The Christian Faith and Wealth

I am spending a lot of time in the Rockies of late. Last week it was several days with pastors in one of the Denver metro conferences of the Rocky Mountain Synod on retreat to talk about preaching in a changed and changing world. This week I am visiting with pastors of the Alberta Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada to discuss similar issues.

With both groups the question has come up regarding how we might view and speak about our current situation not just as a problem – that is, defining it wholly in the terms of numerical decline – but also as an opportunity. One set of conversations has been particularly interesting to me, as several folks noted the role of affluence in the decline of the North American churches, contrasting our experience with the explosive growth of Christianity in impoverished portions of the globe. Could it be that when you have a big roof over your head, plenty of food in the fridge, and nice clothes and cars to choose from, God simply becomes less important? Indeed, with a few notable exceptions, including the U.S., most countries decrease in religiosity as their GDP increases.


Source: Pew Institute

What, then, does that mean during times of economic downturn? Or, perhaps more to the point, what does that mean as more and more people find the traditional “American Dream” – defined as equal opportunity for all, unending upward mobility, and the belief that one’s children will do better economically than their parents – increasingly beyond their reach. As the middle class shrinks and the gap between rich and poor grows, it seems like one option for religious leaders is to disengage the Christian story from the civil and economic story of the land and develop a biblical theology that stands in contrast to one that equates wealth with worth. How might we, that is, offer again a vision of Christianity that 1) promises that we have worth and dignity not based on what we have but on who we are, God’s beloved children, and 2) declares that God’s interests seem always to be aligned with those of the poor, a theme that is so blatant in Scripture that it is remarkable how infrequently it is mentioned from our pulpits.

This becomes particularly pressing when you realize how much of our denominational religion is structured around an assumption around a certain level of wealth. One of the questions urban church developers regularly face, for instance, is how they will ever be “economically self-sufficient” when their members have so little materials means. The pinch right now, it seems to me – or at least one of the pinches – is that while our church may grow more vibrant in the years to come, it is also likely to grow smaller. How do we sustain and fund such ministry? What models are there available to us that don’t assume buildings and full-time pastoral staff that might accommodate a leaner, and perhaps less centrally organized church?

There’s a lot to chew on in this conversation, of course — including the waning of the Judeo-Christian tradition that once anchored capitalism and the future shape of congregational leadership — and I hope to explore some of that in future posts. But for now, I’ll leave you simply with an observation of Wendell Berry and invite you to reflect on what all of this suggestions about our potential recovery of a Christian story that is both relevant to our time and faithful to the biblical tradition.

As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.
From Jayber Crow.