There are a group of people in this world that would probably only recognize me as a furry, poetic Eskimo named “Nanook.” Nanook was a character that would come out as an “interrupter” during Young Life Club (Young Life, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a Christian ministry that focuses mostly on high schoolers). I volunteered as a Young Life leader at a local high school while I was in college, and I approached my position as a “leader” with the same half-assed style that I approached most things in my life at that time. I really cared about those kids, but I didn’t really put in the sort of effort that it took to actually build a relationship with them.
Anyway…. Nanook. We tried to make Young Life as fun as possible. We sang songs, we did skits, we played games, and then at the end of Club, one of the leaders would talk about Jesus. It was actually really cool. Sometimes during Club, there would be an interrupter–a person whose only reason for being was to walk in, do something funny, and then leave. I, as Nanook, was one of these pointless interrupters–It was me in a pair of shorts wearing a fur jacket and an Eskimo hat made out of some sort of animal that could survive in the snow. And it was very, very hot. I was an Eskimo poet<–By the way, according to Google, I am the first person to ever write those five words in that order. In my best impression of an Eskimo accent, I would recite a silly poem from beneath a sweat-soaked animal pelt, and then I would leave. It was the least I could do to help introduce high school kids to Jesus. The VERY least.
One thing I loved about Young Life is that we had a strict rule against wearing any sort of shirt that said anything about being a Christian on it–at least when we were around kids. It didn’t really affect me, as I wasn’t the sort of person with a bunch of Church Shirts, but I liked it as a policy. I’ve always been annoyed with shirts that screamed “LOOK AT ME–I’M A CHRISTIAN!!!” I do have one Quasi-Jesusy T-Shirt (another great name for a band) my wife bought me that says “Jesus Loves You!” and then underneath it says “Of course, he loves everybody.” That’s about as “Church Shirt” as I get…. Anyway, the last thing we wanted for a kid who was desperate for something different was to see us wearing some preachy T-shirt, and then think of all the baggage and negative connotations that come with the term “Christian.”
But it’s not just unchurched high school kids who are desperate for something different–The whole world is desperate for something different. Even people who have been going to church their whole lives are desperate for something different. All that people see around them is the struggle for more power and more money. The world is full of people seeking power over others. And, like the author of Ecclesiastes, most people figure out sooner or later that it is all meaningless. It’s one big struggle for stuff. And power. And money. And MORE. But Jesus modeled a different power structure–Instead of another structure that exercises power OVER others, Jesus washes his disciple’s feet, and displays for us a power structure that Greg Boyd refers to as power UNDER others. One that has us laying down our life to gain it. One that has us serving in order to lead, and treating the poor like they are more important than the rich. One where the first shall be last, and the last shall be first…. He switches everything around, and he sets up a new system–a new economy–and he calls it The Kingdom of God.
So, for the follower of Jesus, there are two systems. Two economies. Two kingdoms.
There is one system that says, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It’s an economy that believes that he who dies with the most toys, wins. It’s a kingdom that is all about THE LOVE OF POWER–This is the system, the economy, and the kingdom of The World. But Jesus…. Jesus came and set up a new way of thinking about things. He said stuff like, “You want to be first? Here’s how: Be Last. Be the servant of all.” It’s a system that that says, “Do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” It’s an economy that tells us that “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” And it’s a kingdom that is all about THE POWER OF LOVE.
There are few things that gross me out more than this prosperity gospel bullshit–I’m sorry, but that’s what it is. All over the place, the Church has been co-opted into believing that its mission is to get itself (as well as the people attending) more power and money–And it’s not just the smarmy televangelists that are doing it. It is everywhere. It’s that classic American story (or Roman, or whichever…. Pick your empire) of “what it means to be successful” that has seeped into the heart of the Church. People stand up in churches with “testimonies” of getting raises and bonuses and inheritances and settlements…. All as a result of giving money to the church and God giving them even more money back. You can walk into some churches and portions of the service start to feel like an Amway meeting–Putting the people who have had some financial success up front to “build faith” for the people who are considering joining. All of a sudden, every good business decision for the faithful becomes “proof” that faith will increase one’s material wealth. Even finding money becomes devine intervention, and people find a $100 bill on the ground and chalk it up to some sort of heavenly payback for tithing–never mind the poor sucker who lost the $100…. He should have been going to the right Church!
And please don’t get me wrong–I’m not against tithing. Living off the 90% (and still having our needs met–And yes, even believing it can be through supernatural means) is one thing, but treating the tithe as some sort of hot stock tip that will provide us with a healthy monetary return on our investment is something very different. One is Biblical, and the other is just taking a verse out of Malachi that says “Test me on this” and turning it into a whole warped theology. One is like practice at letting go of the stuff we think of as “ours,” and the other is like a Churchy Stock Market, or a man in a suit at a partitioned hotel ballroom talking to you about soap while drawing dollar symbols on a whiteboard with a circle (representing you) and lines to three circles below it. One is distinctly the Kingdom of God, and the other is barely distinguishable from the kingdom of the world.
When the Church is selling the same crap as the rest of the world, what’s the point? People walk in, desperate for something different, and they find something that feels like a shopping mall. It comes across in giant, sprawling church campuses, slick bookstores and coffee shops, and even messages from the pulpit/kiosk that promise financial blessing is the will of God for Christians. But this belief that the Church (as well as the individual follower of Jesus) are called, or even destined, to financial prosperity is completely at odds with what Jesus says, as well as everything the Bible tells us about the early Church (If people are making a Biblical case for an Americanized, consumerist Prosperity Gospel, it’s going to be almost entirely Old Testament stuff, peppered with the trusty old Parable of the Talents as the lone New Testament proof that Jesus was, in fact, a capitalist).
People talk about God making them rich so that they can give away even more, but these people almost always live in gigantic houses. This thinking is often known as being “Blessed to be a blessing,” but it reminds me of when I make a deal with God that I will use my winnings to start an orphanage, if he’ll just give me the winning Powerball numbers. This “blessed to be a Blessing” thing (as it applies to riches) moves easily from the belief that “God gives wealth to the people that he knows he can trust with it,” to the belief that your amassed wealth means that God trusts you more than the man with the small house. Maybe you’re just good at making money–and that’s not a bad thing. But attributing (and justifying) your riches to your faith is not just bad theology–It is something that contributes to much of the world thinking that Jesus and his Church are as full of crap as everything else in the world. And that is not okay. In every place that the Church lines up with the system that the world, it looks like idolatry, but wherever the Church lines up with the Kingdom of God that Jesus described, it looks like freedom and growth and power and LIFE.
So I’d be happy if I never heard the term “Financial Breakthrough” in a Church again. I think people getting out of debt is great, but when we start painting the picture that Christians are called to rich/successful in business/financially prosperous, we are doing more than getting it wrong–We are injuring the reputation of Jesus. I can’t wait for the day when the world sees someone in a Christian T-Shirt, and instead of thinking of people in gated communities who sleep next to their guns, they think of those loving people who are always hanging out with the poor and working to help the most vulnerable…. Anyway, I need to wrap it up, so I’ll leave you with a quote from Shane Claiborne: “I’m convinced that one of the great tragedies of the church is NOT that rich folks don’t care about poor folks, but that rich folks don’t know poor folks. Because when we really have an encounter across class, the discomfort of the poor becomes our discomfort, you know? And it begins to challenge the things that we hold true.”