The Gentrification of Church
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became mas one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” – 1 Cor 9:20-23
Paul it seems went through a lot of trouble trying to bring the Christian message to everyone in society, no matter their station in life. I often wonder about that. Studies on the church at Paul’s time and even Paul’s own writings make it clear that the church in his day was made up of mostly slaves, women and children. In the back of my mind I always wonder what it was like for them to hear Paul’s message, what he had to say about marriage for instance—most of them couldn’t ever hope to have anything resembling a marriage as we have it today.
He talked of sexual immorality, prostitution and so on, yet they had little control over who they might bed with that evening. What must have the forgiveness of sins, and the hope of resurrection meant for them when they had no opportunity to put on airs of righteousness?
Of course, the church wasn’t made up of just the lower classes. When Paul says not many of you were of noble birth (1 Cor 1:26) he makes room for the fact that some in the congregation were in fact of noble birth. Paul didn’t want to exclude anyone, because Christ died for everyone. The Church was to be a place where everyone got along, everyone was included, everyone was equal.
Of course this has always been a hard trick to pull off in reality. We hold up high ideals as Christians, but I’ve been to very few churches in life that managed to be a true cross section of their community. Sometimes there are even jokes about what class of people go to which kind of church, which denomination, or even non-denomination. And I wonder, do we any longer know what it means to become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some? I wonder myself how good I am at this.
I’m sometimes amazed. I never hear that we need to get more old people in church. I rarely hear about trying to start a mission plant in neighborhoods suffering depressed economies, the inner city. Sometimes I drive through a small town and wonder, what would I have to do to start a congregation in this town? What would a person do? Then we often have trouble keeping the ones we do have open. One cannot serve God and mammon, but every congregation has a budget and the pastor has to eat, too.
Perhaps that’s why I always here about mission plants in affluent neighborhoods, growing communities with young people etc. Sometimes it bothers me. It bothers me when I read a report that says that church attendance has plummeted amongst the working class. I have to wonder why. It pains me.
It was working class men that taught me to be Christian. My dad was a pastor. But I had about as hard a time listening to him as my pastor as I did with him as my father. Growing up we had a bit of a turbulent relationship. He was smart, though, in one thing. He knew how to farm me out to work with other men in the congregation. It began by him sending me with Ernie to go chop firewood. Ernie died a couple years ago from lung cancer. I still remember him stopping to smoke his cigarettes in between felling trees.
Later, we moved to California. My dad found summer work for me in high school working with various contractors in the congregation. Normally I’d end up being a grunt running stucco up flights of scaffolding in five gallon buckets to feed their hawks. That’s what they called the tray that held the stucco for their trowels—hawks. It was brutal work.
But it was freedom too. I always got a kick out of it as they would cuss back and forth at each other all day long. You knew they were angry when they stopped cussing at each other. They would smoke and drink. Beer was a given after work on a Friday. It didn’t matter if I was underage. I did a man’s work that day, they weren’t going to deny me a man’s reward because of some government mandate.
I loved those guys. It made me proud to see them working as ushers and elders, or even singing in the choir with them on Sunday morning. I might have thought playing in the bell choir to be an offense worthy of revoking your man card otherwise, but I don’t think you would be successful in taking it from them. Salt of the earth. I dare say the joy of Christ permeated their work also. Some of the conversations we would have about church, and society on the way home from a job were amazing. The language might be crass, but it was filled with love and laughter. They often put my dad in a different light for me, too. “He’s the most down-to-earth pastor we’ve ever met.”
Maybe that’s why the blue-collar family doesn’t go to church as much these days. These guys didn’t seem to mind the formal structure of the liturgy. They could chant and felt at home doing so. I’m not sure if a one of them could stomach Starbucks. We didn’t listen to Christian radio at work. They could tell you stories of AC/DC concerts, and being stoned while playing at a bar in younger years. But you weren’t going to get them into church playing rip-off rock. They grew up with the liturgy and singing “Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness,” and even the ones who didn’t had an appreciation for it that rivalled that of the white collars in the church.
I missed that later when I left home. I spent years in the Air Force. I went to chapel every Sunday. I remember, my first sergeant commented on that one day. “The major says he sees you in chapel every Sunday, even if you are a bit worse for the wear from Saturday night. We don’t get it.” Most of the guys I spent Saturday night with didn’t get it either. But growing up I had learned that if I had the energy to be out all night I had the energy to be up and at church on Sunday morning. Sleeping could wait for Sunday afternoon or evening.
I always felt uneasy at chapel though. It wasn’t because I was the youngest there, aside from the children that came with their parents, either. It was that every time I went I was given the notion that chapel was for the prim and proper, and usually that meant those who had a higher pay grade and a bit more education. The sermons were never about Christ or the forgiveness of sins, but moral self-improvement which rarely had anything to actually do with, say, the Ten Commandments, but more along the lines of improving one’s vocabulary. I was often amazed, I’m still often amazed, at the ability of people to confuse the social cues with which they signal their social standing with morality and Christianity.
But it’s a hard thing, being all things to all people. That blue-collar work ethic is in my bones. If you hear me cuss in front of you it’s probably because I like you. It may be that it just slipped out from habit. I still try to keep my language clean in “polite company.” Still, I find a cussing jar as grounds to sue for a hostile work environment.
The church is a place where we all come to be forgiven of our moral failings, and learn to bear with each other in our weaknesses. Sometimes that means putting up with someone’s penchant for the prim and proper, sometimes that means being able to let your hair down, hugging a pregnant teenager, or grabbing hold of a rowdy boy and handing him a five-gallon bucket of stucco and teaching him the rewards of an honest day’s work with Corona and lime.
Church is for everyone, not just the upper class, the youth, the people who like the same music you do, or those who can appreciate espresso. Church is for everyone because Christ died for you.
Rev. Bror Erickson serves as pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Farmington, New Mexico. He graduated from Concordia University Irvine in 2000 where he studied apologetics under Dr. Rosenbladt, and Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana in 2004. He likes to translate the works of Bo Giertz and Hermann Sasse. He also enjoys writing reviews for Amazon.com and critiquing modern culture with the Gospel.
Bo Giertz wrote this book drawing upon the exegetical insights that he received from his mentor Anton Fridrichsen before, during and after his trip to Palestine in the early 1930's. The book is a third-person retelling of the Gospels that brings into account various Old Testament references and the contemporary interpretations of those passages by the Jews of Jesus' day as well as contemporary events throughout the Roman Empire,