We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Matter of Our Ultimate Commitment

In his posting, "COMMENTARY: Sunday mornings are broken, Tom Ehrich offers churches and pastors a five point program for moving forward.  In his fourth point, he advises them to, "break Mammon’s hold on Christianity by reconsidering facilities, staff and other overhead, and by teaching personal stewardship, not institutional fund-raising."

This fourth point offers mainline churches important advice that most will never take or even feel able to take esp. when it comes to their facilities.  Most mainline churches are invested in their buildings  in ways that have little to do with their actual utility.  Those buildings are old, historic, and beloved ones filled with cherished reminders of parents, grandparents, and one's personal heritage.  They are also aging, expensive millstones that distract churches from their core purpose of being Christ's body for the healing of the world, but most churches are unlikely to embrace this fact even where they are vaguely aware of it.  And, another truth is that it is their buildings that in a sense keep small, nearly dead churches going because they don't want to give up the cherished heritage embodied in the building.  It is true that churches generally function more as institutions than as movements, and one key factor is their need to maintain aging facilities—facilities that eat up a goodly portion of the annual budget.

It is also true, however, that the key in all of this is not the building or the budget or even the institutionalization of the church.  The key is the quality of life of the congregation that owns the church's property and spends its income.  Where the church is alive spiritually and in ministry, buildings and budgets can be used as tools for ministry.  In such churches, the staff facilitates spiritual growth, fellowship, Christian learning, and healing ministries.  Members offer each other needed life support, and newcomers find a community of faith that helps them live healthier lives.  The building may be important in such cases as a physical place that people come to when they are looking for such things.  When people church shop, for example, they visit buildings seeking a warm, vital community of faith.  Such faith communities use their facilities and budgets as tools useful to good ends rather than allowing them to be obstacles to being the best churches they can be.

In sum, on this point Ehrich offers a key piece of advice.  Mainline churches do need to rethink their commitment to facilities, staff, and other elements of the budget.  They do need to think again about the reasoning behind their stewardship and consider whether or not they operating essentially as an institution or as a spiritual movement.  Where, that is, is their ultimate commitment?  Is it to the church as a monument or club or museum—or is it to Christ?