Would the poor feel out of place in your church?
While this article was written from a UK perspective,
it surely has universal application.
appeared in the Evangelicals Now of November, 2000)
A recent poll by NOP published in the Sunday
Express declared that 85% of us still think that Britain is a
class-based society. 69% believed that the top jobs are only
available to the privileged few.
Equal opportunities and the pursuit of the classless society seem
to be well-accepted dogma these days, for all major political
parties. 'We might not have got there yet, but we're working on
it,' they say.
Of course the church ought to be just such a classless society. I
was reminded of this as I read through the epistle to James
recently using J.B. Phillips's translation. He renders the first
verse of chapter 2 with crushing directness. 'Don't ever attempt,
my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our Lord Jesus
As sinners we are all tempted to be snobs, and some people play
upon this fact. The famous Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc writing
in the 1920s , perhaps in playful mood, felt it could be used for
the furtherance of his Church. 'Four powers govern man: avarice,
lust, fear and snobbishness. One can use the latter. One cannot
use the first three. Blackmail is alien to the Catholic temper
and would cut little ice. Pay we cannot, because we are not rich
enough, and because those of us who are will not use their money
rightly. Threaten we cannot, because we are nobody, all the
temporal power is on the other side. But we can spread the mood
that we are the bosses, and the chic and that a man who does not
accept the Faith writes himself down as suburban. Upon these
amiable lines do I proceed.' Well, since the 1920s the standing
of Catholicism has indeed grown in our land, and perhaps Belloc's
strategy has played a part.
Out of place
There is much about the middle class that is tremendously good.
And we certainly must not jump to conclusions about someone
simply because he or she has a polished accent. But I sometimes
wonder whether the success of many an evangelical church, in both
city centre and or leafy suburbia, has more to do with similar
latent snobbishness than we care to realise. Why do our
evangelistic efforts these days have to be quite so 'well
presented?' Could our churches be so cultured as to make the poor
feel out of place? And why has the church neglected the inner
cities and the problem housing estates? When there are crucial
life decisions to be made about which jobs to take or where to
live, what actually governs the thinking of evangelical
The spirit of snobbishness shows itself in many ways, but James
says it shows itself particularly when Christians make a great
fuss of the rich, famous and powerful. 'Suppose a rich man comes
in to your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes . . .'
And with this in mind, one of the most worrying things I saw on
TV over last summer were the news clips of President Clinton
addressing the meeting of evangelical leaders at Willow Creek. It
seemed they were eating out of the hands of a man who probably
does not even know if or when he is telling the truth. Apart from
the Lewinski scandal, he is a man who has presided over a country
where school kids are not allowed to say a prayer in Jesus name
before a football match. Yet because he is the president, he was
given the stage. Should he not have been at that conference?
Certainly, he should have been there and been welcomed. But he
should have been there to listen, not speak, to be prayed for not
to be applauded. Do we make such a fuss when the poor visit
Many thinking people can be knocked back in their religion or
even put off completely by the pretentious and snooty attitudes
of church people. In her little autobiographical memoir Holy
Smoke, the radio broadcaster Libby Purves says much about this in
her own struggles with her Catholic upbringing. Here is a sample:
'Then of course, there was Evelyn Waugh with Brideshead
Revisited, that compellingly hideous blending of spirituality and
snobbery which binds up together all in one reeking bundle, the
glamour of tiara-wearing sin with the glamour of Catholic
repentance. This damn book operated like catnip on certain posh
Catholics among my schoolmates, but repelled me . . . So
naturally, the notion of ever worshipping in a 'fashionable'
church . . . or using religion to seek out my 'sort' of people,
filled me always with quite disproportionate horror and
'Well', we might say, 'if Libby came to an evangelical church she
would see Christianity as it is meant to be.' Well, I hope she
would - but I'm not so sure.
At a variety of levels, and in many areas of church life, the sin
of snobbery is something of which we ought to repent.
Copyright Evangelicals Now, November 2000