Wheaton: evangelicalism's land of Goshen (Part 1)...
Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and your O.K.
Money it's a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream,
Think I'll buy me a football team
Money get back
I'm all right Jack keep your hands off my stack.
Money it's a hit
Don't give me that do goody good bullshit
I'm in the hi-fidelity first class traveling set
And I think I need a Lear jet
Money it's a crime
Share it fairly but don't take a slice of my pie
Money so they say
Is the root of all evil today...
("Money" from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon)
One of the more sobering developments of my lifetime is the gentrification of Wheaton I'm confronted by each time we return home for family gatherings. Wheaton has turned from being an unpretentious middle/middle and lower/middle to an upper class community. Homes on the street my wife, Mary Lee, grew up on, East Forest Avenue, are being torn down two at a time to make way for one million dollar home after another--homes that demand two lots to spread their cheeks wide. A couple lots owned by my late father-in-law, situated just behind the family home, were sold off recently and someone has just built a home there that's at least ten thousand square feet with a five car barn attached. Driving down the street, I find myself wondering whether these families have any children, and how many?
A simpler man would wonder what on earth these confessing Christians think they're doing with all this space? Are they housing an orphanage? George Mueller would be tickled pink to have any one of the homes for one of his orphanages and house many more little ones than anyone could imagine--in splendid luxury. But of course, I'm kidding: Mueller wouldn't touch one of these things with a ten foot pole and those who built them should be ashamed of themselves. Failing that, their elders should shame them.
Why? For obvious idolatry:
For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. (Ephesians 5:5)
Granted the task of deciding what constitutes covetousness would be difficult in such a community. Exactly what is the cut-off point for square feet in housing, and should that vary by number of children and frequency of missionaries on furlough living in one of the wings of the house?
But the difficulty of the task ought not to shake pastors and elders off of their responsibility making this sort of judgement. First Corinthians makes it clear that such covetousness should be disciplined, and sometimes be the basis for excommunication:
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES. (1Corithians 5:9-13)
Our home church, College Church in Wheaton, is the most stunning sanctuary I've ever been in this side of the Atlantic and worshipping there has become an experience of cultural exchange for our family when we're there over a weekend. We continue to love the church and her people but we do suffer under the noisy statement of wealth and culture that permeates her parking lot and sanctuary. You know, clothes and cars and music--those things that serve as public signatures of one's class. Like ermine in the middle ages.
Now those who live in Wheaton and surrounding DuPage County communities might view my complaints as quixotic and smile to themselves thinking I'm naive. I'm not. I've made the mistake of buying a Lexus LS400 a few years back and being disciplined by the Lord for doing so. When I finally succeeded in selling it, I repented publicly before my congregation admitting that it had been sin and that I was sorry for the moral and spiritual capital I squandered owning it. At first I'd defended the purchase explaining that it was used and had been owned by a dear friend's father who had given it to me at a good discount. I was planning to drive it just through the summer, and then sell it at a profit. Hah! It was sin and I repented.
What made it sin? Was it that a Lexus is evil? That a top-of-the-line Lexus is evil? No and no.
It was that everyone in my congregation knew that my purchase of that vehicle was extravagant, and that I had given in to covetousness. That was clear and so that was sin. And the good-natured but pointed comments of my family and the young men of the church helped lead me to repentance, praise God.
So what is the difference between my Lexus and the ServiceMASTER castle, or is there a difference? And if there's a difference, is it just one of degree? Or is there something more substantial here?
These questions must be asked within the context of the local church, contextualized by the community that church lives among. What must not happen is for the church to read such texts as Ephesians 5:5 and decide the Christianity it commands is too difficult and leave it untried.
Over the years I've known many families that lived in large houses, but used those houses for the Kingdom of God. Specifically, the Allen Emerys who lived just south of Boston in a mansion filled with antiques, but hosted a weekly youth meeting that filled their house and had the kids using those antiques as if they were normal furniture. The Emerys decided at the beginning that their home and antiques were God's, and that any damage done to them was a part of the work of the Kingdom God had called them to. The Ken Hansens lived just outside of Wheaton in a mansion large enough to intimidate almost anyone from College Church, but again their home was constantly used to host youth groups and Sunday evening hymn sings. It was lived in and everyone who entered it knew that the purpose of the mansion was ministry--not conspicuous consumption. Both Ken and Jean were wonderful in their hospitality--Jean in her utter graciousness and Ken in his driving intensity--and no one felt class conscious after a meal around their table.
David and Cathron Dodrill are building a new home that's a mansion on the outskirts of Bloomington, but their home is filled with adopted children, the widow and three children of their farmhand who died in a tragic auto accident several years ago, another young man from our church. They put up missionaries, host church potlucks, and throw spontaneous pool parties for our kids in the summer. As I've said to David, he doesn't live in a home--he presides over an institution. Bob and Debbie Forney live in a very large house but they have lots of children, both physical and spiritual, and their home has hosted the Friday Night Bible Study for decades, now. And so, Bob and Debbie's home gets used and used and used and used--for the Kingdom of God. Everyone's welcome and no one can count the number of times they've filled the place to the brim, often with over a hundred souls, on a Friday night.
The common theme in each of these cases is that the Lord has blessed His Church through the ministry of these homes, and the size of each home is only a function of the ministry carried on within that home. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The fact that some mansions are worn out in the ministry of the Gospel ought never to cause the People of God to turn away from asking questions about the obscene wealth that is one of the most conspicuous marks of the evangelical church today, particularly around Wheaton, Illinois.
Judgement is to be a central characteristic of our community life as the Family of God. Such judgements as those spoken of above are hard work, but they're at the heart of confessing Christ in our day.