by Ron Ornsby
Crossing the “class gap” with blue-collar workers requires looking at what Jesus did.
"Friend, have you eaten dinner yet?” After exchanging the standard social greetings, we stared at each other in silence. My inner anxiety over what to do next increased with each passing second. These Chinese were different, and I had no idea how to relate to them.
My previous circle of Chinese contacts consisted largely of highly educated, appearance-conscious professionals. They were largely bilingual, using English more than Chinese to relate to me, and comfortable working with my Western time-task orientation. In sum, we had a great deal in common in education, work experience, and outlook.
But the middle-aged Chinese men standing before me on the street lived in an entirely different world. Most of these men held blue-collar jobs or worked as “day” laborers. Their plain-looking, outdated clothes, unkempt hair, and scruffy beards reflected their minimal concern for appearance. They were monolingual and largely mono-cultural. We had virtually nothing in common.
The social and economic “class gap” between these men and me—a gweilo (devil)—created a barrier as menacing as barbed wire. To cross it, I desperately needed a set of social cues and guidelines for relating to lower- class individuals.
To find such cues, I initially looked to examples of how Jesus related to the marginalized, outcast people of his day. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ responses to them differed dramatically from what my natural reaction would have been.
When a pathetic-looking leper approached him, Jesus displayed unconditional acceptance and genuine compassion (Mark 1:40-41). He seemed to enjoy the company of those at the bottom of society (Mark 2:17). These examples pointed to positive attitudes and actions I could imitate. However, they did not indicate the thinking process I needed to consistently demonstrate such Christlike traits over the long term.
The steps in this process began to take shape through reflection on the marks of Jesus’ own contextualization process (Phil. 2:6-8). Without such an action, he would have been unable to fully context-ualize the gospel for mankind. To become downwardly mobile to serve the poor, I knew I would have to divest myself of much that was familiar and comfortable. I would have to give up many of my perceived personal rights and privileges, in a way similar to Jesus divesting himself of some of his divine prerogatives in order to take on human form.
THE "EMPTYING" PROCESS
Reflecting on two questions helped me partially grasp the concept of Jesus’ “emptying” himself.
1. What characterized Jesus’ experience in heaven? What rights and privileges did he enjoy in his “equality” with God?
First, he was the focus of all the worship, honor, and glory that was due him as a member of the Godhead. Endless sacrifices of praise were offered up to him. Myriads of angels stood at hand to serve him. He enjoyed total freedom of action. He was dependent on no one and accountable to no one above himself.
He was surrounded by the incomparable glories of heaven, in a position of transcendence above all creation. He encountered no externally imposed limitations on any aspects of his existence. His will was instantly grasped and perfectly understood by all the heavenly hosts.
When he entered human history, Jesus willingly left these privileges behind in the heavenly realms. He chose to take on human flesh, within the context of a specific culture, so that men could learn about God’s true nature in terms meaningful to them (John 1:14-18, Phil. 2:6-7, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:3).
2. What characterized Jesus’ experience on earth? How did it contrast with his experience in heaven?
Although Jesus received respect and honor from his immediate followers, he was the focus of continual controversy throughout his ministry. He endured criticism, rejection, and hostility that eventually resulted in his death (Isa. 53:3-12). Instead of being served by all, he became a servant of all (Mark 10:45). Instead of receiving sacrifices, he voluntarily sacrificed himself (John 10:17-18). In placeof total self-determination, he chose full submission and obedience to the Father’s will—regardless of the cost (Luke 22:42, John 5:19, 8:29, Phil. 2:8).
From a position exalted above all, he immersed himself in a world of sin, pain, and imperfection. He identified freely with the “unclean” and unattractive—the no-status individuals. He operated within all the limitations of the human condition (Mark 4:38, John 4:6-7, 11:35, Heb. 4:15). Although he spoke eternal truths, his words were often misunderstood or only partially grasped (Mark 6:2-3, 8:17-21, John 6:60, 7:14-44).
The contrasting realities of Jesus’ pre-incarnate experience in heaven and his human experience on earth can be summarized this way:
Such a list is an oversimplification of Jesus’ emptying process, but it can be directly applied to my situation. These contrasting aspects closely parallel the issues and decisions I face, as I attempt to leave the comforts of my American middle-class lifestyle and enter the lifestyle of blue-collar Chinese in Hong Kong. The degree to which my contextualization efforts succeed will depend in part on how effectively I work through these issues.
1. Status. Jesus laid aside his divine status to become a carpenter. For me to cross the class gap, I must lay aside the privileges, respect, and influence that accompany my “professional” status. As a bilingual missionary with 10 years of field experience and graduate school training, I enjoy certain privileges and opportunities in my home country. However, on the streets of Hong Kong, such credentials are not recognized. In fact, they are so far removed from the daily realities of blue-collar workers that it is difficult for them to categorize me in terms other than the derogatory gweilo ster-eotype.
In addition, among blue-collar Chinese, real status and influence come not through professional accomplishments. They come through ching—the emotional bonding or affinity that can develop among friends. Thus, I must accept the fact that I have no real status or influence in a blue-collar group, unless I can display an affinity toward them in terms they can appreciate.
2. Controversy. Jesus stirred up controversy from the earliest days of his ministry until his final hour. A disciple is not above his teacher. I cannot expect better treatment from people than Jesus received. I cannot expect easier conditions in which to minister than Jesus experienced.
To cross the class gap, I must accept being the focus of controversy. When the kingdom of God is faithfully and relevantly proclaimed, it challenges the existing values, concepts, and customs of any group. Such a challenge can invoke both positive and negative responses in people.
I have often stood on the street listening patiently while someone either criticized me or vented his disdain for Christianity as he knew it. I have been mocked and laughed at for the message I attempted to share. If the gospel is to be communicated without distortion, I must be willing to die to pride (i.e., lose “face”) and humbly endure the same negative responses that Jesus received for his message.
3. Servant. Jesus took on the role of a rabbi, but he identified himself as a servant. Like Jesus, I can take on a culturally acceptable role to facilitate my ministry, but I must also identify myself as a servant. However, the form which my service takes must flow out of a thorough understanding of the blue-collar world. Without that prior understanding, I will simply serve the blue-collar workers from my own perspective. My intentions may be good, but the resulting action may not be the most appropriate or helpful thing to do in a new situation.
My task-centered perspective tends to equate serving with doing. Thus, when I worked with a new blue-collar church, I focused on organizing activities, resource development, and countless other logistical tasks that helped the group function effectively.
However, from the perspective of the blue-collar Chinese who make up the church, people andrelationships are more important than smooth operations. Thus, meetings often resemble loosely controlled chaos. A “family” atmosphere of emotional warmth and acceptance is more desirable than a perfectly executed program.
My willingness to help was admired, but because of my intense focus on tasks, I no doubt appeared preoccupied and aloof to some people. I was serving wholeheartedly, but from my own perspective. As a result, I often overlooked their greatest felt need.
Now when I enter a blue-collar group, I must acknowledge that my perspective on what is most needed will differ from theirs. To serve them from their perspective, I must ask them to carefully define for me what they perceive to be the greatest felt needs in the group at that moment. Then I must allow them to tell me what role, if any, I can have in helping to meet those needs.
4. Submission. A servant-slave is not free to do as he pleases. He must fully submit to his master or the one with authority over him. If I am to serve a blue-collar church, I must be willing to fully submit to the leader of that group—even when his view of leadership clashes with my own.
Several years ago, the “train engine” analogy for church-planting was popular in some churches here. This analogy was used to explain the need for one person with vision and energy to act as the “engine” to pull a new ministry forward. This engine-leader would have authority to control the church’s movement and direction. The church members—the “train cars”—were expected to follow the leader without hesitation.
The blue-collar church I worked with embraced this analogy. The Chinese leader had the vision and anointing needed to launch the church. As one of his staff, I supported both him and the train-engine analogy. However, I gradually discovered that being pulled along as a train car was not always a smooth ride.
In the past, if I had a leadership role in a group, I expected to have some input into the decisions. In this church, however, most of the decisions were made by the leader. In conversations and meetings, he focused attention on how to carry out his ideas and plans. I felt frustrated that he did not actually listen to the ideas of his staff. He used the analogy to justify his actions. Train cars do not tell the engine where to go.
As the church grew, I hoped to develop some of my own ideas for ministering to the people. While the leader verbally encouraged his staff to initiate new activities, our time was almost totally occupied with carrying out his latest idea. I felt frustrated that I had no opportunity for independent action. Again the analogy was used to justify this situation. Train cars do not go off in a separate direction from the train.
With my nagging frustration came the temptation to criticize both the leader and the analogy he relied on. The shortcomings of both were obvious. But, it was equally obvious that God blessed the church in spite of an imperfect leader and an imperfect analogy. When I realized that God ultimately controlled even train-engine leaders, my frustration finally dissipated.
If I am to serve in a blue-collar church, I must be willing to be pulled around by train-engine leaders. I can operate comfortably as a train car only if I forgo my personal freedom of action and believe that Jesus is in fact the “head engine” driving the train.
5. Immersed. To cross the class gap, I cannot remain “transcendent” in a living situation that is socially and economically higher than the living standard of blue-collar people. For two years, I lived in a small village in a semi-rural area. The natural surroundings, open spaces, and small population made the village an attractive place to live. These same characteristics made it totally unlike the urban centers where the people I hoped to serve lived.
By living in the village, I was unconsciously communicating to urban blue-collar workers that I was different. Where I lived created an additional obstacle to the gospel.
Thus, I decided to move back into the city. I now rentan apartment in a grimy, fortresslike building. It has no elevator. Anyone entering or leaving the building must traverse a narrow stairway that is often littered with paper bits, bones, and other scraps from overturned garbage pails. One Chinese friend gave his evaluation of the place: “Wow, this is really lower class!”
Living here has forced me to redefine my “comfort zone.” I have learned to develop a sense of contentment that is not based on a clean, attractive environment, but on a heart that is focused on Jesus. Often as I negotiate the stairway, I simply pray, “Lord, help me look beyond the trash. Help me to rejoice in you.” After such a prayer, the trash and dirt remain, but they no longer affect my attitude.
Living where I do now has also increased my credibility with the blue-collar workers I meet on the street. When I mention that my room is above a certain Chinese restaurant, there is instant identification. Some of the strangeness surrounding me as a gweilo is removed. I now have at least one point in common with their world that they can relate to easily.
To immerse myself in the blue-collar lifestyle, I must also redefine my concept of the “poor”—economically impoverished people. While immersed in an upwardly mobile, middle-class lifestyle, I simply did not “see” the poor. They did not appear on my world view radar screen.
In contrast, God never overlooks the poor (Psa. 146:7-9). Historically, God intended his people to provide for the impoverished in the land out of their material abundance (Deut. 15:7-11). In the Old Testament, helping the poor and needy was viewed as another way to honor God (Prov. 14:31). Jesus bluntly commanded both his supporters and his critics to channel their material resources toward helping the poor (Luke 12:32-34, 14:12-14).
To give attention to the poor, I must overcome my hardness of heart. I become indifferent to the poor when I exaggerate my own needs without considering the needs of others. As long as the poor are an abstract statistic or a face on TV from some distant land, I can easily refuse to become involved.
Jesus did not love statistics. He loved people—one at a time. To reduce my tendency to harden my heart, I often join an outreach team that takes meals to street-sleepers every week. Kneeling beside a toothless “granny” on a dark street corner or sitting on the sidewalk talking with homeless men forces me out of my selfish little world. My hardness fades as I focus on demonstrating the compassion of Jesus to them—one person at a time.
6. Misunderstanding. Jesus thoroughly understood the language, thought patterns, and customs of his audience, yet people struggled to understand his message. This failure was partly due to the listeners’ need for spiritual enlightenment. But it was also because Jesus presented a view of life radically different from their own.
In crossing the class gap, I struggle to grasp the language, thought patterns, and customs of blue-collar workers. My deficiency in such areas only enhances the probability of misunderstanding in my relationships with them.
Such misunderstanding is heightened by the “value-contrasts” between blue-collar workers and me. Lingen-felter and Mayers provide a helpful analysis of such contrasts in their book Ministering Cross-Culturally (Baker Books, 1986). One obvious value-contrast I must face is my American time orientation and the blue-collar event orientation.
Years ago, I was taught to look ahead, set clear goals, and then arrange my schedule to meet those goals. I believed that “time equals life,” and, “How you spend your time is how you spend your life.” Thus, my pocket calendar was a constant companion—reminding me how my life should unfold.
In contrast, the blue-collar worker’s lifestyle is based on events. His work focuses on completing tasks. His work time is controlled by his boss. With his free time, he will focus on the “now”—what happens in the next moment. His plans rarely stretch more than 24 hours ahead, so he carries no pocket calendar.
I getfrustrated when I suggest meeting a worker for dinner on some night the following week. Planning a week ahead is normal for a schedule-oriented person, but it is outside the experience of the worker. He will usually agree to the idea, but often forget the appointment when the evening comes. He is not in the habit of writing things down, and something may have just “happened” that he took part in instead of joining me.
It would be easy to conclude that he is simply irresponsible or not really interested in meeting with me. In fact, I may be expecting him to have time management skills his normal lifestyle does not require.
From his point of view, the worker can feel frustrated when he calls me to get together some evening, only to discover I am not free until four nights later. This can lead him to conclude that I am too busy to be bothered, or that I do not enjoy his company.
To cross the class gap, I must acknowledge that my focus on time is not an inherently better approach to life than the worker’s focus on events. His event orientation may indeed be closer to the New Testament kairos concept of time than my time-schedule practices. If this is true, then I have lessons to learn from him regarding how to enjoy to the full each experience God gives me—regardless of the time expended.
The example of Jesus emptying himself provided the initial impetus I needed to launch myself downward in Hong Kong’s social strata. It now provides a conceptual and spiritual framework for the ongoing development of my philosophy of ministry among blue-collar people here.
Reflecting on Jesus’ example has helped me identify specific issues, perceived rights, and personal tendencies that can short-circuit my efforts to cross the class gap with the gospel. To keep moving forward, I now use the list on page 394 that shows the contrasting realities of Jesus’ experience as a checklist to evaluate both my actions and inner attitudes.
Reflection has also deepened my understanding and appreciation of the price Jesus paid to contextualize God’s love for mankind. Seeing the jump he made from the “culture” of heaven to the culture of the Jews makes the cost of my leap downward in Hong Kong culture appear embarrassingly small.
I have also used the two reflection questions to help potential cross-cultural workers identify obstacles that may hinder their contextualization efforts. I invite them to try the same process I used. First, reflect on Jesus’ example using the two questions to focus their thinking. Then, evaluate their own beliefs and values in light of Jesus’ example.
One young woman, a college senior preparing for the Middle East, found that leaving relationships behind was her biggest obstacle. An English fellow I met in Thailand knew he had to work through the issue of social status before he could relate freely to the lower-class Thais. By reflecting on Jesus’ example, both received new motivation to help them push through such obstacles.
Finally, I realize that any progress I have made in crossing the class gap is solely due to the grace of God. The radical emptying of self Jesus modeled runs against the currents of society and the selfish desires of the heart. Thus, my taking on a blue-collar lifestyle is “supernatural.” Study, reflection, and models can clear away mental fog, but only the Spirit of God can make us both willing and able.
EMQ, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 392-399. Copyright © 1993 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.