Can a church have such a thing as an unbiblical culture? It sure can! Look around the world, both past and present, and you’ll find churches whose doors are only opened to you if you’re a certain colour, social class, background or if you’re sticking to a certain dress code. Sure, it isn’t true of every middle class church, but there can be an unbiblical culture that is alive in middle-class churches.
I live in Edinburgh, and there are a good number of middle and upper class people here and there are many good, middle class churches too. Being middle class isn’t a sin or a bad thing at all, but there can be unhelpful and unbiblical cultures that creep into such churches. Many of those kinds of churches have food banks and are involved in ministries like feeding the homeless, etc. But the question I always find myself asking is, how welcome would those ‘clients’ be in a Sunday service?
I should say that I serve in a middle-class church myself who I love dearly and who serves Jesus wholeheartedly. Obviously, not every middle class church is like this and I’m not writing this with one specific church in mind.
I wouldn’t say I’m middle class, but there some people probably would say that I am. I didn’t grow up with money, my family aren’t well off. When growing up we moved to Romania to work with the homeless population there, so I have seen what it means to be poor. Poverty can be hidden, even in the most unlikely of places. There are plenty of churches in affluent areas, which I guess is understandable considering that is where the money was in years gone by that enabled churches to be built or bought and staff to be paid.
But what can an unbiblical culture look like in a middle class church?
Suspicion of the ‘different’
It is more evident in middle class churches, than in say for example a working class church, when someone ‘different’ comes in. You might see shuffling of seats as people move away from the suspicious person who doesn’t seem to quite fit the ‘Sunday best’ vibe. One of the common misconceptions among the middle class is that the working class are not intelligent, which simply isn’t true. When I was at bible college and we went evangelising I had more intellectually stimulating conversations around faith, the world and current events with people from the scheme (housing estate) close by than I did with students in the city centre.
Churches might be suspicious of ‘different people’ because they are unpredictable. They maybe don’t know the rhythm of stand to sing, sit to pray and shake the minister’s hand at the door. But our churches should not be sausage factories of one type of person. Arguably, if our churches are all of the same race, same class, same social and economical background, are we really being the diverse church that the Bible calls us to be? I don’t think we are.
Another unbiblical point of culture in middle class churches could be the unspoken rules around the dress code. A good number of years ago my older brother and I were kicked out of a church because of the way we were dressed, “how dare you wear shorts to church?!?!?!”
I don’t recall the verse in the Bible where Jesus says “Pick up your suit, deny your hoodie and follow me”. Whilst there are people who will feel comfortable wearing a suit to church, and if they do great, people shouldn’t be judged if they don’t fit that picture. The challenge to consider is how would people in your church react if someone who is visibly going through a rough time rocks up to your church, will they talk about the person over lunch in a bewildered way or will they be intentional to go and say hello and have a chat?
This is probably one of the biggest ‘turn offs’ that I’ve come across in conversations with people, they say “I don’t fit in because I don’t speak the Christian lingo that everyone uses”. This also applies to people who aren’t Christian, and leads to people feeling embarrassed to speak, embarrassed to pray and unable to chip into conversations or Bible studies because of the language/jargon barrier.
This doesn’t mean that we need to dumb things down, but really how many people actually understand the jargon, or is it just part of the Christian Sunday vocabulary that they’ve heard their whole lives. The language we use is important, If you wouldn’t use it in the pub, don’t use it in the pulpit or the pew.
Our language, especially in prayer, is not to be flowery and lofty but it is to be real and what we’re actually thinking. For some that will mean that they use big theological words but we also need to know that for others that could mean they pray as they would talk with a mate on the street. We also need to make sure that the language we use is understandable for people, so as not to unintentionally shut them out and make them feel unwelcome. Hand new Christians a Bible not a 2022 volume of a Christian dictionary.
One of the most unbiblical things that I’ve seen is when a middle class church expect a new Christian to become one of them. The person is expected to leave their entire background behind and become like every other member in the church, to adopt the dress code and to walk and talk like the rest of the church. This promotes the idea that the person’s background is wrong and sinful. Sure, there may be things and maybe even people, that they need to be cautious of for a while depending on their background and the temptation to revert to their pre-Christ lives. But the answer to that is a work of the Spirit not a call to conform to the middle-class cultural norm in a church. By God’s grace people are saved and then called to go to the people around them and share the gospel, that means they still need to have people in their lives.
We should be excited to walk into a church and see someone in a 3-piece suit belting out ‘Amazing Grace’ next to someone in shorts and a hoodie. We should be overjoyed to hear different languages spoken at church, to see different cultures from around the world meeting to worship God together. The culture of every church should be one that points people to Jesus, not to a set of unwritten rules that must be followed to keep up with the culture of a certain standard of social or economic class.