October 24, 2017

Pray at the Pump: A Meditation on Jesus and Economic Discipleship

Here’s the current post at my new blog, and an example of what you will be reading there in the future.

Several days ago, I posted an invitation to discuss Jesus and Gas Prices on this blog. It’s a topic that, to a large extent, will reveal how much we really can engage our imagination with the concept of Jesus shaped discipleship.

For example, one evangelical has taken his particular view of rising gas prices and started a movement called “Pray at the Pump.” Somehow, the rise of gas prices is a sign of the end times and praying at the pump for God to lower prices will apparently prove that he’s in charge.

Of course, one wonders if it ever occurred to anyone that the inconvenience to the American lifestyle of mobility and affluence isn’t really something that God would respond to as an act of mercy. Most Americans are inconvenienced by gas prices because of the value they place on mobility and the decisions they’ve made about the kind of life they want to live, decisions made with the assumption of cheap gas in the background.

So somewhere a homeless man or a family struggling to put food on the table will see a group of middle class suburban Christians gathered around a gas pump, praying that God will have mercy and get things back to where we can all go about our business.

I don’t have to spend much time asking if Jesus would join such a prayer meeting.

This is the imagination and mindset of American Christians: God is committed to our lives as we imagine them. He is committed to the gas, the SUVs, the economics, the houses, the conveniences, the investments, the stability, the politics, the military and the religion that maintain the lives we lead.

And if you question this, you risk going down a hole labelled “Fanaticism.”

I grew up with parents and grandparents who had lived through the great depression. (That was an economic downturn in the early 20th century, not a psychological episode.) This event had stamped their view of life in America. They were never quite comfortable with prosperity as we are. They were embarrassed by having too much, and they were deeply aware of what poverty looked like.

My mother’s family knew what it was like to be hungry. Were it not for a wealthier relative, she was quite sure they would have starved in the 1930’s. My father’s family of eastern Kentucky mountaineers lived in what we would call third world conditions today, with just enough subsistence farming and hunting to survive in the backwoods of Lee County, Kentucky.

In the 1970’s, my father had money buried in jars in the back yard. Because he’d lived through bank runs and closings, he never entirely trusted banks.

Almost every one reading this post has their savings and retirement placed where you couldn’t get it tomorrow if you had to. And I really don’t think about it, because life seems very secure.

It is that feeling of security, and where it is, that gets in the way of knowing Jesus. It is why people are praying at gas pumps, and why millions of Christians will believe that whatever changes the American way of life is an “end times crisis,” while the daily poverty and desperation of others around the world is no crisis worth thinking of.

Here’s what I want to get to: Most people who know anything about Jesus know that he lived and taught some kind of radical economics. Christians may differ markedly on what it all means, but Jesus taught again and again that you can’t serve God and the god of financial security. Your treasure must be laid up in heaven. When you are rich in this world, you may be blind to truth and compassion. Your presumption that God is on the side of your economics may be called “foolishness” tomorrow.

Most people know this, and it appears that most American middle class evangelicals and many of their churches don’t know it. Jesus seems to be a spiritual guru, a success in life teacher, a ticket to heaven. He doesn’t mind the economic decisions I make unless I invest in porn or abortion or Democratic candidates. He’s on the side of whatever it takes for our country to have it’s “way of life,” including $2 gas in mom’s Upward soccer delivery SUV.

So….it occurs to me that, should there be a serious economic crisis in America- and would anyone like to bet on the likelihood of that?– it appears that most evangelicals are absent the individual or collective resources to process it on any level other than something like “Satan is attacking God’s people” or “The rapture will happen any minute now.”

I’d like to suggest that evangelicals need to learn how to embrace poverty. Not for show, but because at some point we will have to embrace poverty and, right now, we’d be without a clue on what to do.

We need to look at our churches, technology, luxuries, lifestyles and comfort zones with a ruthless eye. How can we untether ourselves from the God we believe has made all of this happen and told us to move into it as the American promised land?

How can we embrace downward mobility as the way of Christ without self-righteous carping, but with genuine repentance for the foolish way we’ve ignored the economic dimension of discipleship?

We need some contemporary St. Francis’s to throw away their personal affluence and show us another way.

We need Bible teaching that challenges our involvement in what is surely a doomed system.

We need leaders willing to walk away from the building and the salary, and to teach others to do the same.

We need a holy imagination of what it would mean to be “simple church” in terms of economics, and not just programs.

What will your church, your student ministry, your children’s ministry, your discipleship, your worship, your youth program and your evangelism look like in an extended economic crisis?

We need to be so formed by Jesus that the possibilities and authenticity of poverty will be beautiful to us.

We may be forced to embrace economic realities that have prayer meetings at the gas pump looking appropriate. If that’s not going to be the case, we need a new way of following Jesus now.

Comments

  1. Great points.

    When you ask about what church will look like, I have been wrestling with the same things. The last few months have been working through Paul’s letters to Titus and Timothy, specifically in regards to pastors/leaders in the church.

    The current philosophy of “build it and they will come” that permeates the American church fails in an economic downturn. 6 figure pastor salaries are difficult to maintain when entire industries are closing. $5.3 million dollar budgets are hard to meet when half your congregation is unemployed or have taken salary cuts.

    “Peter, come follow me, yes, yes, you can keep your stock options in the fishing fleet”.

    “Matthew, have a story for you to write, yes, you can keep the Roman retirement plan.”

    “Philemon, you have a right to that slave, take back what is yours.”

  2. Something good I could see coming out of an ongoing or even permanent gas shortage would be the end of the commuter megachurch and the return of the community church. Of course, it’s ironic that many commuter megachurches have “Community” in their names but do very little to develop “community” in the places their located. What if Christians had to find a church within walking distance of their house rather than driving to the other side of the county to see the show on the big screen. Imagine the possibilities.

  3. Scott Miller says:

    Preach it, iMonk!

  4. I have to disagree with some of the basic premises of this post. It may sound romantic to glorify poverty as though this is some “higher spiritual state.” Speaking as one who came from abject poverty, I can asure you it is not.
    I am slow to judge believers who are struggling to feed, shelter, and clothe their families, beseeching God to intervene ecomomically so they can continue to fulfill their God-given vocation as providers for their families. I may choose to not pray at the pump(see Jesus’ admonition about praying in secret)but I do pray about my personal finances. The unspoken assumption in this post and in some of the comments is that we are participating in wickedness if we drive a car to work or have to drive miles to find a church that really preaches the Gospel. Are there abuses? Yes. Does this mean we are all sinning by playing the hand dealt to us in this culture? I don’t think it does.
    Economic realities may change, and the church to a greater or lesser degree may have to adapt, but the idea that poverty is spiritually beneficial in and of itself, I think is mistaken.

  5. >…to glorify poverty as though this is some “higher spiritual state.”
    >…the idea that poverty is spiritually beneficial in and of itself,

    I believe I’ve spoken of poverty only as 1) a probably reality in economic crisis and 2) a choice of relative economics for the sake of authenticity. Otherwise, I’ve not intended to suggest anything “spiritual” about poverty nor to glorify it. Similarly, I have no desire to say prosperity in the American sense is a higher spiritual state, or to glorify it or to say it is spiritually good, in and of itself or with an accompanying justification.

    I am more interested in how economics shapes us as disciples, and especially how poverty has and is shaping other Christians with a more authentic witness to the all sufficiency of Christ. John Piper has said that when we say Christ is our treasure but it appears a BMW is our treasure, we are not communicating the Gospel.

    Further, I never implied anything about justification or acceptance with God. I do believe Jesus spoke clearly about money in regard to sanctification, and I referred (without listing references) to several texts.

    >….The unspoken assumption in this post and in some of the comments is that we are participating in wickedness if we drive a car to work or have to drive miles to find a church that really preaches the Gospel.

    I would never use the word wickedness, and it is far beyond anything I ever thought to call driving a car to work “wickednesss.” Questioning what we drive and how often we need to drive is a question of Christian stewardship, i.e. how do I manage what I have to the glory of God.

    If there is a choice between a neighborhood gathering of believers or driving 75 miles to a church, and that choice affects whether I can contribute to missions or relief of the poor, the disciple does have something to think about.

    Again, nothing here about justification. But there is something here about discipleship if there is an economic downturn. Evangelicals in the US are identified largely with a message of prosperity. I question whether that should be associated with the Gospel, and I definitely question whether it provides for an authentic evangelism.

    peace

    MS

  6. Amen. Too often I replace God with the god of money, security, and comfort. Is God my all, or is He the ATM of life, just sitting there waiing for me to slip the card of prayer in, press a few buttons, and get the currency of comfort that I want? I do not glorify poverty or wealth, but so many times I trade trust in my my Lord for trust in my economics and security; faith in my country or economy rather than faith in the One who created me and this world in the first place. If I need to be shaken out of my situation to realize that, then that is exactly what I need. I can see why it is hard for the rich man to enter the kingdom, just as I know that I cannot serve God and money. I must rely on God alone.

  7. >….The unspoken assumption in this post and in some of the comments is that we are participating in wickedness if we drive a car to work or have to drive miles to find a church that really preaches the Gospel.

    Whatever our local predicaments may be, God knows your heart and mine.

    But, I don’t buy the notion that finding a church “that really preaches the gospel” is such a difficult task. Why is it that these churches “that really preach the gospel” tend to be lilly white, almost never found in inner city/urban areas and emphasize foreign missions almost to the exclusion of urban ministry in their own backyard?

    I think a lot of the theological posturing that goes on is based on a deeply rooted xenophobia.

  8. Scott Eaton says:

    Hi Michael,

    Being Jesus-shaped cuts deep, doesn’t it? It’s pretty easy as an evangelical to talk about justification, but this business about following Jesus – now that’s hard. Sometimes the way even seems a bit narrow.

    Let’s be honest. More often than not I just don’t like letting Jesus shape me. It’s hard. It hurts. It’s difficult and radical.

    But it’s also good, right, and true. So, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, “If the truth hurts, be in pain.”

    Amen.

  9. u2wesley,

    So now you insinuate that people searching for a church and willing to drive to get there are driven by a “deeply rooted xenophobia” Furthermore, you have no idea of the ethnic make up of the community I attend church in, or wether it is in an urban or suburban location.You have no idea what kind of Missions we support, or where they are. Dude, take your judgementalism and shove it.

    Yes, finding a church that “really preaches the gospel” is that hard. This blog and others are a testament to the lack of real Gospel being preached in Evangelicalism. If you are willing to settle for Purpose Driven, or generic Gen X/baby boomer contempo worship, heavy on “biblical principles” and all the stuff we need to be doing, then I can just go down the street. If I desire anything deeper I just may be out of luck unless I drive, sometimes a long way. Would you be willing to settle for for a Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox Parish because you would have to drive a long way to a Baptist or Wesleyan church?(I am assuming you are some form of protestant Evangelical.) I mean join it and become an integral part of their ministry, not just attend and slip out the door when the service was over.

    Michael,
    Thanks for the clarification. I din’t think your comments had anything to do with Justification.

  10. U2Wesley,

    Finding a church that both meets your needs as a Christian believer, encourages you to become more like Christ, and allows you a place to serve, can be very hard.

    I remember, when I lived in Southern California, that I spent at least 6 months trying, and when after from shortly before Christmas to Easter that wasn’t working out, I took a seminary course to provide some spiritual continuity while I resumed my search.

    If you are wondering why the mega-churches tend to be more white, I suspect that it is more cultural. I would not be comfortable with black style worship, with the shouting etc. during the sermon, and the musical style. Therefore, I don’t expect the reverse either.

  11. Patrick – did you actually read my post before you decided to over react in such a harsh, judgmental way? It doesn’t appear so

    >…So now you insinuate that people searching for a church and willing to drive to get there are driven by a “deeply rooted xenophobia”

    Yes, I will make that assumption, in most cases. Because in most cases people want to be entertained, not discipled.

    >…Furthermore, you have no idea of the ethnic make up of the community I attend church in, or wether it is in an urban or suburban location.You have no idea what kind of Missions we support, or where they are. Dude, take your judgementalism and shove it.

    When did this become about you? As I stated at the beginning of my previous post – “Whatever our local predicaments may be, God knows your heart and mine.” I guess the idea that God knows your heart sort of rubbed you the wrong way.

    >…Yes, finding a church that “really preaches the gospel” is that hard. This blog and others are a testament to the lack of real Gospel being preached in Evangelicalism. If you are willing to settle for Purpose Driven, or generic Gen X/baby boomer contempo worship, heavy on “biblical principles” and all the stuff we need to be doing, then I can just go down the street. If I desire anything deeper I just may be out of luck unless I drive, sometimes a long way.

    You seem to think that the most important thing to look for in a church is what it can do for you. While you judge the “Purpose Driven Gen X/baby boomer contempo worship” you demonstrate your own consumeristic orientation by how “deep” a church needs to be to meet your “needs.” We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.

    >…Would you be willing to settle for for a Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox Parish because you would have to drive a long way to a Baptist or Wesleyan church?(I am assuming you are some form of protestant Evangelical.) I mean join it and become an integral part of their ministry, not just attend and slip out the door when the service was over.

    And there you have it. Based on the few sentences of my previous post, you’ve been able to determine my denominational affiliation, or so you think. My family and I attend an Orthodox Anglican Church, as if that matters, which it doesn’t. The main reason we attend there is that they’re looking for ways to develop a ministry to a low income apartment complex they own, which is the kind of outreach my ministry specializes in. And they have a great Confirmation program, which is good for my kids.

  12. Patrick – did you actually read my post before you decided to over react in such a harsh, judgmental way? It doesn’t appear so:

    >…So now you insinuate that people searching for a church and willing to drive to get there are driven by a “deeply rooted xenophobia”

    Yes, I will make that assumption, in most cases. Because in most cases people want to be entertained, not discipled.

    >…Furthermore, you have no idea of the ethnic make up of the community I attend church in, or wether it is in an urban or suburban location.You have no idea what kind of Missions we support, or where they are. Dude, take your judgementalism and shove it.

    When did this become about you? As I stated at the beginning of my previous post – “Whatever our local predicaments may be, God knows your heart and mine.” I guess the idea that God knows your heart sort of rubbed you the wrong way.

    >…Yes, finding a church that “really preaches the gospel” is that hard. This blog and others are a testament to the lack of real Gospel being preached in Evangelicalism. If you are willing to settle for Purpose Driven, or generic Gen X/baby boomer contempo worship, heavy on “biblical principles” and all the stuff we need to be doing, then I can just go down the street. If I desire anything deeper I just may be out of luck unless I drive, sometimes a long way.

    You seem to think that the most important thing to look for in a church is what it can do for you. While you judge the “Purpose Driven Gen X/baby boomer contempo worship” you demonstrate your own consumeristic orientation by how “deep” a church needs to be to meet your “needs.” We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.

    >…Would you be willing to settle for for a Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox Parish because you would have to drive a long way to a Baptist or Wesleyan church?(I am assuming you are some form of protestant Evangelical.) I mean join it and become an integral part of their ministry, not just attend and slip out the door when the service was over.

    And there you have it. Based on the few sentences of my previous post, you’ve been able to determine my denominational affiliation, or so you think. My family and I attend an Orthodox Anglican Church, as if that matters, which it doesn’t. The main reason we attend there is that they’re looking for ways to develop a ministry to a low income apartment complex they own, which is the kind of outreach my ministry specializes in. And they have a great Confirmation program, which is good for my kids.

    Your theological posturing may or may not be based on a deeply rooted xenophobia, but there do appear to some other issues in play.

  13. Anna A – See my response to Patrick Kyle.

  14. ChurchBob says:

    Come on you guys, don’t tell us, show us.

  15. u2wesley,

    You still have failed to prove your point. You made blanket statements that were unwarranted. If I was mistaken about being accused in your first post, you have certainly falsly accused me in your latest post. Desire for modicum of doctrinal agreement and worship that does not ape our culture’s entertainment venues hardly strikes me as a “consumeristic orientation.” You still didn’t answer my question. (Nice dodge, by the way.) I had “assumed” denominational affiliation for the sake of argument. I’d like to see you “bear with the infirmities of the weak”( this phrase used in this context smacks of a stuck up attitude) and visit my congregation before you go off pronouncing your judgements.

    This is as far as I’m going to go with this discussion. It has ceased to become profitable and will I probably give offense to the brethren if I take off the gloves and pursue it any further

  16. Patrick:

    Your arrogance obviously knows no bounds.

    From your initial knee jerk reaction, this was never a discussion.

    Your mistaken assumption regarding my denominational affiliation and then rationalizing it as something done “for the sake of argument” proves my point in two obvious ways – you were only interested in arguing and you were intending it as some sort of put down.

    As with everything else you said, you failed miserably on both points and then chose to rationalize rather than apologize.

    Take your anger somewhere else and leave the heavy lifting to those more qualified.

    Taking off the gloves? Once again, you prove my point.

    Now, keep your word, and let this be the end of it.

    If I were a betting man …….

  17. Just had an update on this a couple days ago, on local morning drive-time radio.

    Since gas prices peaked and are starting to inch down, these “Pray at the Pump” types have surfaced again. (Including the “Prophesy to the Pump” types who rebuke the pump — not the gas station clerk, the actual gas pumps — with Prophetic Words of Spiritual Warfare.)

    Now they’re claiming the prices are inching down BECAUSE of their Direct Line to God and their “Name-it-and-Claim-It” Spiritual Warfare on gas prices. They’re going to be insufferable for the foreseeable future.

  18. Jesus preached on the sermon on the Mount to lend money to all who asked, without expecting to be paid back! Read Matthew 5 and Luke 6:35.

    Jesus was a little bit peeved when he turned the money lenders out of the Temple.

    I think Jesus (and God’s) way of looking at economics doesn’t really fit any of our economic philosophies. What would we call it–share-ology mixed with it is the Owners Good Pleasure in paying the 1 hour worker as much as the 10 hour worker?

    “Love your neighbor as yourself” is still so radical, I think most people, church going or not, don’t want to hear it!

    Keep your hands off my property vs. love your neighbor–I think anyone who hears the word of God with compassion probably wonders why so many people don’t hear or listen.

    Everyone looks to Google or Microsoft for stories of geeks made good and help humanity. I think humanity (or even just a few of us, William Wilberforce style!) could hear the words of Jesus, and life would change so drastically for the better on earth (but Heaven would still be ultra-magnificient in comparison!)

    God is neither Democrat or Republican, but simply a Supreme Being who has allowed us to hear magnificent messages from Jesus that ring true, now and always!

    I am not looking for a doctrine or anything. I am just struck by how BIG the words of Jesus are, and how MOST people do the opposite of what he says!

    Economically, I think a lot of people would be better off, there would be fewer poor people, fewer hungry people, more love, everyone would sharing love more readily. The poor you will always have with you is a parable, some people will be “poor” for friendship, love, acceptance, good health, food, other things.

    it’s not just a Beverly Hills concept, I think Jesus is trying to teach us what REALITY IS, on earth as well as heaven.

    Alex