Over the last few weeks, I’ve been tackling problems that don’t revolve around ethereal stuff like “new ideas,” “vision” and other theological talk that can lack consequence. In fact, I’ve been so sucked into these challenges that I’ve begun to wonder whether discussing the church’s problems or their solutions really matters if the people in the discussion aren’t somehow personally and materially invested. They, somehow, need to be givers or prepared to become givers to what we share. A giver gives so much more than money. But, they give money, too. They give to something beyond themselves.
It’s not that discussing our feelings and perspectives on church isn’t important. But, if the people talking about the church are thousands of dollars in consumer debt or unable to substantively invest in community with their time or energy, I’m afraid airing our views – no matter how thought out and accurate – may hold only therapeutic value. Don’t get me wrong! Therapy is important. But, like any other therapeutic or academic exercise, it revolves around perspectives on “the self.” Therefore, it suffers, at some point, from the vacuum created when the self replaces shared discipleship or Christ’s call to prophetic community. This is the vacuum slowly sucking the life out of denominationalism: loss of a sense of shared community, shared discipline, shared practices, and shared convictions with substantial consequence.
I realize I may sound like I’m going either institutional or conservative. But, I meant what I said in my previous post about following Jesus or saving the church. I’m not talking about returning to some institutional position on tithing. I’m not talking about a pay-to-play system in the church or instituting stringent requirements for Christian membership. But, I am talking about the problem of “cheap church” and a loss of a basic sense of discipleship in community. If our sense of faith and Christ’s community has become so separated from our relationship with our stuff, our time, our money, and energies, that we think belonging to Christ’s community is an entitlement or a service that should be provided by denominations or religious institutions, the Spirit of our movement is lost.
So, let’s talk about the money. Why not?
We struggle on both sides. In the church, we have many congregations that are deeply attached to their houses of worship. 75-90% of the time, those churches are paid for. These buildings are the ebenesers, the alters, of a previous generation. They are the hallmark of our denominationalism. We are no longer a frontier movement. We now have our church on the corner. This was the success of previous generations. Because of them, I would bet 75-90% of our congregations have no mortgage, only maintenance and monthly bills. Five to fifty gather in them once a week.
Often, these same congregations have difficulty raising funds for missional ministries, hiring ministers, or community projects. Also, paying for their area campgrounds are a drain. Often these congregations have faithful givers. Some have less money to offer and more time and skills. Sometimes these loyal members get in the way of new life and spiritual direction. But, sometimes these members are more than willing to see change. The hurdle is that, after a lifetime of denominational loyalty, they do not know how to reach out, innovate, and add to the fold. So, they maintain. The history of decline takes its toll. An increasing sense of need might pull downward on the congregation’s self-esteem. In the worst case scenario, members become entrenched. They start guarding against outsiders, usually “liberals,” denominational leaders who talk about “change,” or those “generic Christians” who might take away what’s left of our identity. (I still don’t know what a generic Christian is, but I’ve heard church members be worried about them more than once.) All awhile, money and time is where their mouth is – pouring into the things we think “we” need, for “us” – both on the congregational, mission center, and personal levels.
Outside the church, we also live in a day when the relationship between spirituality and economics is wholly out of whack. Unbriddled greed and a world sold out to the god of wealth and wealth-production, has horribly contorted the relationship of our economic and spiritual needs. All around, I see its effects in “liberal” and conservative forms. Many Christians have literally sold out the doctrine of economic wealth and prosperity: we can spend ourselves out of crises, whether spiritual or economic. This not only makes absolutely no sense, wealth and prosperity – no matter how American – are false gods. They are not the good news, but a completely alien form of religion and spirituality. Christian faith and the call to prophetic community operates on a different kind of sense. Christ’s community is not based on getting what you pay for. Nor, is its growth based on profits or consuming more. The salvation of the church, on earth as it is in heaven, is based on what is given and what is shared: the shared grace, disciplines, practices, vision, and shared convictions. The church is a witness to community.
We don’t need a moralistic return to a 10% tithing to fix this. In fact, everyone can tithe and still sell out to the economic gods. We don’t need a denominational membership system to hold people accountable. This would be the same old legalism. We also don’t have to start giving guilt-ridden presentations about how much money it takes to heat the sanctuary or pay for copy toner. That would be guilt-based politics. However, if we’re going to get together and talk about who we are, who we follow, and what our shared salvation really means, we have to agree that Christ’s community costs us something. And, we have consistently lift up what it promises.
Discipleship costs. And, to some extent, it is about the money. But, it’s not about the money so the church can have alot, or any. It’s about the money because money is the god of the world we must face. We no longer live in a biblical world where land dictates wealth and the majority are subsistence farmers. For many of us, our economic well-being is no longer tied directly to the earth’s fertility or patterns of rain or drought. Instead, for the first time in human history, we suffer the “weather” of an almost wholly (not holy) (hu)man-made economy. Our global economy is designed on the idea that human beings have insatiable appetites for things. Selfhood, selfishness and self-interest can be paths to earthly salvation and human improvement. This religion measures health on the flow of goods and happiness on levels of consumption. It has its own doctrines and spirituality. It requires that we spend and spend often in order for the god’s elect to reap their fruit: profit. They hire us to help them do that, and we are glad that it also benefits us.
Praying for the “rain to come” and for the harvest to be plenty in our world means paying homage to this religion and god of profit. There is little getting around it. We have to charge, buy, mortgage, refinance, and spend. The problem is that this god will also bankrupt us if it is the God we live by. This god has many many victims. If we do not put something sustainable and communal at the center of our work, life, and play, this god, alone, will have its way and its reign. The best insurance against this kind of idolatry is Christian community, a community that shares and gives. To find it, we must give a portion of what we have away.
That is why the church is such an important vessel for Good News, sanity, and sanctuary in our world. Christ’s call to give was never about denominational tithing or supporting a clergy class. But, it was about where our faith could be. The discipline of giving, even just a little, puts us in a stronger position in a world that believes profits puts us in a stronger safer position. It puts us in a stronger position against religious economic doctrines that tell us we can spend our way to spiritual happiness or economic wholeness. This is not the faith or the doctrine of Christ’s church. Discipleship is not concerned with how much we earn or measuring our profit. Nor, is it about salvation through gaining what can be had by spending. But, it is about the money.
Christ owned no land, which meant he was broke. He was an artisen, a blue collar carpeter, who never mortgaged a home. He had no inheritance, but the inheritance of God’s kingdom. Christ gave so that others could have and give. Christ gave so that others would have something to take and share. This was the miracle of his healings, his feeding of the 5000 and 4000, and the last supper. It’s about the power and mystery of giving.
This the the open secret: the power and mystery of Christ’s giving. Christ’s community is about this kind of sharing. Giving and sharing makes community. You don’t do one to make the other. They happen simultaneously and it strengthens every time you repeat it.
In our world, a prophetic community must give and share. And, it will always have more than a community that does not, that instead proclaims the good news of profit and blasts us with pictures of happy consumers who say “follow me.” We cannot spend our way to financial health any more than we can borrow our way to a full life or spiritual wholeness. The answer isn’t about denominational tithing or shopping for personal spirituality, but it is about the money.
Money will always be more than just credit, consumption, and profits. Money always already has spiritual value, too. It’s about the costs. Expecting something from nothing makes no more sense economically than it does spiritually. This is not faith. Christ’s community is a divine gift, but it does not come from nothing. Rather, it is a result of our stewardship and what we will share. The church is a divine gift that can never be spiritually taken away. However, it will always be what we make of it. We are the church. That is what takes faith. Unlike the world, Christ’s economy is not based on getting what we pay for, wanting more, or making profits. These things aren’t evil in and of themselves. We just realize that after feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14:16-26), Jesus “leftovers” were not his profit. They were the abundance left over when the least of these, a boy with five loaves and two fishes, shared a little.