Consumer Christianity: How Much Money Does It Cost to Be a Christian?

Christianity and money illustration,  design36 and vso /
Christianity and money illustration, design36 and vso /

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?

Tales of a Male 'Preacher's Wife'

MY WIFE IS a pastor. Specifically, she’s the senior pastor of a prominent church in downtown Portland, Ore. I’m on staff too, but only part-time, and she enjoys telling people she’s my boss. Technically, I answer to the church board, but people get a laugh about the reversal of “typical roles.”

I get my share of “preacher’s wife” jokes, to which I have a handful of rote responses. No, I don’t knit or make casseroles. No, I don’t play in the bell choir. Generally, the jokes are pretty gentle, but they all point to the reality that few of us will actually talk about: We see the traditional roles of women as less important than those of their male counterparts. And so, to see a man who works from home most of the time and takes the kids to school while his wife has the “high power” job brings everything from the man’s masculinity to his ambition into question.

But regardless of the teasing I get, Amy has it a lot worse. One time, when she was guest preaching at a church in Colorado, a tall man who appeared to be in his 60s came up to her after worship. “That was pretty good,” he said, smiling but not extending his hand, “for a girl.”

Amy and I planted a church in southern Colorado 10 years ago, and we actually kind of enjoyed watching people’s expectations get turned on end when they met us. A newcomer would walk in the doors of the church and almost always walk up to me and start asking questions about our congregation.

“Oh, you’re looking for the person in charge,” I’d say. “She’s over there.” Then would come the dropped jaws and the wordless stammers as they reconfigure everything they assumed walking through the door. Amy’s even had people stand up and walk out in the middle of worship when they realize she’s about to preach.

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Accompanied by Nones

Brian E. Konkol. Photo courtesy of the author.
Brian E. Konkol. Photo courtesy of the author.

It was December of 2000, but I remember the occasion as if it were yesterday.

It was a few days after Christmas during my senior year of college. I was quite nervous, and I wondered how my friends and family would react. 

How would my basketball teammates respond? Would my roommates treat me differently? And of course, what about my girlfriend? She had no idea our relationship would take such a dramatic turn.

I could hide no longer. I had to be honest with who I was. And so, after a great deal of delay and long nights of nervous planning, I finally decided to share what I had been keeping secret. 

Beginning with my girlfriend, then my parents, brother, sister, and eventually friends, roommates, and teammates, I shared the news: After a significant amount of prayer and discernment, I was no longer planning to attend law school following college graduation, but instead, I wanted to attend seminary in order to become an ordained Lutheran pastor.

As to be expected, I received mixed reactions.

My parents were confused and surprised, as they – like most people – had not perceived me as “religious”," especially not to the point of pursuing ordination. Nevertheless, they accepted the news with delight and affirmation. 

In addition, my girlfriend (who is now my wife) was wonderfully supportive. So was my brother, sister, and closest friends. 

On the other hand, some others were not sure how to react. My friends – mostly uninterested in religion – wondered about future plans. Basketball teammates were a bit uneasy. And even the campus priest and a few professors had an assortment of reactions. While a number of people were anxious and apprehensive, those within my closest circle of friends accepted the announcement with open arms. 

I continue to thank God for such a wonderful web of support.

Professor Says He Was Fired from Atlanta Seminary Over Evangelical Beliefs

Photo via RNS
Photo via RNS

A professor who was fired in July by the Interdenominational Theological Center says the Atlanta consortium of black seminaries discriminated against his conservative Christian views.

The Rev. Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, an African-American expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in July. He accused ITC administrators of harassment that included “disagreeing with my conservative religious ideals, intimidating me, slandering my character, giving me poor evaluations, and changing student grades from failing to passing with no merit.’’

Hopkins, 42, told Religion News Service that tensions arose after a speaker from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship addressed an informal session he organized in February. During the session, attendees were offered a book that declared homosexuality was a sin.

He said his department chair, the Rev. Margaret Aymer, questioned the distribution of the book and threatened his job.

The Afternoon News: Monday, Dec. 5, 2011

Ron Paul Defends The 99 Percent: ‘It’s A Very Healthy Movement’; SWAT Raids, Stun Guns, And Pepper Spray: Why The Government Is Ramping Up The Use Of Force; GOP Needs To Address Immigration In A 'Humane' Way; Gap Between Rich And Poor Widening Across The Developed World, As Bankers And Executives Reap More Income; Challenges At The Cutting Edge Of Fighting Global Poverty; Baby Boomers Heading Back To Seminary; Worst Year Ever For Greenhouse Gases.

Bridging the Bible Gap

CHRISTIANS HAVE LONG claimed the Bible as a central source of authority for faith and life. Yet church members are often at a loss as to how to interpret the scriptures. While academic biblical scholarship has flourished since the 17th century, there is a troubling disconnect between seminaries and congregations, between what hermeneutics specialist Hans de Wit calls “professional readers” and “ordinary readers” of scripture.

So, for example, master of divinity students at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, where I work, gain skills in literary criticism, socio-historical analysis, Hebrew and Greek language, source criticism, and canonical criticism, among others, with the expectation that they will become leaders who are “grounded in and continuously formed by the Bible,” according to the program’s stated goals. But at the same time, today’s North American Mennonite church members often exhibit a widespread lack of familiarity with biblical interpretive tools and in many cases a lack of regular engagement with the Bible.

AMBS professor Alan Kreider wrote, “The estrangement of many North American Mennonite Christians from the Bible, their sense that they know the book, that it’s overfamiliar or irrelevant, and their captivity to American ills of individualism, consumerism, and over-busyness—all of these make it hard to indwell the ancient text and make it life-giving today.”

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Wallis and Mohler Debate Social Justice and the Gospel

What was most telling about the disagreement between the two men was their discussion of Luke 4. Mohler argued the passage should be understood in light of how he interpreted the preaching and teaching of Paul and the other apostles. This means that when Jesus said that he came to bring good news to the poor that good news was personal salvation.

Wallis argued that yes, personal salvation is one part of that good news, but that the other part is the Kingdom of God breaking into the world and transforming societal relationships as well. When the Gospel is proclaimed, it is good news for a poor person's entire being, community and world -- not just his or her soul.

First, it was encouraging to hear Mohler spend a lot of time emphasizing that working for justice is essential to fulfillment of the Great Commission. Throughout the night he repeated his concern that a lot of Churches are REALLY bad at making disciples who actually do the things Jesus told us to do. As the president of one of the largest seminaries in the world, it will be interesting to see if he is able to train a generation of pastors who will do things differently. My concern is that he is missing the connection between his theology and the failure of Christians to actually do justice.

The "Atonement-Only" Gospel

If justice is only an implication, it can easily become optional and, especially in privileged churches, non-existent. In the New Testament, conversion happens in two movements: Repentance and following. Belief and obedience. Salvation and justice. Faith and discipleship.

Atonement-only theology and its churches are in most serious jeopardy of missing the vision of justice at the heart of the kingdom of God. The atonement-only gospel is simply too small, too narrow, too bifurcated, and ultimately too private.

Three bonus reflections

Seminaries offer theological education and prepare pastors and others for ministry. But what do they teach their students about social justice? In the September-October issue of Sojourners, eight recent and not-so-recent graduates to reflect on how their seminary education their work of social justice today. But wait, there are more seminarian insights than we could fit into the print magazine! Here are three bonus reflections.

Barn Raising by Rich Gorman

My wife Dori and I spent our seminary experience immersed in work with the urban poor in the Appalachian hills of East Tennessee. A majority of our time and energy was dedicated to reconciliation between the poor and their more materially affluent neighbors. About two years into the work, I was burned out and angry. The classroom became a refuge for me because I could freely vent about what I believed to be “the wicked ways of the wealthy.”

Over time, God made it clear that reconciliation must begin in my own mind and heart. My calling was not to mobilize the rich to engage with the poor, but to strive to understand and love both. God forced me to confront my own shameful attitudes and, as a result, he did some amazing things over the next two years.

As my heart began to be transformed, I started seeing the incredibly unhealthy attitudes of my classmates. They were reading the right books and believed the right things about social justice, but, like me, were driven by pride and arrogance. Our lives were marked more by elitism than grace. I am forever grateful for the wisdom and patience of the Emmanuel staff, who helped me to work through some vital issues in these areas.

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Teachable Moments

The Noise
By Avedis Abovian

One morning while  I was doing my clinical pastoral education, I was praying in the chapel at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. There was nobody else in that small room. The conditions were perfect to be alone with God. What else did I need at that beautiful moment to feel an important part of God's kingdom?

At that very moment my thoughts were interrupted by noises from the other side of chapel doors.

I stopped. I was amazed.

It was a revelation: "You cannot just know about people on the other side of your doors. Just listening to their cries and understanding their struggles can never be enough as long as they are on the other side of your doors. This is not about 'big plans' that may bring positive changes. It is about connecting person to person; having them sit next to you at your dinner table; praying not just for them, but with them. This is about opening your doors and bringing everyone in and making them 'you' -- turning yourself into ‘them’ and together becoming God's people."

We are never alone with God. There is always the noise that should become our being, our prayer, and our connection with God.

Avedis Abovian is a priest and the youth director for the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America. He received his master’s in divinity from Claremont School of Theology in 2008 and his bachelor’s from Vazgenian Theological Seminary in Sevan, Armenia, in 1997. He lives in Burbank, California.

Everything is not Eschatological
By Nikia Smith Robert

Everything is not eschatological: Everything is not otherworldly or heavenly bound.

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