Are Suburban Churches Triumphalistic?

Hello, world!

So we’ve been out of the loop here on the blog for a little bit, mainly because we drove to Philadelphia for The Justice Conference at the end of February, and then we had to RECOVER from driving all the way to Philly and back! (That’s a 38-hour round trip, by the way. Yeah.)

Anyway, today I wanted to muse a little about one of the significant principles that was added to my think-tank at the conference.

One of the workshops I attended was a fascinating one about the importance of lament in the church (given by Soong-Chan Rah, who is AWESOME). During this workshop, which I originally thought was going to be about Lent, Soong-Chan Rah talked about how the absence or presence of lament is part of the divide between wealthy congregations and congregations who deal with poverty. Predominantly white, upper-middle-class, often suburban congregations often focus on God’s blessings and God’s goodness and how they are “blessed to be a blessing” — aka they are supposed to give money to poor people. (I literally just heard a sermon on this this morning.) Rah calls this a “triumphalistic” theology — one that focuses on victory and good things and success (some even going so far as to claim that believing in God will actually bring you more wealth).

The problem with a triumphalistic, God-blessed-me-with-this-wealth mindset is that if God is responsible for making me wealthy, I’m inversely saying that God is also responsible for making others poor.

What, then, are poorer churches to think when they find themselves in dire straits and tough financial circumstances? If God “blesses” rich people with more money than they need, does that mean that God DOESN’T bless poor people? If rich Christians are “blessed (given money) in order to be a blessing (give the extra to poor people)”, then are the poor simply receptacles for the second-hand blessings of the rich? (The answer is NO, in case you were wondering.)

Viewing Christianity through a triumphalistic lens like this (and taking it across to its logical conclusions about poor people), it becomes clear why economic integration is difficult in the body of Christ: the rich and the poor view Christianity, their lives, and even God from totally different perspectives. How could poor Christians ever believe that God created them to be perpetual recipients of someone else’s kindness? And how can rich Christians step outside their victorious lives to understand what following Christ looks like from a position of hardship and lament?

It seems that God looks a lot different when life is hard than when life is easier. And, seeing as how I’m not an expert on life being hard, I’m just going to keep my mouth shut on that topic until I can do some more research rather than speculate on what God and Christianity are like from a perspective of lamentation rather than triumphalism.

But in the meantime, I’m thinking long and hard about what I believe about God and what God tells me I should do in relation to the poor.

What do you think? Is there really a theological line between rich Christians and poor Christians about God’s relationship to our circumstances? I’m just digging into this, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

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7 thoughts on “Are Suburban Churches Triumphalistic?

  1. The issue, I think, is that while this may be true, it doesn’t match, psychologically speaking, with how people actually view the wealth they’ve acquired.  Wealthy people are far, FAR more likely to attribute their success financially to their own hard work; the poor are more likely to consider themselves blessed.  Ultimately, the logic of wealthy Christians ends up butting heads:  did I earn it, or did God give it to me?  And they end up with this conclusion:  God gave it to me, BECAUSE I earned it.  I agree with your critique to this point.
     
    HOWEVER, I would argue that many congregations with which I have had interaction are not as well off financially – and spout the same theology.  Now, do they do this because they have been indoctrinated into this theology by the oppressors who benefit from these beliefs?  Perhaps.  But particularly a theology that “focuses on victory and good things and success” can be found at all socio-economic levels.
     
    In other words, I would say that this is a problem of Christian theology – not of wealthy, suburban churches only.
     
    Secondly, you neglect to mention one of the important critiques of such a theology, which is the effect it has on the wealthy.  That effect is, ultimately, this question:  “if God blesses with wealth, why am I so woefully unhappy?  And couldn’t God bless me with happiness instead?”  When such a person hears this, the logical conclusion that God has blessed them with wealth, and wealth is what makes them unhappy, means that God made them unhappy.  In other words, GOD MAKES EVERYONE UNHAPPY!  The poor because they have no money; the wealthy because they have too much.  It’s a bad theological system, and it pervades WAY too much of Christian discussion (not to mention the fact that it creates the object-subject diad that is so unhelpful, which you mentioned).

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    1. @davidlick Yes — I should have addressed that more fully. You’re right — there is definitely a strong tendency to take credit for “what I’ve earned” as opposed to viewing it all as a gift from God. Sort of the Christian version of “I built it.” I originally had a line in this post about how the rich don’t actually experience needing to rely on God for their needs, but my Editor-In-Chief thought it was a little bit of a rabbit trail so I cut it. =)
       
      Also, I agree that it’s totally possible for poor people to be materialistic and/or greedy as well — but as I said in my post, I don’t really have much experience of that, so I decided not to go there this time. 
       
      To me, all this comes back to my core assumption that I wrote about a while back, which is that God is God, and even though I tell myself a lot of things about God to make sense of the world, I really have NO IDEA what God actually thinks or what sorts of plans are going on. The only response I can have in the face of that is humility in everything, including in my theological formation/beliefs, and to hold it all loosely because in the end what matters isn’t if I’m right — it’s that God is God and I do my best to trust.

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  2. To answer your question–“Is there really a theological line between rich Christians and poor Christians about God’s relationship to our circumstances?”–YES.
     
    Which is precisely why it’s so important to have lots of different theologies out there.  Our different perspectives in life, based on our social/geographic/economic circumstances, definitely impact how we see the world and how we see God.  No single perspective can ever fully encompass God and is bound to miss out on key issues that are obvious from other standpoints.  Liberation theology reminds the rest of Christianity of the insights and perspectives one has as a poor person (i.e. that having wealth isn’t necessarily a blessing bestowed by God).  Black theology reminds the rest of Christianity what African American experience can bring to the table, for instance seeing God as one who liberates rather than demands servitude.  Feminist theology reminds the rest of Christianity of how women’s experiences point out serious flaws with patriarchal beliefs and traditions.  Womanist theology reminds the rest of Christianity how those who are doubly oppressed (by sex and race) notice problems even with other liberation-minded perspectives, e.g. white feminist and black male theology.  Asian theology reminds the rest of Christianity how steeped its so-called “regular/traditional theology” is in Hellenistic and Western thought, since ideas that are taken for granted in the West are not assumed in Asia.  And the list goes on.
     
    (I obviously took this in a very different direction from David…)  I do agree with him that the idea of God blessing us through money is present in churches at all economic levels.  Not that people often think it through to its logical conclusion, which you did:  If I have money because God blessed me, then other people don’t have it because God didn’t want to bless them.  I also agree with his reminder that wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness as this theology sort of implies.

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    1. @CarissaLick Thanks for reminding me of, well, college — and multiple theologies. Sometimes when you don’t have all those excellent books in front of you your mind sort of forgets the span of actual reality and narrows to encompass only your circumstances. Then you need excellent friends to remind you that, in fact, everyone brings a different perspective on God to the table, and we need them ALL to even come close to being whole.
       
      Also, yet another reason you should read Richard Twiss’s book, “One Tribe, Many Nations”. =)

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    2. @CarissaLick
      Thanks for reminding me of, well, college — and multiple theologies. Sometimes when you don’t have all those excellent books in front of you your mind sort of forgets the span of actual reality and narrows to encompass only your circumstances. Then you need excellent friends to remind you that, in fact, everyone brings a different perspective on God to the table, and we need them ALL to even come close to being whole.
       
      Also, yet another reason you should read Richard Twiss’s book, “One Church, Many Tribes”. =)

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  3. Thanks for posting this!  It is very interesting as I have often heard people talk about the ‘prosperity gospel’, but have not thought about the prosperity gospel in the broader sense of triumphalism.
     
    I read an interesting article in The Lutheran a while back (this one: http://www.thelutheran.org/article/article.cfm?article_id=9839) that argued that we should use the term privileged in cases where many people currently describe themselves or their congregation as blessed, for the same reasons that you state above.  Indeed, if we consider the beatitudes we find that Jesus says the poor, the hungry and the peacemakers are “blessed”, but “woe to you who are rich…”  The Psalms are littered with examples of ‘blessed is s/he who’… pursues wisdom, walks righteously, fears the Lord, lives by God’s word, etc.  Perhaps we need to change (or broaden?) our definition of what it means to be ‘blessed’?
     
    I wonder if this “triumphalistic” approach is also reflected in our hymnity.  Although there are some songs of lamentation in our hymnals, I would be hard pressed to think of many (or any) contemporary Christian laments (as one might hear on the radio).
     
    Finally, I wanted to echo what David is saying about how one responds (or doesn’t) to the “blessed to be a blessing” theology.  When I consider the statistics which indicate that Lutherans on average give between 2-3% and that poorer individuals tend to give a larger portion of their salary than wealthier people, I wonder to what extent the church body has truly embraced “blessed to be a blessing.”  If we truly understood our wealth to be a gift from God, that our wealth wasn’t ours to begin with, shouldn’t that be reflected in our church giving?
     
    Thoughts?

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    1. @KristenBur Thanks for chiming in — and for bringing da Luteran angle in as well!
       
      I continue to find it surprising, actually, how little liturgical/church-servicey lament appears in the evangelical church. As a Lutheran-rooted person, a little part of me is always really sad that we don’t really have liturgical seasons like Lent in the evangelical-ish church we currently attend, especially since like 75% of my favorite hymns are Lenten hymns! (Not that we sing hymns much in church anyway — much more rock-esque.) As you say — there aren’t really contemporary Christian laments! =)
       
      I think you bring up a really good point about whether we as affluent Christians are even walking the walk of “blessed to be a blessing”, which I still think is a flawed perspective, but if your stats are accurate it sounds like folks aren’t even “checking the box” of generosity, let alone really examining their attitudes about their “blessings”.
       
      It’s easy for many of us self-styled “mainstream” Christians to scoff at the prosperity gospel… but I think we let elements of it creep into our theological attitudes a lot more easily than we’d like to admit.

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