And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:”I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.”
– Revelation 3:14-19
The first disciples of Christ were regular people. They were poor fishermen and despised tax collectors. They were disenfranchised women. They were slaves. Like so many of us today, most of Christ’s earliest followers were either in a perpetual state of financial emergency or one disaster away from calamity. Out of the dirt of poverty and financial insecurity grew the flowers of fellowship in Christ. They sold what they had and kept the money they made in common. They came together regularly to pray, hear the gospel and share it with others, and visit the sick. They worked just enough to feed their families and give some to the poor(er), devoting the rest of their time and energy to manifesting the Kingdom of Heaven according to their gifts. This investment was rewarded: God regularly used their faith to perform miracles and they walked in joy. The earliest Christians lived not by the work of their own hands but by the providence of their Father and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Could the church here in America be any more different? My own faith group, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), is one of the best-educated denominations in the country, with an overwhelmingly middle- and upper-class membership. While pockets of Gospel community exist, in my experience, we have overwhelmingly bought into the cultural paradigm of the all-American striver class, including its focus on individual markers of success: accomplishments in education and career, home ownership, discreet bourgeois consumerism and pushing our children toward the same. Largely satisfied with the fruit of our own efforts, or compelled by a desire to keep up with the Joneses to pretend that we are, we often experience church as an extra, an hours-long leisure activity that provides a feeling of quietness easily mistaken for peace and a glow of religiosity easily confused with holiness.
It is little wonder that, despite stereotypes to the contrary, the poor and working class have, in recent years, had much greater drops in religious engagement than wealthier classes. They may not have a work or family schedule that allows for a weekly commitment slicing through the middle of the day, especially one where:
- Many people believe they are already “pretty good” and therefore desire more to be affirmed than to be challenged or transformed;
- Many people prefer a superficial weekly companionship to an every-single-day community that has claims on their time, energy, money and behavior;
- Many people are entirely comfortable being dismissive of those on public benefits, those without advanced degrees, those who struggle with addiction, those who have criminal histories, and so on;
- Many people are deeply uncomfortable with the displays of grief, anger, jubilation and other powerful emotions that accompany the convicting, liberating and transforming work of the Holy Spirit; and
- Many people are skeptical as to whether God is truly capable of healing, renewing, assisting and protecting his people.
As long we continue on as we have been going – as long as the main form of meaningful participation is a single weekly ceremony, as long as the Gospel is watered down or not proclaimed at all, as long as we are so much more invested in our own personal success than that of the Kingdom of God, as long as our love for one another is grounded in natural affinity rather than a shared desire to be faithful disciples, as long as we say to our brother “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” without troubling ourselves about whether he can earn his daily bread – many who struggle, many who are excluded and many who suffer will determine that they have neither the time nor the patience for our “religion.” And guess what? Neither does God.
That last para was everything!
I think of this Wordsworth sonnet often. I should memorize this! Here’s part of it.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
What a challenging post.
I just finished The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity
by Soong-Chan Rah and if you haven’t read it, you should. Materialism is one of the things he names as one of the sins that evangelicalism mired in Western cultural captivity struggles with. I think your post points to that as well. Rah also writes about the theology of celebration (mostly focused in the kind of affluent, well-educated, well-connected kind of communities you’re writing about) and the theology of suffering (mostly focused in non-white churches which tend to be poorer, less educated and less powerful in a worldly sense). Healthy church communities, he argues, needs both, but communities who only have a theology of celebration will not draw in people who have little to celebrate.
“Communities who only have a theology of celebration will not draw in people who have little to celebrate.”
Oof. I think this is a piece of the puzzle I hadn’t seen before. It bears thinking about. Thank you for this insight – and the book recommendation!