Christians love to blame social justice issues on large corporations, rich banks, corrupt governments, and our culture’s greedy obsession with money. The vast inequality of wealth has inspired an entire Occupy Movement focusing on the majority — the 99 percent — who are often oppressed and taken advantage of in order to benefit the 1 percent. But Westernized Christianity has quietly created an aristocratic population of its own, a “gated community” that only the most privileged and wealthy can afford to experience.
This institutionalized Christianity begins at an early age, when well-to-do parents have the option of enrolling their children within the confines of a private Christian school. The thousands of dollars in annual tuition are just the beginning, because when summer arrives the kids are whisked away to their favorite summer camps — where the cheapest of entrance fees start around $100 per person and can rise well into the thousands.
As the students get older, they can easily become comfortable within a Christian environment that is hardly different from the society around them, where consumerism reigns supreme and the Gospel of Christ is sacrificed for the sake of profit and entertainment and practical financial demands. So when students are done attending their summer camps, they can go to Christian music festivals and participate in exotic mission trips — but only if they have the money.
Receiving a Christian education after high school is now almost exclusively limited to only those who can afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. This doesn’t even include seminary, where prices nearly double that of an undergraduate degree. Receiving a Masters of Divinity degree can now require well over $100,000 in total costs (including undergrad) — and these are conservative estimates! Higher education isn’t the only culprit. Even short-term mission trips are marketed to wealthy Christians who can afford to pay upfront costs or have access to a strong network of financial backers.
Adults have purchasing options within Christianity, too. Marriage conferences, spiritual retreats, and Christian cruises are just a few of the hundreds of lucrative “ministry” opportunities available. The latest books, albums, and speaking seminars endlessly compete for our money.
Christianity can quickly devolve into caste systems, where faith communities are divided by the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. Instead of unifying ourselves in Christ, we are dividing ourselves by how much money we can afford to spend.
How much money is required to be a Christian? Imagine how much money we’ve spent throughout our lifetime on “Christian” activities and products (not including tithing or mission-related donations) — now imagine if we gave this money to people who really needed it.
“Consumer Christianity” has turned our faith into a set of costs, and it’s becoming increasingly costly to maintain the Christian status quo. In John 2, the Bible tells the riveting story of Jesus entering the Temple and becoming furious at what He sees: vendors who have turned something holy into a commercial marketplace. Jesus is irate, and he basically tears the place apart because of their sin. But how different are our churches today?
The message of Christ should be available for free — to everyone. The best worship, pastors, teachers, ideas, inspiration, and resources should not be reserved for only those who can afford them. As Christians, we need to be intentional about fighting our cultural habit of commercializing everything and be willing to generously offer our gifts and resources freely to everyone — with no strings (or charges) attached.
This problem is not necessarily caused by an intentional desire for wealth, but is the result of apathy and ignorance and laziness. The reality is that stuff costs money. The solution isn’t easy, and it’s not just institutional Christianity and big organizations that need to change. We all need to sacrificially and generously donate whatever our gifts are in order to help those who need them.
Sometimes this means making a financial sacrifice and losing out on a profit, and sometimes it requires subsidizing costs through fundraising and other creative means of support. It takes extra time, work and energy, but there is something powerful and holy about receiving the Gospel for free.
Stephen Mattson has written for Relevant, Red Letter Christians and The Burnside Writer's Collective. He graduated from the Moody Bible Institute and is currently on staff at University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.