When we first started living in community, we invited our friends who had just moved in the area to come to church with us. One of our friends, Marcy, gladly accepted a ride to church, and attended, hoping to have a community she could connect with. That hope prevailed, although she attended the church for years, and reached out to many and got involved, yet she didn’t have the friends, the community she desired. She was smart and articulate and funny, but many people couldn’t see that because she had a lazy eye and thick glasses.
We of the church recognize that we are supposed to be a unique people. All too often, though, we misunderstand what that strangeness is supposed to be. Often we consider our uniqueness to be holiness (although it is difficult to find a uniquely holy congregation, honestly), or perhaps our love for one another. And while these aspects may be significant, the congregation Jesus had in mind was even more unique.
When talking about the make-up of his people, Jesus said that his people are to be “poor” “mourning” “persecuted” “meek” “hungry” and even hated and ostracized. These are the blessed of God, the recipients of salvation, the ones in need of deliverance. A couple of these terms Jesus is borrowing from the Hebrew Scriptures, which are translations of the word “anawim”.
Anawim is a term that is used frequently in Psalms and Proverbs and the prophets to speak of the lowly and poor who are seeking the Lord for deliverance. The anawim are those who face the most difficult social crises: poverty, rejection, hatred, and can turn to no one but the Lord for deliverance from their problems. The anawim are the outcast, those hated by society, yet still they do all they can to remain faithful to the Lord.
But our churches are often monuments to those who are socially accepted, to those who have it made. We are not seeking to cater to a particular group, necessarily, but since those who have the power and wealth to make a community have… well, power and wealth, then the outcast and hated and poor aren’t so much rejected as neglected. We find that without thinking about the anawim, we have created no place for them. We put our churches where public transportation cannot go. If someone admits that they can’t afford to go to the church retreat, we will treat them like charity, making them give personal information we might not require of others. Church business is done at meetings in restaurants the poor aren’t invited to and they couldn’t afford. Our worship focuses on the functionally literate, those who sing well, or who can see the words on the screen. We dress well, not thinking about how uncomfortable we will make those who cannot dress as we dress.
And so the anawim don’t feel comfortable in our congregations. It isn’t anything we said. We may have tried our best to be welcoming. We may have given them a central spot and asked them to stand up and tell everyone in the church who they were. But culturally, we are giving a message that they are welcome IF they become like us.
More congregations—not all, but more—need to consider how to best welcome the anawim of their neighborhoods. Perhaps some would rather have a church service that wasn’t located in a church sanctuary. Perhaps some would come, if a meal was offered before the service. Perhaps a number of people in the church could “dress down” to reflect the people Jesus said were blessed.
In order for us to welcome the anawim, we must change culturally to be like them, not assume that our cultural standards are everyone elses’.
If we do welcome the anawim, we may find our culture changing more than we like. We may find that we are driving away others who can’t deal with the stress of a cross-cultural congregation. We may even find our congregation sounding like this, but this is the cost of having a Jesus-like church. I’m sure it wasn’t the most orderly meal when Jesus ate with the sinners and tax collectors, either.
If you would like to take a test to see how close you come to being Anawim, or if you would like to find out more about Anawim, please check out this article
*These terms are all taken from Jesus’ beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-24.
**The term “poor in spirit” used in Matthew 5:3 is borrowed from Proverbs 16:19; The phrase “the meek shall inherit the earth” is from Psalm 37:11. The words “humble” “poor” and “meek” in these passags are all translations of the Hebrew word “anawim”.