Inner City, Suburban. Multicultural, Homogenous.

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This week I’m straddling two worlds.

My family is participating in an urban family mission project in South Central LA. Just a month ago a guy was gunned down in front of the house where we’re staying.

I’m participating, as time is available, because I still have responsibilities in another world. I’m involved in a project to convert CS Lewis home in Oxford, The Kilns, into a year around study center. This means I am talking to well-to-do Christians in the LA area about financially supporting this wonderful project.

We’re here in the city with a church called Church of the Redeemer. Last night it struck me that just about everything about this inner city church is the opposite of today’s typical suburban church.

-This church is local whereas in suburban church life the average commute is 20 minutes. What this means is an intense focus on getting to know and serve the local population at Church of the Redeemer in contrast with a lack of genuine community often fostered by the far- flung root-lessness of many suburban churches. The urban church is inviting sleeves rolled up participation and the suburban church is offering an enticing spectator experience.

-This church is multicultural whereas the suburban church tends to be “homogenous.” Church of the Redeemer has a Latino pastor and an African American pastor. On Sunday we witnessed the melding into one body of Latino, African American, Asian, Caucasian into a dynamic worship and learning experience. Church growth experts say homogenous units grow fast and it has provided the perfect rationalization for suburban churches to avoid the messy process of getting to know and love people who are not like us economically and racially. Paul’s vision for the church was that it would mix Jew and Greek and provide exhibit A of unity in diversity that is supposed to characterize the kingdom of God. Numeric growth is easier to measure and fits the American penchant for size, but the early Christians focused on the depth of their spiritual life, a growth more difficult to measure but capable of standing the test of time.

–The inner city church is poor and humble whereas the suburban church tends to be wealthier. Danny, the Hispanic pastor at Church of the Redeemer, told us of the downward mobility involved in his move to South Central LA. The draw to this church was the call of God unencumbered by an appeal to pride of power or position.

Ironically, I am writing this column at a suburban Starbucks while waiting for my next appointment and at an adjacent table a youth pastor is trying to convince one of his “worship leaders” to stay on the team. From what I can gather in the bits and snatches of overheard conversation, this young guy is a very talented musician whose ego is hurt by a recent decision requiring him to share the front-man spot with another guy. Candidly, the whole conversation is nauseating me as I listen to the “recruiter” making multiple runs at satisfying the ego needs of a young guy who is apparently a quite spiritually immature, but talented musician. The desperation of the “recruiter” seems rooted in the fact that this church ministry is growing rapidly and they are routinely starting other churches that need “talented” worship leaders. At one point the recruiter begged the temperamental young brat to “hang on” a few more months and he could almost guarantee him the sole leadership role at the new location set to open soon.

This conversation is a snapshot of an evangelicalism gone awry, which is the subject of a new book titled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.” Just this morning I happened to read an interview with its author,Ron Sider.

[Read these three excerpts and think about them.
1) Take the issue of racism. A Gallup study discovered that when they asked the question, “Do you object if a black neighbor moves in next door?” the least prejudiced were Catholics and non-evangelicals. The next group, in terms of prejudice, was mainline Protestants. Evangelicals and Southern Baptists were the worst.
2) Materialism continues to be an incredible scandal. The average church member [from across the denominations] today gives about 2.6 percent of his or her income a quarter of a tithe to the church. Evangelicals used to be quite a lot better [in giving] than mainline denominations. But their giving has declined every year for several decades, and they’re now getting very close to the norm. The average evangelical giving is about 4.2 percent about two-fifths of a tithe.
3) Six percent of the “born-again” people tithe; nine percent of evangelicals do. Our income has gone up fabulously over the last 30-plus years. The average household income now in the U.S. is $forty-two thousand plus. If the average American Christian tithed, we’d have another $143 billion.]

Jesus was fond of elevating the importance of the poor and warning of the dangers of riches. This week my personal encounters are reminding me that there are some evil people among the poor and there are some righteous, generous people among the wealthy. What is at issue is a matter of the heart. John used a metaphor the relevance of which should be clear to those with eyes to see and ears to hear: Rich or poor, when we lose our first love we become lukewarm and God will spew us out of his mouth.

God help us all.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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