Primarily because I’m professional Christian, much of my time on the Internet is spent reading (and, let’s be honest, writing) bad think-pieces on the successes and failures of Christians organizing themselves in large and small tax-exempt groups for Bible study, singing, and service projects in matching t-shirts. If you were wondering, yes, Christian think-piece creation is a literal depiction of the prophetic “mantle” passed from Elijah to Elisha in 2 Kings just before Elisha calls down she-bears on a group of middle schoolers for shaming his baldness.
To be fair to Reverend Elisha from the Bible, is there any response other than requesting bears maul nearby middle schoolers after spending 45 minutes each morning reading articles with titles like:
- “10 times slim-fit slacks were worn inauthentically by a pastor during a church service and a millennial noticed: an homage to the Barna Group”
- "Just sing hymns and move on: How Millennials are returning to historically zoned sanctuaries in downtown areas for the snapchat filters”
- “The 13 practices of Christian professionals who wish they managed Fortune 500 companies, but don’t because their reward is probably in heaven and definitely not in an offshore tax-shelter”
RELEVANT Magazine pieces about Millennials aside (you know, the ones with cover photos featuring 27-year-olds staring wistfully at the sun during a trip abroad paid for by their parents), most of the things I end up hearing and reading within the ranks of professional White American Middle Class Christianity are written by White American Middle Class Christians for White American Middle Class Christian audiences to share with other White American Middle Class Christians on Facebook.
As far as marketing goes, this isn't inherently misguided (Jesus did repeatedly refer to his followers as “sheep”), however, in its worst self this Christian echo chamber reflects a much larger and far more insidious problem within the context of White American Middle Class Christianity, namely, that many of our leaders, practitioners, priests, prophets, and poets don’t actually know how to talk and act like people who don’t get paid to pray (please see opening joke about Elisha and Elijah).
I want to be clear that us religious professionals (mostly) come by this hamstrung approach to navigating life in a diverse world honestly. For many of us, we came of age in a Christian context where avoiding collusion with the world --its music, movies, dancing, and stand-up specials attempting to prove a correlation between one’s gender and one’s love of shopping-- was a divinely sanctioned spiritual practice underwritten by a God who hates late night television.
“WOMEN BE SHOPPING”
-Martin Lawrence, circa 1993
In our world, serious Christians didn’t waste their time with ideas, experiences, people, and places that didn’t move us “closer” to God (and, thus, further away from "the world"). Which means that most of us went to elementary, middle, high, college, and graduate schools where the expressed aim was eliminating from view values, people, beliefs, books, histories, and perspectives that would clutter, confuse, and/or prevent us from faithfully articulating the will of God in ways that didn’t make our White American Middle Class Christian parents and grandparents uncomfortable (I mean, they paid extra for the word “Christian” to be prominently displayed right there on the school letterhead). This also means that most of us spent all of our free-time during those ever-formative adolescent years playing White American Middle Class Christian sports with White American Middle Class Christian friends at White American Middle Class Christian schools and organizations during the week before spending weeknights and weekends at the White American Middle Class Christian* church down the road for potlucks, service projects, and lock-ins.
(*NOTE: If you’re already tired of reading “White American Middle Class Christian” just think how exhausting it must be for everyone else who is a Christian but isn't White nor Middle Class nor even American, whenever people broadly say “Christian” when they’re really solely referring to White Evangelicals in Kentucky.)
At the end of our collective journeys through Vacation Bible Schools, mission trips, Bible drill tournaments, confirmations, retreats, and graduations from seminary featuring rolled up pieces of paper with words like “Divinity,” “Christian Education,” “Systematic Theology,” or (even) “Small Group Ministry” scrawled on them in what looks like Sanskrit, we are finally rewarded with a job working for institutions with “Christian" right there in the name. A job that, of course, culminates with us spending each morning on Facebook reading articles (like this one!) about how the Church is dying, or losing young people, or responsible for our current political gridlock and strident out-of-touchness.
And then all of us Christian professionals scoffing into our mugs think:
"Yeah, I get that things are bad out there, but is there currently a book or a speaker or a conference who could help me convince 25-year-olds to participate in small groups, tithe 10% of their student loan payments, and show up for worship at either 9:00 or 11:00am each weekend!”
If you aren’t a White American Middle Class Christian most White American Middle Class pastors and churches have hard time speaking to the things that keep you awake at night, or the things that rile you up, or that level you again and again and again. Not because we don’t want to, in the case of many of us, we desperately and earnestly do, but thanks to where we grew up, went to church and school, what we read, and where we now work, we don't really know anyone who doesn't use the word "community" as a noun, adjective, verb, and t-shirt advertising campaign.
Sadly, most White American Middle Class pastors and parishioners have a hard time bumping into diversity at the church office kitchenette or in the pew two rows over.
I would argue, without, alas, a numerical list or a Barna survey to back me up, that the main reason people in 2017 who don't identify as "Christian" don’t care much at all for churchly participation, is that it isn’t for them. As a matter of fact, it probably never has been, there just used to be more of “us” than there are now.
One of the reasons I've found for why White American Middle Class Christians struggle to helpfully answer most questions about the universe is because we can’t speak in intelligible ways even when we do attempt to answer the questions we occasionally hear secondhand from people who aren’t like us. If you disagree, just remember how often things like “God’s will” or “God’s Son” or “perfection” or “sin” or “grace” or “peace” or "infallible" or “Hillsong United” get tossed around in your community without footnotes and context. Then pair those memories with the thought of what happens anytime someone dares to articulate the “Good News” of Christianity into microphones at your church not using vetted words from a previously agreed upon list of acceptable and mostly alienating vocabulary words.
“Where was the sermon illustration about golf and being polite to hourly workers at the grocery store? Did you just call God “the divine”?! IS THIS EVEN A SERMON ANYMORE, AND WHO ARE YOU, EXACTLY? I WANT MY MONEY BACK!”
-White American Middle Class Christianity in a sweater vest, pew 4, by the window
I once heard Lutheran sinner and saint Nadia Bolz-Weber, in a panel discussion about the “future of faith” (or some other nonsensical Christian conference title comprised only of buzzwords), tell a roomful of professional Christians and divinity students that the only advice she ever gave people considering “the ministry” was to avoid going to seminary if they weren’t “real” friends with anyone who wasn’t a Christian (or at least not “like” them in pretty obvious ways).
Because otherwise we end up as just more "white noise”.
Until White American Middle Class churches, denominations, parishioners, pastors, and priests start to interact with our actual communities from a place of generous, non-coercive, non-anxious interest in who they are, what gives them life, what sucks life out of them, and how they make sense of existence in 2017, we will continue to be little more than an aging, tone-deaf, and dangerously self-unaware cover band playing "the hits" for audiences that seem smaller and older than we remember.
However, when White American Middle Class Christianity finally opens itself up to the fact that we could be wrong about so VERY many things, and when we also become willing to routinely sit alongside people who disagree with us vehemently and at the most foundational level, it’s like, for just a second, things slow down and cease being about the institution winning or losing or living or dying. Instead of exploiting or colonizing the people before us for the sake of our buildings and budgets, open handed interest can eventuall turn into flesh and blood and life and death love for actual people living actual lives of grace and peace and struggle and pain regardless of the labels they apply to our existential and professional questions about heaven, hell, and worship music.
At the conclusion of his rather lengthy Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions two pathways before us: a wide path that leads to destruction and a narrow way that leads to life. I used to think this was a metaphor about heaven and hell (because I grew up Evangelical in the 90s). However, thanks to therapy, good books, and better friends, I’ve come to believe this teaching has far less to do with what happens to everyone after they die and far more to do with how we orient ourselves to the moments in front of us while we are alive. If we force these moments to mean more, to encompass more, to do more for us as pastors, priests, church members, and Christians, then they become too heavy to sustain life, too wide to mean anything any longer.
On the other hand, when we narrow the scope of our vision to the person and minutiae in front of us, attending, noticing, listening, loving, and eating (for only the sake of relationship) we discover something incredible about the poignancy and power of mundanity. It’s as if when people finally stop being the thing that we need to save in order to save us, their stores and lives and truths and laughs get to be sacred, truthful, authentic, and filled with beauty and mystery already, not just sometime in the future when we’ve corralled them or claimed them for our God’s glory.
This kind of patiently narrow focus may actually end up giving us "eyes to see and ears to hear" what Jesus meant when he talked endlessly about Heaven and Earth occasionally bumping in to one another, as the very ground under our feet and kitchen tables (in an act of sudden holiness) demands our shoes remove themselves in the face of our quiet attention to the life and story of another.
photo: Creative Commons