Hidden Messages of American Christianity: Classism

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This is the first in a series of posts covering the hidden messages that sneak into American churches’ proclamation of the Gospel. For more background, please refer to this post.

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
—John 17:20-23 ESV

Just another class symbolI was talking with friends this weekend about a minor split that occurred in their predominantly upper-middle class church. Several families, unhappy with the idea that the church was looking into broadening their outreach to some less advantaged areas, took their ball and went home. Or should I say that in a more appropriate vernacular: They started another church.

It’s not hard to imagine the reasoning that went on behind that small exodus. That less advantaged area consisted mostly of people who were “not like us.” Heaven forbid if they actually responded to an outreach program and began attending the church. Who really knows how to minister to them? They’re just…different.

Is it so hard to believe that this was not the thinking that led to a new church where reaching out to the different would never be forced on anyone. Ivory towers have a way of staying ivory, don’t they?

Last year my wife and I were looking for a new church. We were also looking for full-time employment. In a fit of overthinking, I latched onto a fast-growing, wealthy church with the hope of not only finding a good church home, but also excellent business prospects who might be willing to hire one of us. The church had a stellar reputation, and was even in the same denomination as a well-known Reformed pastor I admired.

Our hopes sank quickly, though. In nearly every conversation with other people at the church, things went well until we mentioned that we were both looking for a full-time corporate job. When I discussed my current work as a freelance writer, you could almost see the eyes glaze over. After a few weeks, we found ourselves a party of two; the world of the church buzzed on around us, CEOs and corporate players chatting away with gusto, excluding those of us who were less fortunate. Maybe they were put off by my decidedly non-handmade dress shoes. Or perhaps it was the fact we drove a Toyota Corolla and not a Range Rover. No matter the economic impediment, the message was clear: we weren’t on the corporate fast-track and probably never would be. Instead, we became so much furniture to be walked around on the way to the sanctuary.

We don’t like to think of our churches as little demographic ghettoes, yet all too often the hidden message communicated to those who don’t fit the demographic is “You’re not invited to our little shindig.” The classism that results from our unspoken message of conformity overrides Jesus’ prayer that we all be one.

I suspect our friends’ church is in the majority, especially among white, well-off, conservative churches. Similar churches once anchored the respectable parts of town, but time changed their neighborhoods from upper crust to urban (or even suburban) blight. Unable to assimilate into their changed neighborhoods, they either adopted a fortress mentality or fled altogether.

Who’s kidding whom, though? The residents in that altered neighborhood clearly understood that we didn’t want their neighborhood spice sprinkled on our filet mignon. A vague condescension may even have existed in our outreach to them because they knew that we didn’t truly want them to come to our place of worship, especially if it meant our tried and true Sunday program would be modified as a result. Rather, we just wanted to feel good about doing outreach, even if none of them ever walked into our sanctuary.

This isn’t just a problem in megachurches. Sure, they may have a “Pastor of Demographics” whose main job is to ensure bland conformity in the church’s cultural milieu, but the problem goes deeper. For all our talk as American Christians of unity and “being one,” we really don’t want to push that message too hard, lest we be forced to live with the consequences. The tattooed goth who cracked open a Gideon Bible in his hotel room where he’s staying during his vampyre convention—aren’t we all secretly a little glad he’s from out of town and will be visiting our church this weekend only? For all we know, he might even be a Democrat, too.

I’ve been a part of churches that did it right and others that failed miserably. Several years ago, I attended a church where you were likely to see a Mary Kay saleslady sitting behind a hooker wearing a spiked dog collar. And that ultra-clean-cut Mary Kay saleslady was ecstatic that the hooker was there hearing the Gospel rather than out roaming the streets or plying her trade in a dingy hotel room. On the other hand, I’ve known churches that turned men away because they weren’t wearing a suitcoat.

Christian classism isn’t reserved for the people in the seats, either. We might not say it, but don’t we automatically give the ministry esteem to an R.C. Sproul or John Piper over the nameless Holiness pastor who couldn’t afford to go to seminary? And isn’t the luster just a tad brighter on the doctorate degree hanging on the wall of the PCA pastor than the one on the Pentecostal pastor’s?

Today, I’m at a church that spans classes and occupations. This isn’t to say we’re perfect, but somehow it works. (Yes, we’re too white, but rural areas typically skew that way.) Even then, we still have this idea that people who cross the threshold of our church for the first time have to conform to us ASAP or else we don’t know what to do with them. Thinking like a first-time visitor who’s never once darkened a church doorway doesn’t come naturally to us, nor would I say that it does for most American churches. However, this doesn’t excuse us from making them welcome, even if they are not like us.

Jesus keenly chose a Samaritan for His parable. The Lord ate with the wrong kind of people, too. And when His Church was first started, a vision of a sheet full of unclean animals got through the noggin of the hardest-headed disciple.

What class distinction message are we inadvertently sending out to the lost, to the first-time visitor, and even to our own brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we see ourselves as a Church that can only be sullied by the hordes of “those people” who are dying to get into the Kingdom despite our reticence? Or are we willing to be happy in a church that reflects all races, tongues, and economic classes of people?

What is it going to take to make us one?

15 thoughts on “Hidden Messages of American Christianity: Classism

  1. Gosh, Dan. Going by the stuff you so often write about—charismania, classism, etc.—it would seem you’ve had the double-misfortune of ending up in some of the awfulest, most miserable places imaginable. Yeah, I’ve encountered some snobbish people in church, but I mean some, but there’s always some of everything in any church, and it doesn’t necessarily constitute a monumental crisis of universal proportions. On the other hand, I’ve managed to escape most of this stuff. Should I count myself blessed? Or somehow should I expect in the near future something truely awful at church to happen to me just to keep things balanced out?

  2. Ben

    I once served at a church as the youth minister some years ago and heard several of the elders say, “We have our church, they have thiers.” Referring to the black population surrounding their rural church.

    I think it’s a real problem in churches, especially in the South.

  3. Oengus,

    I think you should count yourself blessed. You seem to have been fortunate in avoiding craziness at church.

    I’m a church watcher, so I notice this stuff all the time. It amazes me though that you haven’t encountered a lot of charismania. I can’t seem to get away from it!

    Not every church is afflicted with classism, nor is every Christian. But it is definitely out there. I’ve seen a lot of churches who don’t want to spoil the good thing they think they’ve got going by bringing in outsiders. Churches can be as bad as some high school cliques.

    I think that all churches have a list of undesirables. A staunchly traditional church would probably not be happy if a bunch of postmodernists or emerging church people started filtering in and challenging the way they’re doing things. If you recall, Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel got started because he had to deal with an influx of hippies who had come to the Lord. Look how dramatically that changed things! I’m sure many people in his church were not happy about “those people” now filling up the church.

  4. Julia

    “Several years ago, I attended a church where you were likely to see a Mary Kay saleslady sitting behind a hooker wearing a spiked dog collar. And that ultra-clean-cut Mary Kay saleslady was ecstatic that the hooker was there hearing the Gospel rather than out roaming the streets or plying her trade in a dingy hotel room.”

    Shouldn’t the prostitute have been equally glad that the Mary Kay saleslady wasn’t out on the streets plying her trade?

  5. Sam Graf

    Dan wrote (emphasis mine):

    For all our talk as American Christians of unity and ‘being one,’ we really don’t want to push that message too hard, lest we be forced to live with the consequences. The tattooed goth who cracked open a Gideon Bible in his hotel room where he’s staying during his vampyre convention…aren’t we all secretly a little glad he’s from out of town and will be visiting our church this weekend only? For all we know, he might even be a Democrat, too.”

    Last summer I was at an outdoor outreach concert put on by some friends, and things were going well. A young, hard-looking man covered with tattoos wandered into the area, and I thought, “Uh-oh, here comes trouble.” But he just stayed out on the fringes of the crowd and listened. After the concert he went up to my friend the guitar player. Later I learned that this young man was my friend’s estranged son. Who was the hard one there that evening — that young man, or me?

    All that to say, I appreciate what you’ve written here, Dan. As a friend of mine said several years ago, we resist the divine work coming in answer to Christ’s prayer “because we have retirements to fund” — we have a vested interest in maintaining the staus quo.

    I think Lewis Sperry Chafer was right when in his Systematic Theology he wrote, “Christ said that through this unity for which He prayed the world would come to believe concerning Himself. Such an opportunity has hardly been accorded the world in this age, since the early days of the Church. There is little hope that it will be otherwise in a situation characterized by sectarianism and with no apparent disposition to judge and renounce this high crime against God.” James 4:1-12 anyone?

  6. tabitha

    What sad state of affairs! Unfortunately I have also experienced this classism epidemic. To make it worse it was through the minitries of these churches: Christian school. You won’t believe how vile and despising these so called Christians can get. What happened was I went to a Christian school that actually was racially even for the most part although the African-Americans were slightly greater in number then the rest. Our school happened to be the best in the league in most of the sports. When we would play against the other teams somehow or the other we would get disrespected. By Christians! The dirty looks and false claims were always present when we played everyone. The problem: we took the state titles from their schools every year. And we happened to have black kids doing it. These parents who wanted to have their children in the “whitest” Christian school as possible so they wouldn’t be “corrupted” were now having their dreams swept away. And the assaults weren’t just towards the black students. They were also towards the white students who were friends with the black students when they “weren’t supposed to”. Although these situations were more racist then bouts of classism, they were altogether evil. I guess you can’t expect much out of people who haven’t realized thier shortcomings and surrendered to God. I don’t believe that these “Christians” are Christians. A true Christian would never look down on another because of their race or class.

  7. Anonymous

    A true Christian would never look down on another because of their race or class.

    Really?

    What do you think of the way Peter behaved in Antioch? Galatians 2:11-13 “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.”

    Even true Christians can do wrong things.

    BUT – God seems to have this way of getting in their face when they do. Galatians 2:14 “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?'”

    But we must be willing to speak truth to power, as Paul was.

  8. The Christian Woman

    You forgot to include the second chapter of James:

    1 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?

    How sad that there our churches out there like you decribed!

  9. Doug

    When I was teaching a Sunday School class years ago, I used to tell my class that I wanted the hookers, dopers, freaks, pimps, nerds and whoever else would listen in my class. Now, thanks to God, I have recovering dopers, reformed fornicators, and other “broken” people in my small group. I pray to God that I can be of encouragement to them.

  10. Steven

    I actually visited a church for several weeks where the pastor like a blood hound sniffed me out trying to figure out how much money I made in my business. I later found out through an online blog that he routinely did this to newcomers. Oh, he was a great Bible teacher, yet, money apparently was his real god.

    I am currently a regular attendee of a church where classism is rampant. One assistant pastor personally told me what he thought about outreach to homeless persons in our community (paraphrased): “There just a bunch of drunks and drug addicts.” We here in America would never make it in places like China or Africa where most of the Body of Christ is poor and relatively needy. On judgement day, many who lived in the U.S. will hear the words, “Depart from me” from the Lord Jesus. In this context, he states that if you’ve failed to help or acknowledge the least of these my brothers and sisters, you’ve done it to me.

    Yes, Jesus has visited our congregations many times under cover. Jesus has been avoided by many within so called Bible-believing conservative churches. We better carefully reexamine the Scriptures in light of the severe eternal consequences of not living “true religion”. Everything else is just a show. Whose show really is it any way?

  11. Jay M

    The ironic thing is Christianity is a bottom to top religion (remember Jesus was a Galilean Peasant) that taught all are equal in the eyes of God. The elitism of the prevailing Pagan religion helped it grow to be popular amongst slaves. I’d rather be seen as equal than inferior because of some asinine criterion like heritage, lineage, pedigree, and birth. The only real obligation of a slave is to find a root to freedom. Since Christianity became very popular amongst the hoi polloi Constantine strategically adapted it, and elitism seeped into the sphere of Christendom. The pope had the power of fons honorvm (i.e.: king making ability) and he declared that certain families had a “right” to rule.

    Since so-called “B*stards” (another ludicrous man-made division based on the parents instead of the individual) were outcast (even needed to graft a diagonal line to declare themselves as such on their coat-of-arms) and non-first borns (didn’t inherit peerage titles, at least in England) and serfs were outcasts; plenty of individuals had a motivation to escape from the feudal elitism in Europe. Even Napoleon’s grandson was rejected from marrying a certain noble because Napoleon’s line was too new!

    Yet, here in America it is stratified again. The top of the pyramid has taken inheritance and trust funds with a multi-million (sometimes billion) dollar capital that accrues an amazing amount of interest for granted. So it is largely eugenics (i.e.: pedigree. I don’t mean eugenics in a Nazi sense of the word. Although the top of the American and British social systems supported the Nazis) that is the primary value at the top, to “defend the capital” and keep the wealth within the same families. Even the nouveaux riches are despised for beating the system.

    Happy Easter!

  12. Jay M

    “BUT – God seems to have this way of getting in their face when they do. Galatians 2:14 “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’”

    Jew, Gentile, whatever. We are all fundamentally Human. These man-made banners only serve to divide us from our fellow Human. Like I’ve mentioned earlier the Elitism of the Roman Pagans helped motivate the poor to Christianity. Judaism also had its elitism. The so-called “divine” right was even found in the old-testament.

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