My first ministry involved organizing a summer program for students in my parent’s new church home in McLean, Virginia in the late 1970s. The high school students loved this idea and I continued to organize the summer program throughout graduate school. Over these years, I saw one cohort of students after another progress through school, graduate, and move away, a process that I described as downward mobility. As a doctoral candidate with good prospects, I was one of the few able to live and find work in affluent Northern Virginia.
The Downwardly Mobile
This downward mobility is actually a phenomena facing most young people today. Studies show that real income in the United States has been relatively flat for college graduates since about 1980. The average student has a couple years of college before dropping out and, like high school graduates, has suffered a decline in real income since 1980. Only students with postgraduate work—maybe 10-20 percent of the population—have seen an increase in real income since 1980, generally associated with their ability to take advantage of changes in information technology—the hamburger helper of today’s professionals.
This downward mobility has placed economic pressure on many people making it hard to purchase a home or have a family. The disappearance of pensions and healthcare are a related problem. In the midst of this economic pressure, American society has increasingly been stratified by economic class. Throw in gender, race, and ethnicity, and you have a highly combustible mixture because no one feels better off. The decline in life expectancy over the past three years, due in part to record suicides and drug overdoses, is testimony to the stress that people feel.
Being the Church
In the middle of a chaotic social situation and pressure on budgets, how does the church resist the temptation to serve only the wealthier economic classes rather than the entire community? This is not an idle question.
Churches, like the Roman Catholics, that operate on the parish model are better able to serve the entire community than those that differentiate themselves based on their theological heritage, like most Protestant churches. A parish is defined geographically that should ideally serve both rich and poor neighborhoods equally.
A theologically defined church can attract one or another social group, depending on particular concerns. A church promoting the prosperity Gospel, for example, is much more likely to attract the economically-disadvantaged while the work-ethic of traditional Calvinist denominations, like the Presbyterians, is more likely to appeal to professional groups.
Irrespective of structure or theology, we are called as Christians to minister to and evangelize the entire community. Just because a stressful economy has raised the stakes, does not mean that we can neglect the mission.
The Special Problem of Immigration
Massive immigration from Latin American countries, particularly in Central America, has exacerbated class distinctions in America. Hispanic immigrants often speak no English and lack documentation that allows them to work in the United States. Political deadlock has led a humanitarian crisis at the border and the development of a rigid underclass in virtually every American city.
What makes this crisis interesting is that policy changes in the United States helped promote this immigration. Illegal drug use in America has prompted the growth of narco-trafficking and the development of drug gangs in Central America that has made life difficult in these countries. Meanwhile, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) lowered the price of grain in Central America undermining the rural economy (where most of the immigrants used to work) after 1994.
Complicating matters, the lack of population growth has created an urgent need for workers in the United States in low wage industries, such as janitorial services, hospitality, construction, and agriculture.
Role for Churches
While immigration has met the need for workers and promoted economic growth, the Hispanic immigration has proceeded too quickly for immigrants to be legally and socially integrated into American society. Churches need to intervene to assist with both problems.
The biblical mandate to assist immigrants is obvious. In Exodus, we read:
“You shall not wrong a sojourner [immigrant] or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” (Exod 22:21-23)
From a practical perspective I remind people that about a third of the children in the United States under the age of twenty share an Hispanic background. Another third are minorities. Learning to serve these groups today while the kids are young is an important investment in the future of congregational ministry that we dare not neglect.
Henri Nouwen. 2007. The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
My first ministry as an adult in the early 1980s was a summer program for high school and college age students. As my kids began graduating and taking up life as adults, I noticed a disturbing trend. The majority of them—those not disciplined enough to stay in school to earn a professional degree—had to leave Northern Virginia because the cost of living was simply too high. I coined the phrase, downward mobility, to describe the generational schism this dilemma caused.
Until I heard about Henri Nouwen’s book, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life, I had never heard anyone else use my phrase—downward mobility. For Nouwen, downward mobility is conscious decision to resist the idolatry of a lifestyle focused on upward mobility (27) and simply to imitate Christ (38). Nouwen writes: The Holy Spirit leads us on the downward way, not to cause us to suffer or to subject us to pain and humiliation, but rather to help us to see God present in the midst of our struggles (47). The Apostle Paul summed it up this way:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13 ESV).
At one point, my church used this last sentence (I can do all things through him who strengthens me) as a tie-shirt slogan for our Vacation Bible School camp. These words are powerful encouragement for those of us traveling the downward way.
Satan tempts us daily to return to the path of upward mobility. Following Luke 4, Nouwen (49) sees Satan’s three primary temptations in ministry as:
The temptation to be relevant (turn stones into bread);
The temptation to be spectacular (throw yourself off the temple); and
This first temptation can be the source of a lot of pain. Nouwen (50) observes: Doctors can heal; lawyers can defend; bankers can finance; social workers can restructure; but what can you [as Christian, minister, or pastor] do? Our natural tendency is to fix things; not to trust in God’s transforming power.
Draw Attention to Ourselves
The second temptation is to focus on ourselves and serve our own needs for attention and acceptance. Here we need to make space for God in our own lives so that he can use us to be present in the lives of the people around us (58). Nouwen commends a life of intimate communion with God through the disciplines of solitude, silence, and prayer (59). If our ministry is not about God, it will ultimately become tiresome and pointless.
The third temptation is to be powerful. Nouwen observes that: Power can take many forms: money, connections, fame, intellectual ability, skills (61). We want to be in control. To be a servant of Christ, Nouwen reminds us, is to be a [humble] friend of Christ (65).
Nouwen observes that the tension between our vocation as Christians and these temptations is a lifelong challenge (69). Discipline is required but: The discipline of the Christian disciple is not to master anything [like an athlete, student, or professional] but rather to be mastered by the Spirit (70). Nouwen highlights these 3 disciplines:
The discipline of the church;
The discipline of the book; and
The discipline of the heart (71).
For Nouwen, a Catholic priest, the discipline of the church is to re-enact, to be, and to celebrate the Christ event. Liturgical discipline focuses on the Christ event—God breaking into human history (73). We must create time and space in our lives for God. In this sense, the church is our spiritual director (74).
The discipline of the book is for Nouwen necessarily an act not just of reading but of mediating on scripture. The phrase, Christ is the word of God, is not just high rhetoric; Christ is the word become flesh (77-78). We must chew the word (78). The angel tells the Apostle John: take and eat (Revelation 10:9). It must become part of us. Otherwise, the mere words of scripture will become an instrument of Satan (82).
For Nouwen, the discipline of the heart is personal prayer (82). The discipline of prayer leads us unromantically, ceremonially to the heart of God (87). This is not about rewards, personal acclaim, helpful projects, or even inner peace (83); this not about personal revelations or sensations (89). Time with God strips all of this away. In prayer, our questions over time morph into our answers (87).
The point of each of these disciplines is, of course, to walk the path of downward mobility to preserver in resisting temptation.
I return to Nouwen’s writing periodically as a personal reminder to make time and space for the Holy Spirit in my busy life. Reminders are imperative for me. The fact that Nouwen abandoned a comfortable life as a Harvard academic in 1986 to work with special needs individuals in a D’Arche community gives his advice on downward mobility unique credibility. Spirituality is not a hobby-horse of convenience; it is a life commitment. I commend this book to your own reading and mediation.
 Also see: Henri Nouwen. 1989. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroads Book.