Embracing Downward Mobility: Choosing A Different Success

Embracing Downward Mobility: Choosing A Different Success February 23, 2024

Embracing Downward Mobility: Choosing A Different Success in a Changing World. Photo by Rob Wicks on Unsplash.
Photo by Rob Wicks on Unsplash. Embracing Downward Mobility.

Downward Mobility? For generations, upward mobility has defined the American Dream. Upward mobility defines the way we, particularly as Americans, have placed importance on ascending the ladders of success, economic prosperity, accomplishment, fame, and material possessions. Not only have Americans valued upward mobility, but there has been a capacity and capability in the systems for individuals to effectively climb these ladders. For years, the professional and organizational cultures around us were driven by the rewards of upward mobility. An aspect of upward mobility was the aim of all of our goals, success, and benchmarks in life. We compared our benchmarks, we were jealous of others’ benchmarks, and we naturally felt our identity or value strengthen as we trajected upwards.  I read an article this week from the World Economic Forum that reflected on upward mobility within the economic system and it stated that “each consecutive generation is finding it harder to make this ascent” (Marcus Lu, Is the American Dream Over). The research they are reflecting on determined that “fewer people in the lower- and middle-classes are climbing the economic ladder,” which means more are stuck in their economic classes. An article from Brookings defined this as being “stuck on the ladder” (Ember Smith, Stuck on the Ladder). That sense of being stuck on the ladder has led to much unrest in the world around us. Like many of you, I too have felt the “stuck on the ladder” reality, and I realized I can embrace something different or I can become disgruntled. I believe that stuck sense is what, over the past few years, has helped to remind me of the value of downward mobility which I once embraced and lived out. While I agree that by the world’s standards, it is becoming more difficult to better yourself, I also think upward mobility is becoming less of a life value for many, and rather individuals are increasingly drawn to the way of downward mobility.

Reflective Question: How has your personal experience or observation of societal trends shaped your perspective on the traditional notion of upward mobility as a defining aspect of success and the American Dream?

Downward Mobility as a Value

As the name would imply, Downward Mobility is the opposite end of the spectrum from Upward Mobility. Traditionally, Downward Mobility is used to describe the downward spiral or decline of individuals or groups from a higher socioeconomic position to a lower one. Such a decline would often be thought of as the consequence or result of economic downturns, job cuts, moral failures, physical limitations,  or educational setbacks. Downward Mobility also leads to a diminishing of access for an individual as that individual finds themselves in a liminal space with less access to resources and opportunities that they might have had before the shift. Again, this speaks to the idea of being stuck on the ladder. As I stated earlier, I do think upward mobility is becoming harder, but I think it is also becoming less of a value for many. Instead, I think Downward Mobility as a Value is increasing. This doesn’t mean that the majority of individuals aren’t interested in bettering themselves or desire to experience some sort of upward mobility ever in their career or journey through life. Rather, this means people are valuing different goals, success, and benchmarks in life. Many individuals are willing to trade positions and pay for different personal priorities. Increasingly I see that there are significantly more individuals interested in not entering the rat race, gaining ground at other’s expense, or willing to surrender family or fun to have more. For an example of the way individuals are willing to trade positions and pay for different personal priorities, all one has to do is look through social media. I am continually amazed at the majority of individuals living (as I did in my late teens and early twenties), in their van, bus, or someone’s couch, and/or RV home. They have traded a traditional idea of success for a different priority. I am not here to debate the responsibility or behavior of such individuals, only to make note of the obvious shift in our culture towards a life that is not defined by upward mobility as our goals, success, and benchmarks. Even more, I am sure you have seen like I have, individuals who are more intentionally choosing their family (and time with their family), over their vocational roles. Downward mobility has become a value for many in the world around us and is no longer just thought of as the result of economic downturns, job cuts, moral failures, physical limitations, or educational setbacks. People are trading the expectations of upward mobility for new priorities left and right. Sadly, I still see a church and followers of Jesus too distracted by upward mobility.

Reflective Question: How has my own perception of success and societal values evolved over time, particularly in relation to the concept of upward mobility versus downward mobility?

Downward Mobility as the Way of Jesus

The scriptures certainly uphold the value of vocation and work. I doubt many who value downward mobility are arguing that careers aren’t important or that workers shouldn’t be fairly paid. Labor, hard work, and putting your hands to the plow in your work are all valued in the scripture. We were created to work, and most of us have an understanding of our vocational calling or are on a journey to understand and express our place in this world through our work. However, Jesus did more than value work, he modeled non-conformist and different priorities in his vocational expressions. Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus models a life of downward mobility by embracing the things that are small, ignored, outcasted, and lesser in the world’s eyes and even upholds downward mobility as a spiritual conviction throughout his approach to the human experience. 

If downward mobility is used to describe the downward spiral or decline of individuals or groups from a higher socioeconomic position to a lower one, then the incarnation in itself is the greatest act of downward mobility. It is a core tenet of the Christian belief system that asserts that God assumed human form in the person of Christ Jesus. This act, the incarnation, is a mysterious action in which God’s presence was both fully human and fully God form within the person of Jesus. Though fully human and God, Jesus chooses to live mostly out of his human side throughout his life and ministry. A king becoming a man is the epitome of downward mobility. A divine character that leaves his riches and infinite realities to enter a finite and decaying world is downward mobility at its simplest. God prioritized becoming incarnated in human physicality, to bring about reconciliation and restoration of God’s creation to God the Father, as creation’s creator. 

The incarnation is not the only aspect of Jesus’ life that modeled downward mobility, and truthfully it is not the first God in the scriptures God acted in this way. Let me tangent here, think about how downward mobility describes the journey Joseph had to take for him to live into his purpose; look at how God’s people were fruitful and multiplied in Exodus 1:7 under difficult circumstances; consider how through the prophet Jeremiah, God calls the people of God to settle down and live simple lives in their captors’ land in Jeremiah 29:5-7). From the start, we see Jesus has no place to embrace as his home, or even to sleep. Through his teachings, Jesus emphasized the values of humility, service, and compassion. These values are witnessed in every story from his care for the wedding out of wine, to his washing of the disciples’ feet, to the forgiving interactions he had with the marginalized. He prioritizes the needs of others above his own comfort and status, demonstrating a profound example of selflessness and sacrificial love. Jesus chose to embrace the ways of God’s rule and reign that were not of this world, that quite plainly worked in ways that were upside down and backward in comparison to the ways of the world around us.  In embodying this downward trajectory, Jesus challenges societal norms and invites followers to embrace a path of humility and service. I think Jesus modeled a way of life that should inspire his followers to trade positions of power and success for different priorities.

Reflective Question: In what ways can I align my own vocational pursuits and daily actions with the principles of humility, service, and compassion demonstrated by Jesus, even in a world that often values upward mobility and material success?

Wrestling with Downward Mobility

While upward mobility has long been championed as the epitome of success, a paradigm shift is underway. Increasingly, individuals are recognizing the merits of downward mobility as a value system that prioritizes simplicity, service, and compassion over material accumulation and social status. This shift isn’t a rejection of progress or personal growth but rather a recalibration of what truly matters in life. As we reflect on the teachings and example of Jesus, we find a profound endorsement of downward mobility—a path marked by humility, selflessness, and a willingness to embrace the marginalized. Perhaps this change in society is something to be embraced rather than shunned. I am convinced that as we navigate an increasingly complex world, it is essential for us to heed the call to embrace a path of downward mobility, guided by the timeless wisdom of faith and compassion. I think it is essential in this era where the church has been driven by consumeristic lusts for bigger and better buildings and missions fields, that we begin to wrestle with what downward mobility may look like in our lives as followers of Jesus and for the church communities in which we live, work, worship and play. I am convinced beautiful things would happen if the church grew deeply dependent on God in a way where we didn’t compete in the world with the ways of the world, and embraced a prophetic and countercultural way of downward mobility for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Reflective Question: How might our church community collectively explore and embody the principles of downward mobility in our mission and ministry, especially as a prophetic witness in a culture often driven by consumerism and the pursuit of social status?

Leading a Quiet Life Is a Life of Downward Mobility

This Leading A Quiet Life blog on Patheos is an exploration into the importance of living life at a slower pace to discover both a simple life and faith that embraces downward mobility. Such an idea shows up repeatedly in the life and ministry of Jesus and throughout the scriptures. This blog specifically draws influence and encouragement from 1 Thessalonians 4:11, where Paul encourages the oppressed and struggling Thessalonian Church to pursue a life of downward mobility, contentment, and self-sustainability. Paul encourages them to make it their ambition to live quietly, to mind their own business, and to earn their living by working with their hands. I see this as a call to downward mobility. This passage promotes a lifestyle focused on self-sufficiency, service, and contentment, reflecting Jesus’ example of prioritizing humility and compassion over societal norms of upward mobility.

I believe that Paul encourages them to have such a simple life and faith because it is simply what the Spirit-filled life should produce in the life of a follower of Jesus. Throughout his epistles, Paul models a posture of discipleship, that often encourages his disciples and churches to follow and reproduce what he has learned from Jesus. Sometimes this posture towards discipleship is evident as Paul says things like “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” In the 1 Thessalonians 4:11 passage, Paul simply encourages them to this life “just as we told you.” Seemingly, the Thessalonian Church has received this command before, from Paul, Silas, and Timothy (the authors of 1 Thessalonians). In the beginning of the Thessalonian letter, the encouragement and way of life that they called the Thessalonian church to live out is again about imitating them (Paul, Silas, and Timothy) as they imitate the Lord. In this encouragement to embrace a life of downward mobility, Paul, Silas, and Timothy are reorienting the church to a way of life that is the way of Jesus, who chooses different priorities than the ways of the world. The first takeaway from this passage I have come to believe and understand is that the Spirit-filled life should produce a call to life that is ambitiously leading a quiet life. We looked previously in this blog at how the word for quiet speaks to a “stillness” rather than an ambition that is to be found in our lives.

Downward Mobility Is a Prophetic Witness

I also believe that such a way of living is a prophetic contrast to the chaotic world and church around us that seems obsessed with excess. In a world obsessed with excess, we are always looking for more, or something outside of what we are and have now. Similarly, it seems that our churches are driven in today’s society by achieving what we are not, do not have, or what we need to grow numerically. Honestly, this prophetic witness to a different set of priorities, is what I believe is the other reason the authors of this Thessalonian letter encourage the Thessalonians (and ultimately us) to ambitiously lead quiet lives because such a way of living is a countercultural, contrast and prophetic witness to the world encompassed in darkness around us. We model the life of a kingdom that is not of this world. To back that up, we see that Paul, Silas, and Timothy share that such a way of living is an honest witness, a prophetic witness, to those trapped in a different way of life. 

Additionally, the authors know that this way of life will bring about contentment, it is dependent on God, lacking nothing. To ambitiously lead a quiet life is a bold and prophetic contrast of contentment and dependency on God to a consumer-driven-self-made world. 

I believe it’s crucial for both individuals and church leaders, as well as our church communities, to deeply consider the motivations behind our priorities. Alongside this introspection, we must also scrutinize the expected outcomes tied to these priorities. These priorities and their resulting outcomes must align closely with the teachings, actions, and principles exemplified by Jesus. Currently, it seems we’ve become entangled with the influences of our culture to a significant extent, and there’s a call here and now, in this Lent season, for us to embrace a lifestyle of humility and prioritize values distinct from those upheld by mainstream society. Perhaps during Lent, we can intentionally opt for a different way of living, guided by alternative priorities and motivations.

Note: In November, as part of a To the Church series on Thessalonians at River Corner Church, I explored Paul’s encouragement in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 and offered some thoughts on it. You can listen to the audio of that sermon message on our podcast archives.

About Jeff McLain
Through 'Lead a Quiet Life,' Jeff McLain explores his pursuit of simplicity in a tumultuous world as he serves as the Director of Pastoral Ministries at Water Street Mission and as pastor at River Corner Church. Jeff's commitment to Jesus has been shaped by an unconventional journey from activism to hitchhiking, is reflected in his academic pursuits and throughout his involvement with various initiatives. Residing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Jeff, along with his wife and three daughters, embraces family moments outdoors, while his love for baseball, boardwalks, beaches, and books adds depth to his vibrant life. You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives