Exposing Our Hidden Rules (Book Review)

On the second Thursday of each month, I would like to share my thoughts about some of the books I have read recently that have impacted my life in meaningful ways. This week’s book is actually two books!  Bridges out of Poverty and What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty are both essential reading for people wanting to truly know how to work effectively in the lives of people living in generational poverty. You can purchase them here:



In order to work with people, we must build relationships. In order to build relationships, we must understand the context of one another’s lives. In order to do that, we must first learn the hidden rules that govern our lives.

In Bridges Out of Poverty, Ruby Payne, Philip DeVol, and Teri Dreussi Smith discuss information that professionals must have to effectively work with poverty populations. But what they share is valuable for everybody. In What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty, Bill Ehlig joins Payne and addresses much of the same information to churches that are struggling to include people from poverty populations.

The first step in working with people across class lines is to learn the invisible rules that govern each class. We often do not wish to acknowledge these rules exist, but they do. Each book (page 13 of Bridges, page 16 of Church Member) lists a chart of hidden rules and a quiz titled, “Can you survive in…” each social class.

Why is it important to know these rules? Because: “What may seem to be workable suggestions from a middle-class point of view may be virtually impossible given the resources available to someone who is in poverty” (Bridges, page 28). Many middle class members think those from poverty should be able to change their situations by doing the same things middle class people do. But that is not always possible.

In addition to a recognition of the hidden rules, each book deals with an awareness of the different types of language that are used and the different ways people tell and understand stories.

The context we live in affects our language (formal or informal, partner or parent). We must understand the language other people use. Just as we must work harder to communicate with someone who does not speak English, or who is deaf, we must always work hard to communicate with people who do not speak middle class language.

In churches, this is especially true. Ehlig and Payne write, “The gifted Christian who offers little to the poor in the community may well have lost sight of his/her true task and calling as a Christian. ‘Sight’ is the operative word here. Can we ‘see’ the path ahead as we embrace the poor? Probably not clearly, but we may find footing for the next step” (Church Member, page 110).

Not only do service work professionals need to know how to work with poverty populations, but churches need to know, as well. For too long, churches have been abandoning inner cities and poverty populations. In addition, churches have often been blind to the needs of people in poverty. Church services are not welcoming because Christians often assume everyone who walks through the door will understand all the language, rituals, and symbols.

Religion the Father accepts as pure and faultless is the kind that takes care of the poor and forgotten (James . Instead of fleeing to the suburbs and putting up more barriers, we must work to be present and inviting towards members of the lower socio-economic classes.

Ultimately, we must work on building relationships. Just as Bridges talks about building these relationships within the community, Church Member includes sections in most chapters on what churches should know and how they can act. These sections are important. The authors point out our inner cities are viewed as harvest fields for Islam, yet they are virtually vacated by Christians.

If you are interested in working with people in poverty or in a service profession (social work, therapy, etc.), Bridges is an essential resource (as is everything else by Payne and aha! Process, Inc.). For Christians and the church, Church Member is an essential resource.

The work may be difficult, but it is necessary. As Ehlig and Payne state: “Success will not often lie with those who only see the failures ahead. More often it will be with those who strain their vision to see what might work and who have the courage to try” (Church Member, page 106).

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