Some Wisdom for Ministry from Gregory the Great

I came across this today as I was preparing my sermon for this Sunday. From a homily of Gregory the Great (emphasis my own):

We must all of us strive zealously to make known to the church both the dreadfulness of the coming judgment and the kingdom of heaven’s delight. Those who are not in a position to address a large assembly should instruct individuals, offering instruction in personal talks; they should try to serve those around them through simple encouragement… You who are pastors, consider that you are pasturing God’s flock. We often see a block of salt put out for animals to lick for their well-being. Priests among their people should be like blocks of salt. They should counsel everyone in their flocks in such a way that all those with whom they come in contact may be seasoned with eternal life as if they had been sprinkled with salt. We who preach are not the salt of the earth unless we season the hearts of those who listen to us. We are really preaching to others if we ourselves do what we say, if we are pierced with God’s love, if, since we cannot avoid sin, our tears wash away the stains on our life that come with each new day. We truly feel remorse when we take to heart the lives of our forebears in the faith so that we are diminished in our own eyes. Then do we truly feel remorse, when we attentively examine God’s teachings and adopt for our own use what those we revere themselves used for theirs. And while we are moved to remorse on our own account, let us also take responsibility ¬†for the lives of those entrusted to our care. Our own bitter compunction should not divert us from concern for our neighbor. What good to love and strive to do good for our neighbor and abandon ourselves? We must realize that our passion for justice in the face of another’s evil must never cause us to lose the virtue of gentleness. Priests must not be quick-tempered or rash; they must instead be temperate and thoughtful. We must support those we challenge and challenge those we support. If we neglect this, our work will lack either courage or gentleness. What shall we call the human soul but the food of the Lord? It is created to become nothing less than Christ’s body and to bring about growth to the eternal church. We priests are to season this food. Cease to pray, cease to teach, and the salt loses its taste.

The Gospel According to the Joneses: Christianity and the Middle Class

In my last post, my friend, Lindsay (who has a great blog you should check out), left a comment posing a question too big to answer in a simple reply:

How did Christianity in America become the realm of the middle class?

It’s really a strange phenomenon that if one were to make a mental picture an American Christian, they’d likely see a White suburbanite. In most countries, this wouldn’t be the case. For starters, there simply is no middle class in many countries. However, I think it’s also significant that in most countries, especially in countries where the church is growing, Christianity is more frequently associated with the poor.

So why, then, is Christianity in America associated more with the middle class than with the poor? What does a religion whose leader taught “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” have to offer a class of people who are economically more stable and wealthier than the majority of the world? Why would a class of people so obsessed with “keeping up” with fashion, technology and material possessions be so ready to call Lord the one who told one man to sell all the had and give to the poor? I have a number of theories, and I’m guessing the truth lies in a combination of these and other ideas.

1.) America’s heritage and values. Christian values have been woven into the story of America, at least as many people tell it. The first (European) settlers came seeking religious freedom. Our founding fathers designed the law of the land around Christian values. Even early on, people considered America a “Christian nation.” (This is despite all of the very unChristian pieces of our history, like stealing land from natives and participating in the human slave trade, but that’s a whole other blogpost.) Christianity in many ways is considered as American as baseball and apple pie. And who likes baseball or apple pie more than the middle class?

2.) The evangelical church’s evangelism strategy in the 20th century. I’ve become more aware of this as a church planter. For years, the “church planting model” for evangelical churches in America was something like this: 1.) find a new developing suburb. 2.) buy several acres of land there. 3.) build your church. 4.) watch the people come. This is how most evangelical churches grew, particularly the evangelical megachurches, which are almost always located in the suburbs. The problem is that while this was happening, most were completely ignoring the fact that demographics in the neighborhoods of existing churches were changing, especially in the city. Most urban churches, however, continued their ministries as culturally White, middle-to-upper-middle class congregations, despite their surrounding context becoming increasingly less wealthy and less White.

3.) Our consumerism. I’m becoming more and more convinced that this has been the source of much of the church’s problems in the past 50 years. Along with buying land in a growing suburb and building there, church planters in the 20th century (and many still) stressed the importance of finding your churches ‘niche’ ministries. The underlying assumption was that everyone was looking for a church; your church just needed to provide what ‘seekers’ were looking for. This resulted in church buildings that resemble shopping malls and movie theaters, church music that imitated top 40 pop music, and ministries targeted to very specific demographics. This consumerist model of doing church led to divisions among Christianity; most evangelical churches today can be linked to a particular race and economic class. (The consumerist model also led to the church losing it’s appreciation for beauty and shifting its focus more toward cultural imitation as opposed to culture making. But again, a whole other blogpost…)

4.) We’ve watered down the gospel. A friend of mine who used to work for the administration at my alma mater, Grove City College (a college that’s about as Christian middle-class as you can get) once said to me, “Grove City College talks a lot about ‘Christian values,’ but they never talk about Jesus. Jesus is far too radical for Grove City College.” I think this is an absolutely true assessment (at least in terms of the administration and overall culture of the place). The Christian values of the Christian American middle-class are an incomplete, if not at times inaccurate, representation of the teaching of Christ and his first followers.

To sum up, Christianity has become the realm of the middle class mainly because the evangelical church in America has targeted them in the past century. The evangelical focus on church-planting in growing suburbs often left many urban and rural areas neglected. Our focus on the middle-class included ministry models that reinforced already-present class divisions in America, and failed to challenge middle-class Christians with portions of the gospel that challenge middle-class values.

The Witness of Tipping

I had a friend in college who worked as a waitress. She once told me that her coworkers would often complain about having to work on Sundays at lunchtime. Their reason why? “The only people who come in are Christians on their way home from church. And Christians are bad tippers.”

I’m guessing that we Christians can owe part of our bad reputation among wait staff to the fact that many of the after-church restaurant patrons are elderly individuals who may just have a set habit of tipping a dollar or two, despite the fact that a dollar or two gets you considerably less than it did thirty. But the problem isn’t limited to our elders. I remember once being to dinner with a group of friends from high school on a visit home from college. They weren’t all Christians, but one was a rather outspoken Christian. And this outspoken Christian, after we had all chipped in our share, insisted that we leave a smaller tip than what our contributions were adding up to. “You’re just supposed to double the tax, and that’s the tip,” she said. In Pennsylvania, that amounts to a 14% tip, not even the expected 15% minimum… and there were nearly 10 of us that this waitress served. I’m not sure how she convinced the rest of us to take pack some of our contribution, but I remember wanting to leave quickly before the waitress picked up the money off of the table because I was so embarrassed.

What motivates us as Christians to be so stingy? Are people trying to be good stewards while ignoring Scripture’s exhortation to give generously? Christians need to realize that tipping is an act of witness to a waiter or waitress; and the waiter or waitress is going to make judgments on your character based on how well, or not well, you tip. Trust me. I’ve worked for tips before as a pizza deliverer, and that job completely changed my opinion of one church near my home after they tipped me very poorly (something like $1 on a $50 order), and my opinion wasn’t, “Well, they’re just trying to be good stewards.”

A few practices that I try to keep:

1.) Always tip at least 20%.

2.) Don’t “punish” your waiter/ress for bad or disappointing service with a smaller tip. Instead, show grace.

3.) If you give your waiter any reason to think you’re a Christian (being well-dressed on a Sunday afternoon, praying before your meal, faith-related conversation at the table, etc.) know that there’s a good chance that you’re representing the Church and maybe even Christ to your waitress, especially if s/he’s not a Christian him/herself. I once left a restaurant and realized 30 minutes later that my table forgot to leave a tip. On top of that, we had our Bibles out and open on the table. I went back, found our waiter, apologized and gave an even bigger tip than I would normally give.

4.) Take time to get to know the person waiting on you, especially if you’re a repeat customer. I’m still not too good at this one, but want to improve. Waiters and waitresses expend a lot of energy trying to make their customers feel good. It’s a very selfless act. Building a relationship with them and providing the conversational space for them to say now they’re doing or share from their life outside the restaurant could be a breath of fresh air.