Evangelical Snobbery
Would the poor feel out of place in your church?

While this article was written from a UK perspective, it surely has universal application.
(It originally 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 Christ!'

Put down
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 people?

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 us?

Put off
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 disgust.'

'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.
JEB


Copyright Evangelicals Now, November 2000

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