trickle-down or from-the-bottom up.

In conversations about politics, I’ve often told my kids, “If someone tells you that trickle-down economics is a great idea, make sure you remember that it sounds all well and good but the reality is the money and resource rarely trickles down.”

Oh, I know some who are reading might be shaking your head right now.

I understand.

But I truly believe that while the idea sounds good in theory, the money just doesn’t usually trickle down.

It just doesn’t.

A conversation with a new friend a few weeks ago made me think about this related to church, too.

She was talking about how if “the church” was willing to “be the church” then we’d be radically welcoming, willing to take in refugees or give shelter to those in need, willing to engage with people-not-like-us-with-open-loving-hearts, willing to sacrifice our time and money and comfort for the sake of others, to live out the gospel together instead of just listen to someone talk about it week after week.

My response in that moment is usually the same–“Yep, so with you, and there’s enough resource out there; the problem is that it’s being hoarded.”

It’s being protected. 

It’s being used to keep people comfortably separated and the wheels spinning on a machine that definitely professes a heart for the poor, but often offers inadequate drips of support for them when it comes to actual real-life connection and resources.

Of course, I know this is a broad generalization (I love those, ha ha). I know there are a lot of great churches doing all kinds of beautiful & amazing things, but my experience has been that the failed model of trickle-down-ministry is alive and well in many of our church systems.

No matter the size of the church, there’s often a power divide, where the top decides what the bottom needs. Where the top decides who leads and who doesn’t. Who matters and who doesn’t. Who is deferred to and who isn’t.

Where the top stays safely separated from the bottom, “serving” them and doing things “to” or “for” them but rarely being “with.”

Where the top controls what trickles down.

I actually don’t think it’s really overt or malicious or intentional.  People are often oblivious to the reality and the it’s-just-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it is in play.

But oh, how a “trickle-down” framework is totally contrary to the upside down ways of the kingdom, where all of these hierarchies and man-made power systems are supposed to crumble. Where the last will be first and the first will be last. Where we defer to the poor and the marginalized. Where the lepers and prostitutes are invited freely to the table. Where humility and vulnerability and openness to God are the highest values. Where cups of cold water are more valuable than money in the bank.  Where power is diffused and through that, somehow multiples.

Where people are more important than programs. 

Where dignity for all is the highest value. (Nothing is more undignifying than getting drips).

Trickle-down ministry is not a reflection of the ways of Jesus.

It’s just not.

I believe wholeheartedly this is why so many people are leaving church right now. They are tired of waiting for things to trickle down. Tired of getting the scraps.

And they’re even more tired of seeing others get scraps, too.

Of having power decide what people can and can’t do. Of living in fear of standing for justice because big donors might leave. Of participating in a system of ministry economics that is completely contrary to the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is built from-the-bottom-up.

Where the least likely lead.

Where there’s no separation between “us and them.”

Where sharing is natural.

Where equality is normal.

Where risk and vulnerability are embraced.

Where people are first.

Where everyone can play.

Where we’re not waiting for someone on top to tell us what to do or stick our mouths under the faucet and hope for a little drip to quench our thirst.

I think this is why Bernie Sanders continues to gain popularity and support. Like him or not, afraid of him or not, agree with him or not, he’s tapping into something bigger we can benefit from listening to–the bottom is done with trickle-down. 

We know that power doesn’t have our best interest in mind because it is dedicated to protecting itself.

That people deserve more than what trickles down.

That dignity is restored from the bottom-up, not through what trickles down.

I am so grateful for the beautiful uprising that is happening right now in Christianity and the wider world because I think it’s coming from the bottom, from the margins, from those-whose-voices-were-silenced, from those-who-will-no-longer-just-wait-for-what-trickles-down, from those who feel an urgency to quit waiting for someone to tell them what to do or to get permission and know they need to follow what God is stirring up inside of them.

Oh, it is so messy and organic and weird and unpredictable.

It can’t be measured with the old metrics.

It looks weird.

It looks unorganized.

It looks inefficient.

It looks crazy.

But last I read the gospels, that’s what the ways of Jesus are all about.

Really, I think that’s part of what Jesus meant, when he raged at the Pharisees in Matthew 23, saying all kinds of brutal truths about religiosity and hoarding and refusing to let others enter the kingdom of God.  I love this: “For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens [I’d add “and keep the power at the top] but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.”

We can’t let power hold those things captive.

We can’t wait for them to trickle down because they probably won’t.

They come from God’s power that is accessible to everyone.

They come from the bottom up, from a deep Kingdom knowing that people deserve more than a trickle.

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.

10 Comments

  • Excellent article. Speaking the truth out loud. Thank you for your honestly and transparency. The revolution is coming.

    Reply
  • “We know that power doesn’t have our best interest in mind because it is dedicated to protecting itself.”

    That is why abuse (of all kinds) in the church so often goes unaddressed, and it’s the survivors who are seen as the problem to be dealt with 🙁

    Reply
  • Great concepts, Kathy. All too true. I might add that we have to look between and “behind” the lines of the Gospels to get this important insight: While the lines of distinction reported are largely theological the more significant lines are more economic. The aristocratic class including the higher level priests and probably many of the Pharisees as well as Sadducees were part of the domination system of Rome. They were “on the take”. That means involved in the taking from “lower classes” (farmers, fishermen, etc.) as part of collaboration with Rome.

    However, lest we become overly judgmental of them (or of the “one percent” currently in a different way), their alternatives were not good. If there was too broad refusal to cooperate with Roman administration and “pay tribute to Caesar”, the Romans would merely have taken tighter direct control, and perhaps destroyed the Temple as they did 40 years after Jesus’ time, in order to prevent further rebellions. (The Temple was treasury/economic center, not just a place of sacrifice and worship.) Again, we tend to forget just how interwoven religion and economics can be… (and why “good Christians” should be for Bernie Sanders…. just kidding… to a degree).

    Reply
  • Undoubtedly this is one of the reasons so many people are leaving the church. We have been talking with a friend who loves the poor and helps them in concrete ways with some of his income. He loves Jesus, but doesn’t usually attend church services. He’s tried recently because he would like to be part of a community of believers, but the church has interpreted that to mean that is their opportunity to tell him to give his money to them. They have lots of overhead for property and salaries and so many people and their money have departed. They neeeeed his money.

    The poor, those at the bottom rung of the ladder economically, socially and in other ways basically have no voice in many churches. Nor do they get more than the crumbs from the table. The real unwritten rule is that the money, power, and sense of belonging are shared among those who brought the food to the banquet. Most everyone else gets a nod and a cookie if they’re lucky.

    Reply

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