Stop giving bonus points for success

Mar 16, 2015 by

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Sociologist Dalton Conley explained on NPR’s Here and Now how families become less cohesive when one sibling is significantly richer than the others. Money triggers family tensions. Siblings with more money want to hang out with people of their income bracket. They feel less connected to lower-income brothers and sisters.

Yoder-Short

Yoder-Short

In The Pecking Order, Conley writes, “Family is no haven in a harsh world. It is part and parcel of that world, rat race and all.”

I want to believe faith siblings can defy this trend, that having money doesn’t mean unspoken divisions within the church family. Sadly, experience doesn’t always show this to be true. Churches can be part and parcel of the world, rat race and all.

The same dynamics that Conley noted crop up in church families. Income inequalities make us less cohesive. We are a long way from the enthusiastic generosity in Acts 2, where things were held in common. We easily skip over Paul’s familiar words in Gal. 3:28 that in the Jesus community there is no slave or free, no stark economic difference, all are one in Christ.

Our faith siblings in the global church find themselves in wide income brackets. We in North America are pretty rich. But wealth gaps also exist in local church dynamics. I knew at an early age that my family was not among the rich in our local congregation.

Churches can unknowingly reinforce economic divisions. The Book of James warns about favoritism. A person comes dressed in a designer suit, obviously successful, and we give him the best seat in the house. Someone comes in looking like their clothes are from Goodwill, and we point her to the back pew (James 2:1-8). We may not be as blatant as James portrays, but we have ways of giving bonus points to successful people.

Think about how we fill out those gift discernment sheets. Do the successful get top slots? Does an economically challenged person have a chance to be an elder? Does a humble house cleaner get a turn at church council? As we fill in our tidy forms, do we remember that God chooses the poor to be rich in faith (James 2:5)? Are we finding ways to enable people of all economic stripes to fit in and be active, powerful members?

Our society’s value system is out of whack. We live in a consumer-oriented, income-obsessed society. Tech workers make impressive salaries while schoolteachers are underpaid; football coaches make a fortune while nursing home aides earn a pittance; bank executives, even dishonest ones, are richly rewarded while daycare workers skimp by. What are we in the faith community doing to turn our society’s warped value system upside down?

It’s not about merely shuffling neglected people into positions. It’s about becoming a family of Jesus where the first are last and economic divisions are dissolving. Maybe we don’t need gift discernment sheets. Maybe we don’t need all our committees. Maybe we just need eyes to see beyond our rat-race world.

Being siblings in the Jesus family draws us together, but economic divisions continue to pop up in our church families. Dividing walls do break down, but we keep bumping into lingering bricks. Let’s find creative ways to clear them away.

Now I’m wondering if a faith sibling without a spiffy car can be a worship leader.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.


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