Been a while, huh? Had a lot of stuff to process after attending my first session meeting at my home church. And I’ve been given some exciting new hats to wear, too,with some other local ministries – but I’m having a devil of a time sorting them all out in terms of time-use & self-discipline. All of which is to say, yes, I slacked for a couple weeks on regular posting here. Sorry.
I want to pose some thoughts on an aspect of faith-life that may not typically fall under the umbrella of ‘evangelism’, but I think it does: how a church uses its money.
Last Fall I shared some quips on Facebook and Twitter about the Church & money that were noodling around in my head after a week of reading and talking in Worship class at LPTS about North American consumerism and the Christian Church. In my mind, those quippy posts were like my version of prayer – and and I intended to share them in a spirit of questioning and grappling with the challenges posed by the materials we’re studying.
In those quippy posts I wrote several things about faith & money but the one that got the most attention was this : “I’ve been challenged to refuse membership in any church that has $$ in the market, the bank, or endowment funds. My inner-Spirit agrees. Talk me down.”
The professor teaching that worship class was a guy from Brazil, and his early life in ministry occurred in a context where churches and faith communities generally didn’t have much money. And by ‘much money’ I mean not enough to maintain a church building or provide a living wage to a pastor. That’s a common reality in most of South America and many other parts of the world, of course.
And of course it was also the reality for Jesus and his early followers in the first couple of centuries of our common era.
But not here in modern North America. No, in North America, we either have – or desperately covet – a sweet bit of property and a nice building to house our communities of faith. And we need to hire good preachers and musicians to entice people into our nice pews under our nice roofs. And that takes money. And the flow of money and maintenance of that flow takes a functional institution to be put in place. Which takes … more money.
Oh, we love our church buildings and our talented worship leaders, don’t we? Oh, yes we do. And we love our institutions and our status and our reputations, right?
Because clearly, when you compare two churches to discern which one is doing a better job living out the example of Jesus and spreading the Good News of the Kindom of God … OBVIOUSLY it’s the one that has the bigger, newer, more utilitarian church property and the more celebrated ministry staff, right?
Because that’s success! The outward appearance of prosperity BREEDS more prosperity. People with money will naturally flock to the church that devotes its money to appearing prosperous and capable and successful. And of course, in the end, that means – by the way – that a nice side effect of all that prosperity is we can give a bigger percentage of it to OUTREACH and MISSION, too.
Hurray for Trickle-Down Economics! Hurray for pouring more and more grain into our AWESOME granaries so we can store it all up for hard times and hey, if we can manage to top off our granaries then, gee, the stuff that falls out the top can be picked up off the ground by the poor and marginalized.
Am I coming off like a snarky socialist here? I don’t care. Am I a hypocrite because I’ve got a nice house and a little money in the bank? Yes. Yes I am.
NONE of that changes the fact that from the newly-freed Hebrews in the wilderness, through the early prophets and the exiles and the latter prophets, right through to Jesus and the early church, NOTHING – at least nothing that God calls blessed – looks like or behaves like our North American institutional-consumerist-capitalist Church.
What have we done to the Gospel? Is THIS the Kindom of God that we’re building?
Not according to my interpretation of the message of Jesus. Not even close.
But that’s idealism, ain’t it?
To actually expect my church (my local congregation) or my Church (the whole kit-n-kaboodle) to buckle down and live out this kind of well-meaning but radically impractical interpretation of the message of Jesus and the prophets is both unrealistic and asinine – especially considering that I haven’t yet taken very many steps to get the log out of my own eye on that front. So when I go around tweeting little 140-character provocations and blogging snark about prosperity, I can understand why people might suspect I’m just trying to take pot-shots in an effort to get attention.
I get that. And I will repeat – I possibly have no right to crow about this. If a person needs to develop a spotless personal record on a prophetic issue before speaking with a prophetic voice on that issue, then I have no leg to stand on.
So, to close this post, I figured I’d let the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Common Worship speak instead:
You’ve taught us that the poor shall have your kingdom,
and that the gentle-minded shall inherit the Earth.
Keep the Church poor enough to preach to the poor
and humble enough to walk with the despised.
Never weigh us down with property or accumulated funds
save your Church from vain display or lavish comforts,
so that we might travel light
and move through the world
showing your generous love made known
in Jesus Christ.
So … I’ll clarify my main point by saying that I want to be part of a North American Christian congregation that is grappling with the kind of humility and communal asceticism that would make it possible to honestly and authentically pray that prayer and still look each other in the face afterward. Including me.