By Joe McKeever
“My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism” (James 2:1).
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries….” (James 5:1)
Believe it or don’t, but how to preach to the upper crust among us is an issue for some.
At the age of 30, this son of an Alabama coal miner and farmer (same guy) went from pastoring small neighborhood churches to the staff of the largest congregation in the state. Suddenly, the laity I was working with were executives of large companies, politicians in state government, and sons and daughters of old money.
It was a heady feeling, like I was in way over my head.
I recall sending dad a note. “Last night, I went visiting for the church with the vice-president of the Mississippi Power and Light Company and the treasurer of South Central Bell.”
If he had a response, I don’t recall. I suspect he smiled and thought little of it.
I was impressed; dad not so much.
I quickly discovered that those people were just exactly like the laboring folks I’d been ministering to in previous churches. They may have lived in fancier houses and had more college degrees and bigger cars, but that was about it.
Recently, a young minister asked me how he should go about writing policies for elders of a large, wealthy church. He said, “I’ve done this for smaller churches in little towns and middle-class neighborhoods. Now I’ve been asked to do this for First Church of Bigtown. I’m wondering how it should be different for rich people?”
I said, “No difference. Do it the same way.”
They’re all the same.
This week, I ran across something George Orwell said in his book, “Down and Out in Paris and London,” published in 1933, the depth of the Depression. This is a novel, but you get the impression it’s Orwell’s own story; the stories of poverty and hunger he describes could not have been conjured up at a typewriter in a writing studio somewhere. Several times the story was so dark and depressing that I laid it aside and went on to other books. I finally finished it, then flipped back to page 120 to study what Orwell had said about what he calls “fear of the mob.” It’s worth our attention.
“Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor, as though they were two different races, like negroes and white men. But in reality there is no such difference. The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty?
Orwell is making the point that the poor are no different from the rest of society and we should not fear them. I quote him here because he also makes the opposite point, that the rich are the same as the rest of us.
Where, we wonder, should we draw the line between rich and poor, or between average and rich? Who exactly is rich?
Forty years ago, billionaire oilman J. Paul Getty said the person making $20,000 a year lived as comfortably as he did. I imagine that would be $200,000 now, and the truth would still hold. In most places in America an income that size would allow you to live in a beautifully furnished home in a lovely neighborhood and come and go as you please, eat and dress as you like, and employ hired help in the kitchen and garden.
Who exactly is wealthy? Advice columnist Ann Landers–or maybe it was her twin Abigail Van Buren–used to say, “You know you’re rich if you can go to the grocery store and buy all the food you want without the first worry about there being enough money in the bank.”
In that case, I’m rich. You too?
By the standards of two-thirds of the world today, you and I live in palaces, dress in royal robes, and eat the food of kings.
Now, say you are the pastor and you are about to deliver a sermon to a congregation of well-heeled, somewhat sophisticated urbanites who have no worries about there being enough money in the bank to pay the mortgage or feed the children. How do you do it?
1) You prepare the same way you would for the congregation of Shiloh Number Three out on Highway 5. That is, you pray and study God’s Word, pray some more and study some more, think matters through, ask yourself what the Lord has taught you on this subject, and formulate a plan for the message.
Prepare the same way you always do.
2) You will want to make sure your appearance will not be a distraction and that you use proper English. Have your suit cleaned, but don’t go buy a new one you cannot afford just to impress these people. A great many in the congregation had humble beginnings and remember what it is to live from paycheck to paycheck. So, be yourself, although your best self. (You try to do that every Sunday anyway, right?)
Buy a new tie? Sure. Splurge.
3) Do not condescend to them (called reverse snobbery) or put on airs as though you are addressing Mrs. Clydesdale’s Daughters of the Order of the Hoity-Toity. (She was the banker’s wife in the Beverly Hillbillies television sitcom.)
Be yourself. Be natural. Relax. Put them at ease, too.
4) Tell yourself three things over and over again as you prepare and and as you approach the pulpit to give the message God has given you…
a) “These people are sinners whom God loves and for whom Jesus died.”
b) “These people are no different from my next door neighbors.”
c) “These people desperately need to hear this message from God’s Word.”
The family on Foxcroft Circle making a zillion a year will deal with the same things the rest of us do: a leaky faucet, ulcers, visits to the dentist, arguments with their teenagers, getting along with their neighbors, in-laws, and hemorrhoids (sorry).
Don’t treat them any different from the family on Rural Route 4.
I will say this, my friend…
God is dishonored when His preacher bows and curtsies before the high and mighty of this earth. We are to honor all men (and women and children), but show partiality to none.
With that in mind, our counsel (above) is identical to what we would say to the preacher who asks how he should preach to poor people.
The Lord told Jeremiah, “I will send you to kings and princes. Do not be too impressed by their majesty or intimidated by their wealth and power. If you are, I will humiliate you in front of them. Never forget that you are on my business and that I am with you.” (Free paraphrase of the gist of Jeremiah 1.)
Our friend Jerry Clower, renown comedian and raconteur from Mississippi (as well as a dear brother in Christ, now in Heaven), was about to address a convention of college presidents and executives here in New Orleans. My cousin from Dallas was in charge of logistics and we were planning to take Jerry to dinner following his presentation. (Readers unfamiliar with Brother Jerry should find him on youtube. He was an original.)
When Mr. Clower entered the hall, we greeted and I took him aside. “Nelda tells me these presidents have been at each other’s throats all week. They are disagreeing on everything and coming together on nothing. The tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife. I just thought you might want to know this before you speak.”
Ah, foolish me.
When he was presented, Jerry strode to the front of the platform, held out his huge arms in a loving embrace and bellowed, “HAW!!!! I love y’all!!!” The place came unglued.
They loved him back.
Jerry Clower did not do one thing different for all those Ph.D.s from what he would have done for a gathering of John Deere mechanics or Texas cotton growers. He was himself, had his material down pat, knew who God had made him, and loved his audience.
That is an unbeatable combination, my friend, and will work in every setting.
Joe McKeever is retired missions director for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Before that Mr. McKeever pastored churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.