The Idolatry of the Middle-Class Church Member?

One of the most challenging things Jesus says in the Bible is:
"Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34 NIV)
Unfortunately, most of us who are Christians in the UK don't seem to get it. We're much more comfortable with other truths. We like to hear that God cares for us. We're encouraged that God works things out for our good and we like to hear that we can be forgiven. If our faith is more than just a spiritual add-on to our lives, then we might even like a little bit of a challenge. Maybe the challenge of regularly putting aside time to come to church and attend the Bible study. If we're really keen we might help teach the Sunday School or go on a summer camp. At the top end of enthusiasm we might even try to tell some of our colleagues, friends or family about Jesus.

What we won't do is sacrifice everything. That's only for those really "out-there" Christians who want to go and be missionaries.

In truth there are a set of idols that remain. I'm sure it's true of Christians across the board. We all have our sin. However, I've been thinking about the need for more resources to be given to more deprived areas. By resources, I don't just mean giving money. Of course that would help, but there's a real need for the sacrificial giving of ourselves, i.e. for people to come and live near churches in deprived areas, supporting them with their presence, gifts and hard work.

So my question is, in the larger, broadly middle-class churches that dominate evangelicalism, what idolatries are stopping the kind of sacrifice that might be needed to make a difference in this shifting of resources? Here are a few ideas - things that come to mind probably because they are things I've thought more or less consciously myself.

1. I want a church like me

It is an uncomfortable truth that God's people are to come from every tribe and nation (Rev. 7:9). It's uncomfortable because, when it comes down to it, I'm most happy and comfortable with people like me. So everyone else in the world, when they're out of work hours, choses to do the things they enjoy with the people they like. Too much of the time we Christians do the same. Church is our leisure activity and so we go to the church that suits us, with people that we like and find easy. When we do that we undercut the reality of God's people and we create a huge barrier to reaching different parts of our culture and society. We won't die to ourselves and seek to serve God, even if that means going to places where people are very different.

2. I want excellence

Lots of middle-class Christians come from well-educated and professional backgrounds. That sort of background creates standards. We expect things to be well-organised, high-quality and smooth-running. We then apply that to churches and only the best-staffed churches make the grade. In itself, this will make churches resistant to giving away finance, people or staff if that means that the excellence drops. The fear will always be: "If we let our standards drop, they'll go somewhere else."

However, it will also mean that many of these Christians simply won't be able to cope with churches where the standards aren't high enough. They'll be embarrassed to come, embarrassed to bring people and embarrassed to be known to go to such a church.

More than that, it's quite likely that the culture in a more deprived area will have aspects that work against middle-class standards. Genuinely people might not care about the provenance of the coffee for example! More than that, as people from these areas serve they might not do it in the same way or to the same "standards" as more middle-class churches.

While it is right to serve the Lord to the best of our ability and there is no excuse for laziness and unnecessary sloppiness, shame on us if we think that Jesus said people would know we were his disciples by our middle-class excellence, the slickness of our services and the quality of our coffee (John 13:35)!

3. I want a good church for my children

As I read this title, I immediately think: "who doesn't?" If we're Christian parents the prime thing we're praying for our children is that they grow up knowing Jesus. As part of that process, it's natural to want a church with good programs for your children and with the chance for your children to have a Christian peer group. Making the sacrifice to move to a tougher area might also mean sacrificing both of those. In the church my family go to, my children make up two thirds of the Sunday School!

Now one obvious riposte might be that if more families were involved in churches in these areas then it wouldn't be such an issue. Another would be to point out that there are various churches local to ours with thriving children's work. In fact on Easter Sunday this year we had around 20 children into the all-age outreach at one of the churches. At this point, one might have to ask the question: do you actually want them to be part of a children's work with children like them (or like you want them to be!)? At which point I perhaps need to refer back to number 1.

There are wisdom questions here. While I don't see much in the Bible about needing a church with the right programs and peer group (one might reflect on Proverbs on the latter), we know that we need to bring up our children in the "training and instruction of the Lord" and that we are not to "exasperate" them (Ephesians 6:4). It should be clear that there are questions for parents to address in any context here. However, we mustn't make an idolatry of having a particular type of church or friendship group for our children. The most important part of what bringing them up in the training and instruction of the Lord means is to live out Mark 8:34 as a family.

Put simply, if we make an idol of putting our children in what is a comfortable Christian setting (which may well be what we mean by "good church"), then we train them to make an idol of having that comfortable setting. I guess the reason we have so many compromising younger people in the church in the UK today is that they have an idol of comfort instead of a commitment to sacrifice, because that's what they're parents taught them.

4. I want a good upbringing for my children

Obviously this is related to the previous point, but just pushes it a bit further. Here the idol can be our child's education or opportunities. If you come to work in a northern mill town then Eton might not be an option! You maybe aren't going to pull in the same kind of wage, as you might in the south-east and no-one wants to play rugby union. More seriously, you're often coming to places that have a level of social issues (drugs, child abuse etc.), which any parent would find frightening.

Some of these things are false fears. You might have to think a little bit more about it, but in most cases in the UK there are reasonable educational options. We live in a remarkably connected world these days (I don't know if you've noticed!), so with a bit of thought you ought to be able to get a decent job (we live between Manchester and Leeds - the job opportunities in Rochdale might be limited, but you have a fair range of options within a half hour commute, which is probably less than you have in the south east).

Some of these things suggest we need to think more clearly about what the Bible teaches us about humanity. We went to visit family in Oxford a while back and saw some of the most obnoxious behaviour in (very well-dressed) children I have ever seen at the park. Money and possessions are only a veneer - sin is endemic in all of us.

Some of these things will take some thinking about. My children will have less freedom where we live in Rochdale than they would have in other places in the UK. Even so, they will see and experience things that they might not elsewhere and we have to deal with that.

But again, more than all these things, we want to teach our children that sacrifice for Jesus (education, opportunities etc.) is nothing. We want to teach them that we are willing to give up our lives and the world for the sake of the gospel, rather than lose our souls (Mark 8:35-37).

5. I want a certain standard of living

We probably wouldn't say this one, but it's also probably true. I recently found out that a house down the road from us was valued at £55,000. That says something about how much people want to live in this area and there are reasons for that. Rochdale estate agents probably don't get to put "vibrant..." as part of their description. That said, we do get electricity and running water and we even have fast broadband (Virgin cable if you want). So when we say about a standard of living, we're probably saying something about class and culture. Even that doesn't make much sense, you're 15 minutes away from Manchester on the train, which probably has much culture (and class for that matter) than the south-east and we're minutes from some of the most beautiful countryside in the UK.

In the end, I think we're talking the comfort thing of being with people like me again. Steve Kneale has written some blogs on this that are worth reading. My conclusion: Jesus is worth more than my standard of living.

As I said at the start, I've probably thought and felt all these at different points. There are probably all sorts of other reasons too, but these are just a few to get started with!

Comments

  1. Great piece, thank you. Challenging to see these so commonly held - and culturally normalised - attitudes described as idolatry (a term which immediately pricks the ear of the committed Christian). As you say though, 'I've probably thought and felt all these at different points' - recognition is only the start of the journey.

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