DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Consuming Jesus and Moving Beyond Race and Class
Lo-Fi Monk

Consuming Jesus and Moving Beyond Race and Class

Discussions concerning race and class divisions in the Church always lead me to the following thought: My son’s grade school class is composed of white, black, and brown kids that have absolutely no problem putting together pick-up kickball teams on the playground at recess. Race is not even an issue; economic class is not a factor. Yet, the church and all of her “sanctified” adults seem to be unable to move beyond race and class. The consequence of this short-sightedness is that we - the larger Body of Christ - rarely work together in meaningful ways. I can’t help but wonder which of these two groups are more pleasing to God. Is it possible? Could it be that a elementary school kickball game brings more glory to God than most churches? Maybe.

I get excited when I am introduced to solid thinking concerning issues of race and class reconciliation in the Christian Church. Why? Because I pray to God that Christ’s Church can put a smile on the Father’s face as wide as my son’s elementary school class does. The book recently sent to me by The Ooze Blog Network is exciting because it tackles this issue head on, and from an evangelical perspective. Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class in a Consumer Church is written by an evangelical insider who loves his faith expression. Paul Louis Metzger loves the rich history inherent to classical evangelicalism. He is neither bitter, nor angry at the Evangelical Church, but he is not wearing kid gloves either. Make no mistake, this author offers readers a harsh and prophetic call to an evangelical world that prefers on-site latte bars and thin definitions of church growth “success” that has more to do with consumerism and very little to do with a gospel that exists to reconcile people to God and to one another. It’s a bitting read, to say the least. It’s also one of the most important reads for Christians today.

I was sent this book to read and review it on my blog by the folks at The Ooze. Usually I read the books sent to me for review by publishers and produce a brief overview of the entire read all at once. I will not be doing that this time. This book is far too important. I’ll be reading it chapter by chapter and I’ll review and offer commentary on each chapter, as it is read. It’s that important.

In this post, I’ll simply offer a quote from the introduction. Incidentally, the introduction of this book is better than most complete reads I have logged in recent years. The most moving aspect of the introduction is the story about Dr. John M. Perkins, an African American Evangelical who consumes Christ alone and is consumed by Christ, and consequently expresses a much broader evangelicalism. Dr. Perkins was born into a family of Mississippi sharecroppers in the 1950s. His brother was murdered by white Mississippi police. Later, and after he somehow saw beyond the “white” definition and expression of God and Christ to convert heart and soul to Jesus, Dr. Perkins was arrested and beaten and tortured because of his Gospel-infused civil rights work to African Americans who were smothered by poverty and injustice in Mississippi. Do not misread hyperbole into my use of the word torture. The police officers went as far as to shove a fork in Dr. Perkins’ nose and down his throat. He received medical treatment for the injuries he sustained in this arrest for the next year. His faith in Christ remained strong, even prophetic.

In 1982 Dr. Perkins offered the following challenge to his Evangelical Church in a work titled With Justice for All:

“The only purpose of the gospel is to reconcile people to God and to each other. A gospel that doesn’t reconcile is not a Christian gospel at all. But in America it seems as if we don’t believe that. We don’t really believe that proof of our discipleship is that we love one another (see John 13:35). No, we think the proof is in numbers - church attendance, decision cards. Even if our ‘converts’ continue to hate each other, even if they will not worship with their brothers and sisters in Christ, we point to their ‘conversion’ as evidence of the gospel’s success. We have substituted a gospel of church growth for a gospel of reconciliation.”

Dr. Perkins continues:

“And how convenient it is that our ‘church growth experts’ tell us that homogeneous churches grow fastest! That welcome news seems to relieve us of the responsibility to overcome racial barriers in our churches. It seems to justify not bothering with breaking down racial barriers, since that would only distract us from ‘church growth.’ And so the most segregated racist institution in America, the evangelical church, racks up the numbers, declaring itself ’successful,’ oblivious tot he fact that the dismemberment of the Body of Christ broadcasts to the world everyday a hypocrisy as Peter’s at Antioch - a living denial of the truth of the Gospel.”

That was just the introduction of the book. Paul Louis Metzger’s introduction also reveals his goal for the book. Metzger writes, “In this book I aim toward a theologically guided sociological engagement of practical religion. IN specific terms, I wish to confront the ways evangelical-consumer or niche-church Christianity fosters racial and economic divisions, and I wish to offer an alternative theological paradigm to the one that is so often embraced in the evangelical subculture” (11). So far, so good. grab this book and read along with me.

Lest anyone mistakenly think that this is mere spiritual reading material, or abstract and useless thoughts or philosophies meant only for cognitive exercise, I will simply say this: the Christian brothers and sisters ministering beside me in our city are totally dedicated to a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural ministry. If it were not so, I’d go hang out with my son and his elementary school friends on the playground. It’s there that one can feel God’s smile.

Work Cited:

Metzger, Paul Louis. Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

9 Comments

  1. Pistol Pete
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Clarence Jordan once said (in the early 60s) - the two most segregated places on earth are the Supreme Court and the Church.” Then, he added, “And I have hope for the Supreme Court”. Outside of a few individual exceptions (mostly charismatic or Roman Catholic churches), we haven’t come very far.

  2. Shawn Anthony
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    You are right, Pete; we haven’t come very far at all. we can build great latte bars in our churches though (which is the point of this book).

  3. bill weaver
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Shawn, though I agree with the point of misplaced motives with respect to latte bars and all that nonsense, I have heard church growth folks drone on about getting more diversity in this church or that one. But it all seems to be part of the larger loss of purpose in the church. The church needs to focus on God and His Word and let the Holy Spirit bring in new members on His schedule.

    Eeveryone living, working, playing, and worshiping together without regard to race or class is a fine ideal, but consider that the school you attend is largely a function of geography and government dictate, whereas the church you attend is far more a matter of individual or family choice.

    People tend to choose groups where they feel most comfortable, which tends to be with people similar to themselves. In these situations we segregate ourselves not as a function of nastiness towards people unlike us, but rather as one of comfort with people like us. Commonality.

    In our church, though majority white and middle to upper-middle class, there is a wide assortment of people who mix well together. We teach, learn, worship, and share our lives with each other. Even with that, people with common attributes (age, occupation, skin color, home location, etc.) sometimes seem to clump together. That is not necessarily a bad thing because there isn’t any animus involved.

    Calling the evangelical church, as does Dr. Perkins, “the most segregated racist institution in America” is off base. Perhaps segregated, but “racist” implies intent. I feel for his story and am repelled by racism and hatred. However, forcing the church to be multicultural and diverse for the sake of multiculturalism and diversity is to miss the point. Love for each other will naturally make the church more welcoming. If that’s not happening, then the failure of the church-growth movement is not racism, but rather a loss of Christ, of the Word.

    Other than through our normal conversation and relationships, our church does no “outreach,” no “diversity goals,” meets in a rec center’s gymnasium, and studies scripture. It has been amazing to watch God grow a church in such a physically uncomfortable setting; some members leaving for other churches but even more coming to worship with us. God has changed our demographics over time and it’s wonderful to be a part of God’s diversity. But I would worry if we set “diversity” as a goal!

  4. Shawn Anthony
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    “Bill, you wrote: “Everyone living, working, playing, and worshiping together without regard to race or class is a fine ideal, but consider that the school you attend is largely a function of geography and government dictate, whereas the church you attend is far more a matter of individual or family choice.”

    The elementary school kickball game at recess has nothing to do with geography or government dictate, and that’s the point! I understand where you are coming from with your comment, but I disagree with it wholeheartedly. This book suggests that church growth initiatives that are strapped to a philosophy of ministry dedicated to concepts like homogeneity and upward mobility are custom made for a certain class and ethnic group and therein exists the intent. Much of it is deeply rooted in consumerism.

    Bill, you also wrote the following: “People tend to choose groups where they feel most comfortable, which tends to be with people similar to themselves. In these situations we segregate ourselves not as a function of nastiness towards people unlike us, but rather as one of comfort with people like us. Commonality.”

    Are you suggesting that people of different races are so different that we have no commonality? We are also talking about church here, right? Is church more about the comfort created by hanging out with “people like us,” or being reconciled with people who are not like us? You see, this is what I am getting at … I think this particular comment of yours would be held up as an example of the trouble within Evangelicalism concerning race, class, and Gospel.

    Thanks for the comment, Bill.

  5. bill weaver
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm… “Are you suggesting that people of different races are so different that we have no commonality?” Good heavens, no. I’m not suggesting any of the sort. My point wasn’t that it’s good to choose only to hang around with people similar to us, rather that it’s often just something that happens out of unintended and subconscious comfort zones, not overt racism. On top of that, churches tend to be comprised of people from the same community and it just works out that way. Where a community is mixed with all sorts of people, so to are many of the churches.

    Further, I certainly don’t think church should be about our comfort, but am trying to point out that commonality and comfort zones is the way it often happens. If I came across as saying it’s a good thing, I erred. I hoped to make it clear from the rest of my comment that I believe church “consumerism” and modern church growth initiatives are off track and lose site of what church is supposed to be about (Christ, the Word, regeneration, etc.). Once it’s about the right things, then the church may grow (or not), change it’s racial makeup (or not), and thrive (or not) — as the Spirit leads.

    As for the kickball example, I just meant that kids will play with whoever is around and often can’t choose their schools. And besides, though they have a great time, they still needle each other about differences, race or otherwise. Littler kids are “Shorty,” kids with big ears “Dumbo,” etc. All is not love and butterflies on the playground.

    Either way, it wasn’t my intention to argue for xenophobia, the so-called church growth movement, or congregational segregation of any sort.

    On another note, I am a little puzzled by the apparent connecting of Evangelicals with the Church Growth Movement. Though the CGM may call themselves “Evangelicals,” many people I know call themselves Evangelicals but would be horrified to be lumped in with the CGM and its view of church.

  6. Shawn Anthony
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Bill - I deeply appreciate your comments, brother. It’s a touch topic we are jumping into and I suppose we should do so prayerfully and with deep reverence. I’ll say this: I’m not sure I’d go so far as Dr. Perkins and call the evangelical Church racist, but I’m not so sure I’d say it’s doing all it can to celebrate the reconciliation aspects of Christ’s gospel either. I think the answer is somewhere between the polarized sides of the conversation.

    I will, however, hold fast to this fact: the church can learn much from my son’s elementary school class. I won;t make any excuses for the church on this one. They do community better and more diversely and never have to talk about it at all. Period. It has nothing to do with government or the choice of their school … that’s all peripheral.

    Thanks for the engaging conversation, bro!

  7. Danny
    Posted December 23, 2007 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading this dialogue. I understand that you are probably a busy man, but if Bill agrees to it, would you consider writing a piece for a new group blog called Kingdom Conversations? You and he would write a for/against piece on diversity in the church. You can click on the link to see some of the debates already going on over there, and I hope to bring a multitude of perspectives from committed Christians on all sides the aisle. Let me know by e-mailing me at dkam136@gmail.com if you are interested.

  8. bryan
    Posted January 4, 2008 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I find it interesting that you mentioned people choosing out of comfort a couple times in there Bill.

    My understanding of Consuming Jesus as I read it (and through conversations with Dr. Metzger) is that the issue is that the consumer church advertises based on comfort(and hence the coffee bar) instead of comforting people with Christ, who reconciles barriers between humankind and God and barriers between people. So part of the problem of the entire consumer church mindset is not that the church is intentionally racist, but that we unwittingly(as opposed to intentionally) allow people to be segregated because we are focusing on numerical growth, more than on spiritual growth(seen through reconciliation among other things). In the book, Metzger states that we can’t separate the race and class issues.

    So, I guess, you are right in saying that people choose churches based on comfort, and in fact how I understand the discussion of Consuming Jesus is that it is something the church needs to address that God does not necessarily call us to a life of comfort, but to be consumed by the Jesus.

  9. bill weaver
    Posted January 12, 2008 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    @Shawn - it certainly is a tough topic, and thank you for entertaining my thoughts on it.

    To be sure, there are racist elements in society and churches. My main point is just that many modern churches — i mean the numbers-focused, populist churches — have so watered down the Word that bigger, root problems need to be addressed. And, properly addressed, any true racism will fall aside — as will other problems. To me it is a matter of focus; setting a diversity goal in a local church simply misses the point (albeit, the Great Commission encourages us to make the greater Church more diverse, at least geographically). Really, truly teaching the Word and building a serious and prayerful congregation will open the doors to whatever the Holy Spirit wishes for a church. Maybe that’s a huge melting pot. Maybe a small melting pot. Maybe twenty-five Japanese folks in Cleveland who are on fire for Christ. Their lack of diversity is not a problem; God may use them to to spread the Gospel in the Japanese community more than He could if they focused on some imagined need for diversity. And if they are truly on fire for Christ, they’d welcome some Russian girl who hears about them at work and shows up for a Bible study.

    @Danny - I think Shawn’s site and this post’s comments are the perfect place for this conversation. Also, a “debate” implies two opposing sides, and i don’t feel opposed to Shawn. Seems like a good guy. :-)

    @bryan - That makes sense. My comments about subconscious seeking of comfort or convenience when we look for of a local church were simply to offer a less hostile explanation to the apparent segregation of some churches. I suspect that it often is not a matter of “I don’t like that type of people” but rather “Uh, I don’t feel comfortable with that style of service,” or “I will choose a church that’s kind of near my house.” What is bad is not necessarily that we tend to seek comfort, but the degree to which churches cater to it. “Hey if we get a nice coffee bar and ease up just a little on all that sin and hell stuff, people will feel more comfortable and less threatened — and our congregation will grow. Oh, and instead of teaching from Scripture, let’s just use witty stories — kind of like Jesus did — so it’s not so stuffy in here.” We are then led by us and our whims, not God and His.

    If a church strives to teach and study Scripture, and its members prepare themselves through study and prayer, God will decide who needs to be there and who needs to be elsewhere to further His Kingdom. Let’s fix our focus, and trust Him.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields marked *

*
*