Spiritual Privilege: The lost and the apathetic

There are a lot of debates going on in our country right now involving the issue of privilege. People are protesting in many different ways the issues of sexism and institutionalized racism in the U.S., all tied in to the issue of privilege. Whether or not you believe these issues exist in our country doesn’t really matter, since it really doesn’t have anything to do with my purpose for writing this. I’m not trying to awaken people to these issues since I don’t feel I know for sure where I stand on any of them, nor do I feel that I know enough about them to say anything relevant. What I do know is this: Privilege can be detrimental to all parties involved, both those who experience it and those who suffer from it. But the privilege I’m wanting to enlighten people to is drastically different from male privilege or white privilege. The privilege I feel the need to discuss, I feel has the potential to tear apart the American church as it stands today.

But before I get into that, a little background.

I grew up in the church. Both my parents have been in ministry for as long as I can remember. I grew up as a “pastor’s kid,” which generally comes with two potential stereotypes: Either you’re a hyper-sheltered goody-two-shoes who doesn’t do anything wrong and tattles on and/or judges the people who do “bad things,” or you just completely go off the deep end and end up doing all of the “bad things,” getting in trouble at school, possibly becoming a statistic in regards to teen pregnancy, and potentially even going to jail in some extreme cases. Fortunately for me, I feel that I don’t exactly fit into either of these categories, though I’m definitely more part of the first stereotype than the second. People always knew who I was growing up, because they knew my parents. And because they knew my parents, who were on staff, there always seemed to be some sort of unspoken rule about how I was meant to behave. But that’s a completely different topic. All this to say, I grew up in the church. I’ve known who Jesus is and what He’s done my whole life. I can’t remember a day when I didn’t. I grew up singing “Jesus Loves Me” and “Father Abraham,” and I even knew who Abraham was, along with Noah, Jonah, Joseph, Isaiah, Moses, Paul, all of the apostles, pretty much any biblical character you could come up with. I even went to a private Christian school that was run partly by my church until eighth grade. Growing up in the church absolutely has benefits. But, I believe, it can also have some detrimental effects.

Again, I feel the need to write a disclaimer: The points I am bringing up are speaking in general trends of the American church at large. I know that not all of these points apply to every church in this country, and in fact there are some churches that this post doesn’t even apply to, including the church that I’m fortunate enough to go to now. But, I would argue that the vast majority of churches in the U.S. suffer from some (or all) of the issues I plan to address. I am speaking from my own experience, having attended and volunteered at several different churches that suffered from these issues. That being said, I ask that you read with an open mind, and maybe take a moment to reflect on your own experience and see if any of these things may apply to you as well.

That said, here are some of the benefits of growing up in the church:

I’ve always known who Jesus is. There was never a day growing up that I didn’t know that Jesus died for me. I’ve always known that He loves me, and that He is on the throne, reigning as King and that one day I’ll get to be with Him forever.

I’ve never known a life outside of Christ. I’ve never had experience knowing what it’s like being “on the outside,” not knowing where I’m going or what my purpose in life is. I’ve always known that, when my time here comes to an end, I’ll get to be in heaven with Jesus forever, and that that’s the most important thing.

I’ve always known to avoid “bad stuff.” Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Well, not as much rock and roll. But growing up in the church, you’re always taught about things that will stand in the way of your relationship with Christ, especially things that are addictive. I’ve never done drugs, never even been in a relationship, and I’ve always tended to avoid things that are considered “really bad.” And, in most cases, if I’ve had run-ins with any of these “really bad” things, I’ve usually gotten help to get out of them.

I’ve always had a community. When you grow up in the church, you always have like-minded people to do life with. Some of the closest friends I’ve ever had are the ones that I grew up in church with. They’re the people I hung out with on the weekends and, on occasion, discussed some of the finer points of religion and faith. I’m so thankful for those friendships and wouldn’t trade my experiences with those people for anything.

There are so many benefits to being raised in the church, so many things that I’m incredibly thankful for and that have led to so many great memories and experiences that I’ve had in life. I found my calling in the church, I’ve discovered who I am in the church, and I’ve come to know Jesus because of the church.

Now here are some of the detriments of growing up in the church:

I’ve always known who Jesus is. Growing up in the church, you always know who Jesus is. In fact, He’s one of the biggest points of conversation, especially when you’re young. Your parents and Sunday school teachers always talk about Jesus and how He died for you, even though you may not fully understand what that even means yet. You always know that Jesus died for your sin, even though you don’t even really know what sin is or why it’s important, or what Jesus’s substitutionary sacrifice really accomplished.

I’ve never known a life outside of Christ. Growing up in the church, living a life in Christ can almost become hereditary. It can become something that a child inherently receives because their parents also have it. Because I grew up in a Christian family–especially with parents in ministry–I was almost born into the body of Christ. I’m not trying to knock on my parents or anything at all, the way I was raised was incredibly beneficial and loving, more so than many kids from my generation have experienced. But at the same time, there has never been a point in my life that I felt separate from Christ, that I felt that I was part of the world, rather than among the saved. Because of this, the life I’ve always lived and experienced I’ve always assumed was what a life in Christ was like, even though deep down I never felt the true change and transition from being on the outside to being on the inside. I’m not sure that the “conversion,” that true point and feeling of change is something that I’ve ever really experienced. And I feel that the same could be said for many of my peers that I grew up with in the church.

I grew up very judgmental. One of the main things that happens when you grow up being told “don’t do this, don’t do that, this is bad for you” is you start judging people who do said things. This point doesn’t specifically apply to the church, it applies to anyone really, but the church especially. No one explicitly tells you to judge people, it just sort of happens. And that was always me. As I mentioned, I was more of a goody-two-shoes pastor’s kid, and so I didn’t really participate in all of the things that we had entire sermon series on. I was never sleeping around or engaging in any sort of substance abuse. And so whenever I encountered someone who was struggling with these things, I immediately felt disgust and contempt for that person, knowing that I would never do something like that. There were certain sins especially that had become demonized in my mind to the point where they had become “the worst thing you could do.” This judgmental view had me looking at other people in a negative light while not turning the lens on myself and observing all of my own issues. And, trust me, I have a lot of them.

My community was very exclusive. As part of the in crowd, it can be difficult to remember the people locked outside. I have distinct memories throughout student ministry (middle school and high school) that we rarely had new people visit. And when they did, they usually didn’t stick around very long. And within this community in our student ministry, there were sub-communities, cliques of people who didn’t engage with other cliques. My experience in college was drastically different. I found a church that had new people coming in all the time and many of these people ended up staying. But then, once you were in, you were in. You became part of the meetings that only members could attend, and you only hung out with people within the church (specifically your church) and didn’t hang out with people who weren’t saved. Like, ever. (Involving myself in this community also led to a year and a half of spiritual abuse, but, once again, that’s another story.) And neither of these church environments really engaged their community in the sense of going out into the surrounding area and serving the people around them: Feeding the homeless, helping local schools with fundraisers, nothing of that sort. At least, not on a macro scale (I’m sure there are individuals who engaged in these things). Sure, we would raise money for organizations or take donations of food and clothing for different non-profits, and we would even have people go on the occasional missions trip overseas, but in terms of actual, active going out and engaging the community, being the hands and feet of Jesus, there was basically nothing. It was so exclusive, and the people who we engaged with outside of the church walls on a daily basis never would have known that our lives were “changed.” That we were “different.” When I was young, we just kept seeing the same people every week. In college, we brought people in and then wouldn’t allow them to be a light in the environments where the lost felt they were in a normal, comfortable space. And ultimately, I feel the communities in our surrounding area suffered from a terminal case of the church’s inaction.

So those are some of the benefits and detriments of growing up in the church. But, clearly, I haven’t gotten to my point yet. I started this off talking about privilege and then went straight into defining benefits and detriments of growing up in the church. My reasoning is this: I believe that the pros and cons of growing up in the church all add up to what I like to call spiritual privilege. Now, thinking through this, there are two main types of spiritual privilege: a purely spiritual privilege, and a socioeconomic/sociocultural spiritual privilege. The latter is determined by race and social class and is, quite frankly, its own beast that I don’t feel fully prepared to address at this present time, though the realities of socioeconomic spiritual privilege may be fairly obvious (to hear a good discussion involving some issues of socioeconomic spiritual privilege, check out The Liturgists Podcast, episode 34: Black and White). So, for now, I’ll be addressing the purely spiritual aspect of spiritual privilege.

If I were to give a specific definition to spiritual privilege, it would be this:

Spiritual privilege is the combination of the set of both positive and negative effects that growing up within the church has on an individual and the church at large. This set of beliefs and their effects is most commonly possessed by those who have lived their entire lives as part of the church, and haven’t truly known life without faith. These effects, which include a salvation based on heritage rather than faith, lead an individual and the church to a state of judgmental apathy and inaction due to the lack of experience of a true “conversion,” in the sense of transitioning from one state of being to another.

A very academic-sounding definition, I know. But here’s what I’m getting at: Spiritual privilege can cause those who have been raised in the church to be blind to the lost, the key word here being can. People who suffer from spiritual privilege are often unable to empathize with the lost, because they’ve never known a life other than the one they’re living. The conversion experience they’ve had is often based around a baptism, rather than a true life change. When people are raised having inherited salvation in Christ, rather than being taught that they are undeserving of grace, that they are just as flawed as the people that they’re told not to hang out with, and that they are saved by grace through faith in the One who was perfect and lived a perfect life in their place, life doesn’t change when you come back up from the baptismal. It stays the same, except you got dunked in a pool in front of the whole church so that they all know that you’re a Christian now, too. Any baggage you may have had before is the same baggage you have now, and the salvation of Christ has always been not only available, but a “reality” that you live in. Oftentimes, the “saved” are just as lost as the lost, if not more so. When your life hasn’t truly been changed by the power of Christ, the desire to share the good news of Christ about this change doesn’t truly exist. When there isn’t an empathy with the lost, because you have never truly lived life in their shoes, there’s no real desire to try to bring them out of their current state. After all, your life didn’t change when you were saved. So why would theirs? If their life ends up being the same after accepting Christ as it is now, what difference is there if they don’t ever accept Christ to begin with? Based on experience, the drug addict or the prostitute who gives their life to Jesus will become a drug addict or prostitute who’s apparently going to heaven now. Their life won’t change, there will just be Jesus sprinkled on top. Why should those people have the same right into the Kingdom of God as me, someone who has tried to do the right thing my whole life even though I fail most of the time and been super judgmental and hypocritical towards the very people I’m meant to help save? Their sin will just reflect badly on the body of Christ, won’t it?

This causes the spiritually privileged to interact exclusively with the spiritually privileged. This is why there isn’t a Gospel message preached in most churches most weekends, why so many churches devolve into a weekly self-help seminar on how to find the blessing of God in your life, rather than dealing with the secret sin you’re hiding. We carry Good News meant for the lost in this world, and we often hide it on Sundays because the people sitting in those seats are the same people every week. And they’re the same people every week because when visitors come, there’s no message that applies to them. There’s no Gospel, and the message being delivered is only applicable to those who are already on the inside. Hearing about how God can increase your finances and pour out abundant blessings in your life isn’t helpful when you feel the very life you have is hopeless. And if there’s nothing in this place to give you hope, there’s no reason to come back.

This is the struggle that I and so many others who have grown up spiritually privileged have wrestled with. Many people have grown up in these environments, reached my age and come to conclusions similar to my own. But the reality now is that people are waking up. Through one means or another, God is breaking through the sheltered Christian wall we’ve built and enlightening people to the reality that the lives of those we interact with on a daily basis are no less valuable than our own, that every person should have the same equal access to Jesus that we do. Whether or not they accept it is their own decision, but that doesn’t change the fact that we carry Good News. A Gospel message that leads to salvation and true life change. A Gospel message that, if I’m being honest, sometimes needs to be preached to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

So with issues like this, I suppose one question that comes up is, “How do I know if I suffer from spiritual privilege?” Well, that can be a hard question to answer. But, my guess is that if you read this and you felt something uncomfortable start stirring in your soul a little bit, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege to some degree. If you grew up in the church and you spend more time feeling lost and insecure with no direction, rather than being secure in your identity in Christ, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege. If you feel like you’re white-knuckling your walk in Christ most of the time, trying your hardest to do the right thing and feeling guilty when you don’t, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege, amongst other things (mainly the issue of depravity, a common struggle for people who have grown up spiritually privileged). If you can’t really remember a before Christ and after Christ moment in your life, I’d venture to say that you’ve definitely grown up spiritually privileged.

So then the question becomes, “How do I fix it?” This is where things get difficult, because everyone is different. In my own specific scenario, in order to truly understand the relevance and value of Christ in my life, I basically had to discover who I was apart from Him. For a few months, I kind of walked away from my faith in a sense, simply because struggling to maintain it was becoming a tiring, fruitless exercise that was wearing thin on my sanity. When I took a step back and stopped trying to be something I wasn’t for a little bit, I was able to recognize the areas of my life that I truly need Jesus to come in and drastically change, rather than me constantly trying to change them myself. I don’t exactly recommend doing that, and it probably won’t work for everyone. Another recommendation I’d have is just to simply pray that God would reveal to you areas in your life that really need true, drastic change (though, let’s be honest, you probably know a few off hand) and ask Him to really change those areas. Having an awareness of your privilege in and of itself can cause dramatic change. And most importantly, ask God to help you develop a heart for the lost. Ask Him to break your heart and give you His heart for these people in the world. Develop a desire for a true sense of empathy that relates to where real people are and looks forward to who they can become by the power of Christ. And then, once some of these things have started to flesh themselves out, pursue God. Find security in Him, and solidify your own identity and who you really are in Him.

The American church is suffering from atrophied evangelism muscles due to apathetic judgmentalism towards the rest of the world. My belief is that if this issue of spiritual privilege persists in our own lives and the lives of the next generation, the American church as we know it could die out. Partly because we’ll become so exclusive that no one new will come in, and partly because people will take Christians even less seriously than they do now. So be the one to break the pattern and become a truly new creation in Christ. Take the love we’ve found, this Gospel message, and change your families, churches, communities, and the world. There’s still hope for the future of the Church in the US, but it starts with true life change.