For What? To do What?

For What? To do What?

So, I was talking to a guy that used to be very involved with our missions.  In fact, he still is from a donation standpoint.  He had been badly let down…though at least in part because of his own distorted expectations…by a mainline congregation that he had been a “member” of.  They weren’t moving fast enough.  They kept asking the wrong questions.  They kept shooting down every initiative that he offered.  In fairness (and having experienced this myself), all of the initiatives he ever offered to our mission involved other people doing something that he would run, rather than him just doing it and leading others into it with him. That was probably the case at this church, too.  Either way, this isn’t about the congregation that he left angrily.  It’s about where he went when he left.

The rule in my community is that we don’t want people here who left a church all ticked off at the congregation or the pastor if they haven’t exhausted every avenue that scripture gives them to resolve their differences.  In fact, we don’t want anyone who can’t name and own their own role in the conflict.  We don’t do letters of transfer.  We really aren’t looking to grow in numbers for the sake of numbers in worship. And we sure aren’t looking to take good people away from churches that need them.  We are not a “cannibal church”.  We aren’t trying to reach the already reached. So, as many times as this guy came to me inquiring about my church, I just kept telling him to go back to his pastor and work it out.  Every single person who has left a church ticked off at the pastor or the congregation and has then come here has done nothing but damage here, and it wasn’t but about a month before they were all ticked off at me and at this congregation. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM! None of us here have sacrificed food off of our childrens’ tables to make angry Christians happy.  All of our healthy growth has come from the mission field – we seek to save the lost with Jesus.  We aren’t trying to find the found.

So the guy called me to tell me about his “new church” and how they were in the middle of a $4 million capital campaign so that they could expand into the rest of the strip mall that they currently occupied a part of.  So, I asked him, “For what?”  He said, “So we have more worship space and better sound and video system.” And I asked, “For what? To do what?” He said, “So we can get more people in here! We’re growing!” So, I asked him, “You can get more people in there to do what? For what?” He said, “What do you mean, ‘For what?’ We are going to be huge. We need more building space.” So, I asked more pointedly, “You need $4 million to add more building space to attract people to your $4 million worship space to do what?” There was silence for a minute, and then he said, “To worship.”

I asked him another question, “Where will your congregation come up with that kind of money.  How is that money being raised?”  And he said that the pastor had begun an eight week sermon series on “Giving to the Church”.  In that series, he had invited people to perhaps take out a second mortgage on their house to give to the campaign as an act of faith.  I asked this man, “What is the average person in your congregation like? What do they do for a living?”  And he told me that most were middle class and upper middle class Caucasian folks with a couple of kids.  So I said, “So, most of them are just getting by? Even the ones in big houses have hefty mortgages, right?”  And he acknowledged that.  And then I said, “So, these folks are being sold on the idea that this new worship space is worth going into deeper debt than they are already in.”  He acknowledged that.  So again, I asked, “For what?  To do what? What will these dollars that aren’t actually theirs but are the bank’s produce for the Kingdom?” And he said, “Oh, our worship will attract a lot of people.” And I asked, “Attract a lot of what kind of people? How many people who attend your church came there from other churches?” He said, “Most.  But we invite our neighbors.” I asked, “And who are your neighbors?” He replied, “People who live in my neighborhood.” I replied, “Oh.”

So let me get this straight.  This “growing” congregation is being told by their leaders that following Christ means borrowing money that they don’t have to build a bigger, cooler worship space to attract more people to their worship space who will give more money that they don’t have to build and even bigger worship space when that one gets filled up.  They are filling up this worship space with people who all look alike and come from roughly the same middle class and upper middle class neighborhood and all already self-identify as Christian but just haven’t found a “church” that “meets their spiritual needs”.  When I asked about doing mission, this guy acknowledged that these people wouldn’t have money to invest in that, because they had taken out second mortgages to buy a building.  These folks would spend the next ten or twenty or thirty years financially strapped to the point where they don’t have any money to provide food or clothing or shelter to anyone because all of their giving is wrapped up in a beautiful worship space designed to attract other people to become financially strapped and be a part of their giant worship events.  All of their time, talent, and treasure are going into getting a bigger building to do bigger worship and they don’t have any time left to serve in a food pantry or feeding ministry or homeless shelter or addiction recovery center or anything else.  So they are going to take the widow’s mites to put technological jewels in an already awesome sound system and worship space.

It gets worse.  I ask the guy what is preached about when the pastor isn’t preaching about “Giving to the Church”.  He responds, “Oh this guy is a VERY dynamic preacher.”  I say, “Well, that’s good.  But what’s he preach about?  What’s the message?  What is he telling you that it means to be a follower of Christ? How are you told to live that out?”  It took a long time for him to answer.  A long time.  And then he started telling me about how the country had gone to hell in a handbasket and that if we didn’t elect some real Christians who would put Jesus back in school and do something about all the freeloaders and bring an end to abortion…” And he just went on and on about the state of the government in the U.S..  I asked him again, “What is the message that is being preached? I mean, you’re about to pay $4 million to get a VERY dynamic sermon every week.  I hope you get something for the investment that can help you get closer to the Kingdom.”  He said that the last number of sermons had been prophetic messages about our government.  So, I said, “What it means to follow Christ for you then is to vote? Anything else?”  Nothing.

So NOW let me see if I have this straight.  $4 million in money that is borrowed from someone else to acquire an awesome worship space to attract more and more people who look the same from the same part of town and economic demographic who already self-identify as Christian so that they can receive the message that the central concern of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that what it means to live the Kingdom of God is to vote.  And more and more people will be spending more and more money and time inviting more and more people to spend more and more money and time to come on Sunday and live out their faith by having their spiritual needs met by cool tunes and messages on how to vote.  And apparently, according to this guy, the church planting organization that lit this remarkable rocket “knows how to do this”.  I was going to ask, “What exactly is ‘this’ that they know how to do?” But I figured that by this time I had completely worn this guy out. I know he had worn me out.

Look, please don’t misunderstand me here.  I know some amazing ministries that are changing the world through hands-on engagement and missional living that are big ministries and that are growing like wildfire.  Dan Southerland’s ministries and church plants come to mind immediately.  But this isn’t that.  My issue has nothing to do with size or rapid growth.  It has to do with a problem that also existed in Jesus’ day.  Jesus told of a widow – among the most vulnerable members of society in that time – who gave her last two coins to the Temple (the giant church of its day).  The temple told her that giving up coins like that put her in right relationship with the Temple, and thus with God.  It also impoverished her…it probably devoured her home and her meager means.  And for what? To do what? To pay for a cooler worship space and a bigger salary for the staff.  What if one of these people who took out a second mortgage lost their job? They could lose their house in order to have this cool temple.  I bet a dime to a dollar there isn’t one single bunk bed in that place to house them when they land on the street…and I bet they aren’t zoned for being a shelter, either.  Isn’t the church supposed to be protecting the vulnerable? Aren’t we supposed to be participating in the Kingdom by participating in giving that makes a difference to suffering people?  Jesus railed against using the money of the poor to put gems in the walls of the Temple.  What’s the difference between a ruby inlay and a sixteen speaker sound system?  I’m cool with a sound system if it is used to inspire people to give real alms to serve God’s purpose of redeeming the lost, the left out, and the marginalized. If it’s used to break down barriers in our society, I am totally cool with it.  If it is used to soften people hearts to people who are different from them, then I am all for it. If it’s used to provide food, shelter, healing…any of those, then I’m onboard.  I really am.  I love to rock out just as much as any other Jesus-crazy Christ-follower.

It costs real dollars to supply food and clothing and shelter…lots of real dollars. We have to ask for people to give of their money and time and talent, and we have to ask often.  We can feed about 15-18,000 per year for about $18,000-$20,000 dollars staffing everything with volunteers who give until it hurts. Those are real dollars, and if people don’t give, we don’t feed anyone. People take food off their own tables and dollars out of their children’s pockets to provide that food.  But if we spend all of our real dollars on a cool worship space – not only for today but also for years to come; and we spend all of our time servicing that building and staffing those cool worship services, what and who is left to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and take the Kingdom into the dark places of the mission field?   I think the question always has to stand before us when we are asking people to give of their time, talent, and treasure, “For what? To do what?”.  Wow.  We HAVE TO change the way we think or we’re in real danger of having Jesus show up pissed off and overturning OUR tables.  I know that there are many communities out there that balance growth and mission well.  Many. So how do we recognize that sometimes we really do need a bigger building and a technology update, and at the same time have some integrity of message and allegiance to the Gospel?  What are your rules of thumb?

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