A Modern Parable: The Distortion of the Suburban Gospel

A Modern Parable: The Distortion of the Suburban Gospel

I knew that people who grew up with a lot of money also grew up with a huge amount of suffering; alcoholism, distant fathers, divorce and all sorts of pain. They basically were shunned by the Christian missiological field…. I found this to be a very powerful experience in terms of looking at what the Gospel has to say to everyone. Because, just as we say it’s got to address the homeless guy and the alcoholic, it also has to address the billionaire. These people, if you really talk to them, they’re sad and lonely. The suicide rate goes up the higher up you get on the socioeconomic ladder because people can no longer scapegoat their lack of material wealth. – David Zahl, The Mockingcast    

As is usually the case, David Zahl said what I was trying to say with far more clarity and research. In Suburbianity I tried demonstrate just how corrupting the suburbs are towards our view of the Gospel and the aim of redemption. How it shapes our thinking about those to whom the Gospel really applies and those it doesn’t. This is demonstrated, as Zahl points out, that no mission organization that I know of has made it their mission to reach the extraordinarily wealthy. We don’t pray over people, or raise funds for missionaries, or spend years coming to understand the religious and cultural influences of rich folk. For most, this would seem like a waste of resources. No one was ever called to the mission field of Williamson County, TN where the medium income is $100,000.00. This reality is a sort of chicken or the egg scenario. Is it because we don’t assume the affluent need the Gospel? Or is it because the Gospel we’ve come to preach only applies to the less fortunate. Our operational assumption seems to be that the less fortunate are more apt to respond to the Gospel (and have more need for it) than the well-to-do. This sort of thinking plays tricks with our view of Christianity. This was my attempt at describing the distortion of American Christianity.  

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 I offer this modern parable.

Two men enter your church for the first time on the same Sunday morning. They could not be from more alternate universes. The first man is from where you are. Coat and tie territory. His sweet-faced wife and two well-dressed children are with him. They slightly resemble the family in the frame. By all accounts, they are decent people. It’s quite possible they’re church hunting. After all, it is always open season in the suburbs. The presence of Bibles in hand may indicate they know the routine. They’re churched. They mingle briefly at the end of the service and greet the pastor on the way out. You hope they come back.

 The other man seems to be from nowhere. Apparently, he’s homeless. All the signs are there. Matted hair. Tattered clothes. Filth. The stench of alcohol looms. It’s obvious the ragged little man is intoxicated at this very moment. He lumbers in and sits down on the back row without a word. He has that dispirited look that characterizes beggars. As you might expect, he stands out. You know that classic scene where the wrong type of person walks into a bar and the jukebox goes silent with a scratch of a record? Pin drop silence. It’s like that. But this is not a bar, it’s church. So the scene takes awkward to another level.  

 You can’t help but notice him. Everyone notices him, including that other new guy with his family. In the back of your mind a cruel and unguarded thought escapes the confines of your well-adjusted conscious. “I hope the first guy doesn’t think the homeless guy represents who we are as a church.” The thought is quickly deleted. During the service you cannot take your eyes off this broken human being. As it should, your heart breaks for him. Without casting judgment, or assuming what landed him in his destitution, you decide to reach out to him after the service. The “other side of the tracks” is running right down the center of your church on this day. In the love of Christ you will step over them and the various lines of polite society that buffer you from such realities. How desperate he must be. How urgently he needs Jesus. You’ll show this person the love of Christ. You make a beeline.

 ~ We’ll leave the story there.

 So, what’s the lesson? You’re probably thinking it’s something like how our self-focus, comfort levels, biases and jaded perception limit the extent of our compassion for other human beings. And you’d be right. We judge people based on appearances and superficial realities. We’re selective about who we show the grace of God. We’re blindly partial. People’s conditions keep us back from loving them as we should. That’s part of our problem. Isn’t this the very prejudice at play in the above scenario? Of course it is. Our behavior towards this man is but an illustration of how we normally operate. It’s shameful what we do to this man based solely on how he looks. Seriously, how can we treat the man in the suit so cruelly? Wait. What? Not expecting that? Gotcha. It was that other bias I had in mind. The one that forces us to equate spiritual and moral with Christian. It’s this film over our eyes that keeps us from going bananas for Jesus in business parks.

The well-kept man is the real victim here. He’s the one to whom no grace was shown. Why didn’t you make a beeline for him? I’ll tell you why. Because your bias and presupposition about the human condition that you picked up from the suburbs kept you from assuming the worst in his case. It is this same perspective that allowed you to immediately assume the worst with the man in tatters. Don’t misunderstand me. You should assume the worst about the man in tatters. That’s not the issue. The issue is that you did not assume the worst about both men. Hear me. You should assume the worst about all men. If you’re not as desperate for the guy in the suit as you are the guy in rags, then your love is conditional.

Fundamentally, if you’re not also making a beeline for the man in the suit with the same type of broken heart, you misunderstand the Gospel. If your heart doesn’t sink with the man drowning in his affluence the way it did for the man wallowing in his own urine, than you don’t get it. You’re assuming the Gospel in his case. You should be thinking the exact same thing you did about the bum.

How desperately that guy in the suit needs Jesus. Look at him! He believes his morality and church attendance saves him. Most likely, right now he’s comparing himself to that homeless guy and assuming the best about his own condition. Oh how blind he is! I’ve got to put the cross of Christ in his path. He needs to see himself as a leper and not a Republican.  

 It’s this nearly imperceptible presupposition about human beings coating our souls in the suburbs that’s robbed the church of its purpose and power. It’s blurred our understanding about the human condition. According to our impulse, the really lost people are lying in alleys somewhere, or in third world contexts. Evangelistic candidates don’t wear Brooks Brothers suits. Fact is, we struggle to evangelize the coats and ties because we never think to do it. With such a well-adjusted life there’s nothing to deliver him from. This is why our message sounds like a free upgrade and not a free gift of redemption.

 

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