June 29, 2010
I remember one comment from a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago distinctly. I cannot remember what we talked about, but one phrase has stuck with me ever since: “We are more middle-class than Christian”. It was a critique that I could work with. Even though it was a critique that I realized has drastic implications for my own personal life. And I agree with what he said. Sometimes we are more middle-class than Christian. Our actions are shaped more strongly by our economic position than our religious identity.
But thinking back on my experiences of church as a kid, being middle-class (or rich) was not an all-encompassing identity in our congregation. Although the critique that the Dutch Reformed church is mostly a middle-class church would probably have held for the congregation I grew up in, we had some poor people in the congregation.
I remember one lady who always attended church with her kids. Her husband didn’t make life easy for her, and even as a young teen I knew that she really struggled. She was really poor. I know that I could sense the discomfort in her involvement in the congregation, people didn’t really know what to do with her, but she was there. Year in, year out. And she was involved with the congregation.
Maybe an even stronger memory was from the kids that was in my youth group whom I sometimes got to know, and sometimes even had the opportunity of visiting there homes. The one was the neighbor of the above mentioned woman. I remember walking into the small pre-fab home she shared with a father and sister, and there was nothing in the living room. Not a single piece of furniture.
Those who were truly poor were a minority. The poor mostly attended other congregations. But at least I can remember sharing faith with some poor people.
My friends comment isn’t that difficult to find in our churches really. I guess we don’t really change anything after recognizing this, but I’ve heard similar thoughts in other places. Sometimes our denomination would be described as a middle-class church, and it would be generally accepted, sometimes as something inevitable, sometimes as something that should change.
But I’ve never (or at least outside of a small group of people focusing on this specific issue) hear anyone saying: “We are more white than Christian”. Yet,whiteness was the most-shared characteristic among those attending the congregation in which I grew up in. Not middle-class, not Reformed, not even Christian (and I’m talking about people understanding themselves as Christian, not making judgments on what “real Christians” would look like) was as common a mark as being white. We were primarily a white congregation, above all else. We had diverse sexual orientations (although not admitted at that stage), diverse spiritualities, diverse theological presuppositions, diverse income-groups, we even had people who weren’t 1st language Afrikaans speakers (very few, but they were there), but all of us were white. That characteristic was primary. (Let me just make a note that I grew up in a very small town, which probably caused the congregation to be even more diverse, since you didn’t have the wide variety of specializing congregations, and closed suburbs, that my current city context offers)
It’s 2010, and in most places this has not changed much. So I want to suggest that if I want to understand my own church. The one I grew up in, even the one I’m currently attending and pastoring, and the denomination I’m part of, I should start by understanding it as a white church. I am part of a white church. And if for us anything is more dominant that being Christian, then it must be being white.