would be mean that i was turning against myself.  having resources, power, voice, influence, and all kinds of other things is a gift that should be used on others behalf.  my sadness is not that margin exists, it is that on the whole my observation has been that it can keep people separated, safe, protected and often keeps the marginalized marginalized, preventing us from really living in true community together.
  • be careful about deferring to it.  this is my hot button, for sure.   we have a natural human tendency to defer to power and margin.  Jesus turned that upside down, and i think we need to, too.  this means we make decisions for the ones with the least amount of voice instead of the most amount of voice.  the least amount of power instead of the most.  this is totally topsy turvy to average church leadership, where most often we defer to power and voice because that is who pays the bills and carries the most clout.   true change will come in our systems when we refuse to defer to margin and open up not just space but power and voice for those without it–whatever that looks like.
  • recognize our fears about each other. this goes both ways.  those with margin have fears and misconceptions about people without it and vice versa.  we need to find ways to live together, to learn from each other, to be together, to celebrate what we have in common which is often unseen but needs a place to rise to the surface.   we must work diligently to create spaces where we can listen to each other and be honest about what we are afraid of.
  • refuse to be controlled by money. oh this is so hard not to do, especially when there are bills to pay.  but i also believe strongly that we can’t default to those on the margins just to make this “work” financially.  this is what always seems to happen–ministries/churches need money, so they need to get people with money, and they have to give people with money what they want (and the top of the list doesn’t usually include “messy, intimate, complicated relationship with a lot of people not like me.”).  this requires a scary weird freaky trust that i need to keep learning more about.  it will also require not comparing ourselves to others or being insanely jealous of other ministries’ prosperity.
  • ask God to show us the way. no question, i need God’s spirit to guide and direct when it comes to this hard road of living on the margins of life and faith.  i believe we need God to show us how to keep walking this path when all the forces are against it.  we, as community leaders and planters and dreamers and just-trying-to-figure-out-what-this-whole-way-of-the-kingdom-really-means, will each have to seek what God might be stirring up in us when it comes to this gravitational pull toward margin & power and how to stand against it.

like so many other things, i am in the midst of wrestling with all of the implications of this, too, and readjusting so many of my expectations of “the way things are supposed to work.”  i definitely don’t have any easy answers. but the more i reflect on this, i sort of think the Bible does.  the way i see it, Jesus is pretty clear on this one.  over and over and over again he told us what kingdom living looked like.  and it always pulled in a different direction than most everyone else was going.   it always looked a little funky, odd, off kilter to the norm.  it messed with the status quo.  it tilted toward the least and the last, the spiritually poor, the hungry, the desperate.  and no question, it shook the foundations of the systems that default to religion, power, and margin.

oh i would love to hear some of your thoughts on this one.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

14 Comments

  • I have been thinking about this, too, because we talked about it at Refuge Saturday. I am coming to the Refuge from Foothills Community Church, which usually has margin, but before that, I went to Anchor Way Baptist Church in Colorado Springs. The members there – and I was the wife of a graduate student when I started going there – had no margin. I became exhausted and left the church, mostly because we moved because of a job, but partly because I was so burned out. We were the youth leaders and the music leader and half of the budget of the church. But, here’s the interesting thing:
    1. When I had gum surgery, ladies come over and watched my children
    2. The training and love my older children received there “stuck”. They are radical Christians. Their teachers may have worn the same dress every Sunday, but they knew how to love children.
    3. When people have nothing, they are so much more generous. When people had cancer at the factory I worked with, it was usually not the engineers like me that donated, but the $10/hour lineworkers.
    4. With intermittent unemployment like I now have, it is more possible to help people during the day.

    I also have to say that: every Christian should try, as a responsibility, to increase their margin so that they can help others.
    1. With more money, there is more spare for helping.
    2. If life is not overscheduled with activities, there is time for helping with emergencies.
    3. If a car is owned and running well, it can be loaned or rides can be given.

    My recent experiences with living with less margin have taught me many things:
    1. Calmness in an emergency
    2. How it feels to have various situations – mental illness crises, health crises, unemployment, divorce so that I can sympathize with others
    3. That God never, never leaves
    4. Who my true friends are

    So work for margin and grow when margin is scarce. Accept people in both conditions: both are valuable.

    Reply
  • Kathy,

    Thanks for posting this message. It is great to see that you are not the one topic everyday sort of person when it comes to blogging.

    Instead you have really expanded on this issue through your blogging and speaking and living and it has greatly helped me and my community to process what it is you are saying as well as how these revelations impact each of us and our community.

    This message is prophetic and needs to be heard by all of us over and again. I too have some margin and live among those in community who do not. My goal of course is to befriend those that do not, but sometimes I am the one that feels like an outsider. I am the one rejected by those that have little when they realize I have more.

    All I can do is try to relate to their situation by sharing my stories of struggle in all areas of my life letting them know that regardless of the margin, I am just like them and they are like me.

    We are the same. Thanks again for posting. See you soon.

    Reply
  • Alright, a classic Kathy post with lots of “nutty” and “wacky”. We want more of this and not conversations with that John guy…kind of sick of him.

    I love to sit at the Refuge and watch as someone new comes for a visit. I hated that part of visiting a new church, shaking hands, small talk, finding the coffee, etc. So I take a twisted sort of pleasure watching the awkward dance of visiting. I love to watch and wonder, “What are they thinking?” “What are they hoping to find?” “How much of that Bible that they brought with them are they going to use?”

    Over vacation I read a book that was partially about a Detroit pastor whose church met in an abandoned building. The roof leaked water when it rained. Actually there wasn’t a roof over a part of it; it had fallen through, so the water poured in. You might think,” how bad off was that church?” Reading it I actually thought, “Wow, how bad would my life have to be before I would have attended that church?” Turns out, mostly the homeless and drug addicted go there.

    Kathy, I have to vigorously disagree with you when you say that people don’t intentionally align and gravitate toward margin. You know my story, you know my ministry background, so you understand when I say that I was taught (and I taught others) to focus on “key kids”. Key kids are those kids that attract and draw other kids to our ministry. I would watch kids as they asked themselves, “Do I want to give up my Wednesday night for this?”

    My point is that there was a very intentional purpose towards those with margin that occurred in both the ministries I was associated with. It is either justified really well or flat out ignored.

    I also find it interesting that the lives of people with margin and those without typically don’t intertwine. Shopping at Wal-mart doesn’t count. That segregation is perpetuated; it’s reinforced by the examples of leadership that people see in the church and encounter in ministries. That segregation occurs because (warning: personal opinion here) people with margin don’t feel they have much to learn from those who don’t have margin. The exception to this of course is when someone I know travels to an impoverished country and returns with admiration for those “wonderful poor people, so rich in faith.”

    “God’s economy”- I love it, keep preaching sister. Lately I’m more cynical than normal so it’s hard for me to be hopeful that things will really change. So as far as the gravitational pull you refer to; un-marginalized people will continue to interpret it as God speaking to them and that they should go to the big church, check out the kiosk, get a bagel, and be dazzled by the sparkly lights.

    People with margin know that they are “key kids”; they know it the moment they walk into a prospective church. One of the questions they ask themselves is, “Do I want to give my money, time, and resources, to this thing?”

    From now on, when new people come to check out the Refuge I’ll be thinking about that church in Detroit. I’ll wonder if they are thinking, “Wow, how bad would my life have to be before I would attend a church like this?” or “What do I possibility have to learn from all these people?”

    And if those are the questions that most people ask when they walk through those doors, then I am so thankful for the people who stayed. I have truly grown to love all those people who are finding refuge there.

    Thanks for making a space where we are able to get a glimpse of what it can look like.

    peace
    john

    Reply
  • Hey John, I think you missed that her point is that the unacnowledged pull is for churches to give favoritism to those folks who have financial margin to work with.
    This is the topic that makes my brain hurt the most, the topic that makes me feel like a dolt because thoughts want to move fast but come so slowly. There is a lot to sort out around the topic of wealth and faith, and it is worthy of lots of consideration.
    My confession of the moment is that I am “wealthist”. Kind of like being sexist. The kind that (while i’d never say it out loud) basically thinks “Rich people, can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em”. There is probaly another version of the “wealthist” on the other side who might say something like “but the poor will be with you always”. At least they have figured out how to get cred by quoting scripture, even though it is a horrific mis-reading of the passage.
    Anyway, I have no idea how we have found a way to get along despite differences in financial margin at the Refuge. And I’m glad for it, and I think it is worth looking at ’cause it is a good thing to experience, and builds up the reality of God.

    Reply
  • Great thoughts Sage thanks and I’m chewing on that. But…..

    I get Kathy’s point; it’s just that I don’t believe it to be an accidental or an unintentional “pull” that many churches use to draw people with margin. I believe there is a strategy and purposeful method that goes into planting, establishing, and operating a church. I don’t mean to make it sound like a conspiracy, but it is a strategy. And that strategy involves finding out what that demographic wants, what will keep their butts in the seats, and what will ultimately get them to give their resources.

    I just think Kathy was being WAY too nice about the way she said it.

    I know that what appears to be a free-flowing-spirit-led-6-service weekend is in fact scripted and well thought out down to the minute. That’s not gravity, that’s good business.

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  • Church almost always comes down to money. It is an organization, and institution that must have money to make it work. Those on the payroll must have paychecks to pay their living expenses and to pay off their old debts, and they know that their paychecks are second in line behind the organization’s fixed expenses – the mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance and so on.

    Fifty single mothers and one hundred homeless people probably can’t give as much money as one or two families with two working adults who have good jobs. In spite of all the proclamations on the web site and in the discussions, sermons and everywhere else, the organization and it’s leaders, especially those depending on a paycheck, do everything in their power to attract the people with good incomes. People who are already convinced that God demands that they give a nice chunk of their income to such organizations to pay for their property and employees are especially-sought-after commodities.

    The rationale seems to be that once we have the necessary expenses covered, then we can focus on the poor, the single mothers, the homeless, the orphans in Africa. In my experience, it almost never happens. To not only attract but also to keep the people with margin (translate that money), we must have a comfy place for meeting, nice programs for their kids (including paid kids’ workers), comfy chairs, pretty light fixtures and a bunch of other stuff. The poor usually get the crumbs from the table, if they are lucky.

    Oh yes, and the people we have attracted really want the people sitting beside them to smell nice and look like them. Wouldn’t we really rather discuss how your BMW compares to my Prius than how my spot under a bridge compares to your nice house? Shouldn’t we all believe that Obama is evil, gays are going to hell and women are somehow not quite equal to men?

    As Jesus said, we will always have the poor, and apparently we will always have high-steepled buildings with golden angels on the roof , plush carpeting and lush lawns, all watched over by an army of professional well-paid religious experts who have little time for the poor, beaten, bleeding guy on the edge of the road.

    Is this really what a disciple of Jesus looks like? Perhaps it is what a religious person looks like, but is it what a disciple of Jesus looks like? Regardless of what the sign says, the building and the people in it may not look or smell anything like Jesus .

    Reply
  • thanks kathy for keeping this topic alive and in our faces.
    my experience is that most churches intend to get to the marginalized, but they believe they must first garner the resources of the powerful to do it.
    not sure if they actually do or not, but i know how the marketing goes. not sure if you know why i got hired in my last job, but they said it was because i asked them in the interview what they did to care for the poor. hmmm, sounds good, but to actually do that, not so good for the growth projections. caring for and living with marginalized folks is what you intend to do once you have all you need. but, you never have all you need….

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  • Coolness Kathy!!! You are a potstirrer extraordinaire my friend, get a bigger spoon you need it!!! LOL I have had this idea called *risking openness* which pretty much parallels what you said. Everyone risks sharing with full transparency, risking possible rejection or being misunderstood or just ignored.Your post made me think of how great it would be if we found ways to practice the *one anothers* in tangible ways when we meet together. Keep rockin kathy 🙂

    Robert

    Reply
  • thanks for your responses so far, i have really appreciated them here and through email, too. it has stirred up some good conversation. i apologize i am late getting in the mix here.

    rebecca – thanks for your thoughtful response, i am glad you are reading and appreciate your sharing. i think the part that is so important to remember is that when it comes to the refuge we get by with so little and in many ways it has been a grace because it means that we have to share, we have to rely on God, we have to find creative ways to pull off life together. and i really respect that. at the same time, i am always reminded about how in the big scheme of things there are plenty of resources out there in the wider “church.” the problem is that they are not shared and freely given. so, in some ways we end up with a reflection of the world–the haves and the have-nots. the part that i am trying to put on the table is just how tilted and lopsided things get when a whole bunch of people with margin lump together and a whole bunch of people without are lumped together. it’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

    dan – thanks for reading, my friend

    John – thanks for your thoughts and i really appreciate your perspective. those of us wrestling with all of this in practice and not just theory know how complicated it really is. i am really looking forward to some good conversations with you guys on your visit here!

    annie – thanks for reading, and you are not nuts, ha ha. it is good for me to put words to it, too, on paper instead of just in conversations. just think of how much we are all learning in different ways, eh?

    john – oh i am so thankful for you and glad this stirred up some good thoughts. i will say out loud that i agree with your disagreement, ha ha. this is why i am thankful for you, you are a truth teller and you don’t water things down. when i say the word “unintentionally” i am referring to the average christian who is going to their cool hip rockin’ church, the next new gig in town that they feel excited about, who really isn’t thinking about how disparate it all is and how they don’t really know up-close-and-personal anyone not like them and they just want to be with “other young couples with kids” or “young professionals” or ??? i just don’t think so much of this is on their scan. at the same time, i 100% agree that in terms of leadership, it is extremely intentional. we all know who is getting the golf invitations in hope that they will “attach” to the community and start giving and serving and bringing their friends, too. you have seen it up close and personal in terms of “key kids” and i have seen it up close and personal in terms of successful businessmen, solid christian families-who-know-how-to-tithe-and-serve-and-invite-their-other-friends-with-margin-too. and there’s no doubt that those with margin make the church-world spin round. the part that makes me most sad, though, are the people who think that they have nothing to gain by being in a diverse community, who long for safe-comfortable-easy-wow and believe that they are “not like those people” and want to hang around the winning folks instead. they have no idea just how much we actually need each other. but it requires a huge, giant step down in the world and most of us are much more interested in stepping up instead. anyway, thank you for keeping me honest, ha ha. there’s so much more to be said about this over time. keep adding your voice here, we need it.

    sage – yeah, i think that john was just pointing out that i was being too nice, and honestly, he’s right. the more i have thought about the things i’ve seen over the years and been a part of and how the “system” works it is so accurate. at the same time, i will stick with the reality that so many dear and lovely folks just are unaware of it, it’s just all they’ve ever known. there are also a whole other chunk of people who have clearly communicated “i don’t want to be with those kinds of people, i want to be with more people like me” those are the ones who have come and gone at the refuge, who have a little more financial or practical margin than somehow can’t see our common denominator–human-ness. i love your reminder of mclaren’s words about the “reality of God” and i also am glad that we are doing what we can to live this out together; what’s beautiful to me is that somehow we are just doing it, not talking about it all the time, not making all kinds of wacky dividing lines, just trying to love each other as brothers and sisters on the journey. i am so grateful for you.

    sam – you nailed it. and karl resonated the same thought–the current practice, almost universally if i look at it in terms of the average churches i know of, is “once we get all of our basics covered, then we can leave room for those poor people.” and let’s face it, there’s never enough. and the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed were never supposed to be after-thoughts. that is not the way i read the gospels. but that is the system that we have built. we are not “one tweak” away from changing this; it is a core philosophy about the kingdom of God that shapes practice. the reason i didn’t use the word “theology” is that everyone would say out loud “i believe in this” but the problem is that really their practice doesn’t reflect it because the tide is so strong in this direction. the system needs to change in order for the prevailing practice to change. and i don’t think the system is going down any time soon. i hope and pray it does over time and will just do my little miniscule contribution to walk this direction and not submit myself to the gravitational pull. thanks for your input here, i really appreciate your pot stirring.

    tammy – thanks for reading and being part of the beauty in whatever way you can.

    karl – i think you and sam really nailed it–“once we have the resource then we’ll do it” and we all know that never happens. the pandering to those with margin is so obvious in the world that we lived in, and it really does keep the world spinning round. it makes me sad but very thankful for you and our friends who are trying as best we can to walk this tricky path. God, show us the way.

    robert
    – thanks, my friend. you keep risking and calling others to risk, too!

    Reply
  • When I read your posts, I feel like someone has cleared away a whole bunch of the garbage that obscures the heart of God. So, as always, thanks for that!

    I am so ashamed of having been a product of and participant in all this ugliness that I’m almost afraid to say all that I’m thinking. I haven’t come to terms with having come from there…and you can tell John that we’re not sick of hearing from him, and I really appreciate his perspective in coming from there too!

    I guess I had two dominant thoughts, and I’m hoping it will make sense as I write it down. Coming through this season of pretty profound burnout, I have thought a lot about margin. I hadn’t thought of it in the sense of money and power, but rather in the sense of some reserve of resources. I burnt myself out through not keeping margin. As I have looked at the church, I have often wondered if it could keep existing if people actually lived within their boundaries. And if something can’t exist while people keep balance and health in their lives and families, I guess I wonder if it’s worth keeping. (And I’m guessing I won’t run into much argument here over questioning the worth of a lot of the “programs” that take up people’s resources in the church.)

    But a lot of people, like me, burn out getting deeply involved in people’s lives, getting mired somewhere between our messiness and others’ messiness and deep disappointment in what we thought God was going to do with all that messiness 🙂 (Gosh, I was hoping he wasn’t just going to _accept_ it! 🙂 All that has left me afraid to go back into real life and real interaction with people without margin. And I know that is not right…that it can’t be right…but I don’t think it can be right how the church usually does this stuff either.

    So here’s what I’m taking away from my dilemma with this post. People like me come from the church, and we have margin, and we want to follow Jesus with what have. So we try to move toward the marginalized. BUT, we take with us that world view that we are not aware of–the us/them, powerful/powerless, margin/marginalized, found it/need it dichotomy. We see ourselves as having and others as needing. We want to meet that need, so trying to “minister” we enter into one-sided relationships where we are unintentionally not being authentic because we are just trying to give. The other person/people play into the dynamic as well–it takes two to tango, right? The giver gets sucked dry, and the receiver is disenfranchised–it’s kind of a lose-lose situation.

    I sort of think now that I’m not trying to give anything, I’m probably loving better…at least probably being a better friend. Even though my evangelometer likes to go off and tell me I’m not measuring up Christian-wise any more. Anyway, I haven’t figured it out, and I hope I’ll find a way to be able to engage without trying to “minister,” and without having the split world view.

    Reply
    • christen – always great to hear from you. i hope we can catch up soon somehow. i think you nailed it on the head, really, that there’s this nutty dynamic in play about “us and them” when it comes to christian ministry. the haves-the have nots, whether or not it is “christian faith” or money, or resources, or all kinds of other things. i think the giving & receiving at the same time is the trickiest part; i think i wrote something about that a while back during easter because it is so easy to give and never receive. true healing community should include both…at the same time. and of course, that is always easier said than done and can’t even begin to happen until we take away the them and us and respect there’s only “us.” i hope you find this next season one of rest and peace. come see us soon!

      Reply

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