Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's a church for?

News hit our press this week that a prominent, historic, downtown church pledged $115,000,000 to underwrite a portion of the cost associated with the construction of a new sanctuary. 

That is a staggering number, possibly the most ever pledged by any group of church folk. 

That's just a lot of money.

This development forces a question into my mind.  Sorry, I can't stop it or turn it back.  So, here it is:

What's a church for anyway?

Certainly, the contemorary church has become an institution, a cultural force, a haven for people of a certain mindset.  When budgets and buildings and staffing and programming reach a certain level, the church takes on a life well beyond the simplicity of a group of people who believe in a person or accept the outlines and claims of a story, a narrative. 

Churches can turn inward, become self-serving. . .you know, sort of a country club for people who share a common belief system and worldview. 

Inside such a system it is not hard to justify the expenditure of huge amounts of money on real estate and improvements that serve, almost exclusively, those who accept the belief system or embrace the version of the story being promoted at one location or another. 

Trouble is, it becomes fairly easy in such a system to turn away from the core values, the clear directives of a very radical Messiah. 

Paying for a building can take the place of growing as a world-changing follower of a homeless, extremely poor, amazingly challenging, anti-material spiritual guide like Jesus.  Oh, be sure of this, we can confess his name while abandoning his clearly delineated priorities.  The program we devise to serve him can easily become a self-serving system shielding us from the real dimensions and demands of a Lord we too easily claim to accept without much if any thought of the cost associated with lining up with him. 

One hundred and fifteen million dollars is just one number.  Spending $4MM on a church built during my watch as a pastor seems  no more justifiable. 

If people of "the Way" really pursued the master of the path, the world would be in a far different place and amazing resources would be freed up to flow in kingdom directions. 

For some reason, I'm thinking of the poor, the pressed down, the marginalized, the outcast. . .I'm thinking of a very different expression of faith, one that could change lives, save families, reshape cities and relieve suffering.  Jesus had a thing or two to say about those matters (read St. Luke's Gospel for a quick reminder). 

One thing is certain:  a change in direction by the American church could reap wonderful results. 

But frankly, I'm not holding my breath.


Dan said...

Some things never change Larry. There always seems to be some liberal preacher out there criticizing our American Dream and manifest destiny to create the biggest and best Jesus Club that money can buy.
In other words, preach on my brother. Preach on!

rcorum said...

I am a conservative, but this is so over the top that it makes me sick. This is one of those illustrations that can leave us with a false sense of security. Pretty much every other church in the world could look at this church and then say, "Why, we would never spend that much money." The key is inward focus. That is what causes people to spend that kind of money on a building.

I do have one question. How do you feel about the opulent churches of Europe? Some of those buildings just take my breath away with they beauty, but in their day I wonder how much they cost in today's dollars to build?

Anonymous said...

OK. Got it. No more Churches. They never lead anyone to Christ. Wait, small churches. That is the answer. So, let’s build small churches. So how big is too big? Can the grand arbiter please weigh in here?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Larry. Why should a church seek to expand its worship facilities, when the money should go to the Larry James Kingdom for the Homeless?

Jeff Slater said...

I disagree with you from time-to-time, but you're right on target with this one, Larry.

Ann said...

I couldn't agree more. I was sick when I read the article in the Dallas Morning News. How much housing could be provided for people who need it, how many services could be offered to help people rise above their circumstances. I was looking forward to your post about it and it exceeded expectations. It seems to me that the change in direction of the American church would result in the commitment and sacrifice to raise $115,000,000 to serve others.

Lorlee said...

I am always amazed at the disconnect between words and actions. "What you do to the least of my brethren" comes to mind. Do people who spend so profligately on buildings have a different bible?

It is astonishing and appalling that this much money will be spent on an edifice.

Larry James said...

Thanks for the comments. I actually dreaded writing this one; and, believe it or not, the sentiment I expressed here have as much--actually more--to do with me and my failures, personally and as a church leader for years as they do with the latest big church spends big money story. I don't intend to make this a personal attack on one group. I am concerned to see a conversation about the social reality at the core of our urban areas.

People tell me all the time that the church could solve the problems of the cities and that public funds aren't needed. My reaction to those notions lead me back to my experience as a pastor and to stories like this one. The church just doesn't collect and spend its funds on social issues related to poverty, injustice, unemployment, substandard housing or adequate and equitable health care. That's the point.

RC, good question about the European churches and cathedrals. If you delve into the social/political history sourrounding the massive efforts to build the buildings, often to solidify political power in the hands of some King, nobleman or church leader, you will see that in spite of the artistic value, the people suffered around these structures.

After all of these years it still amazes me how people of faith ignore or rationalize the clear value propositions from which Jesus seemed to work relative to the poor and underclass, to say nothing of the Hebrew law, music, wisdom and prophets. This work of loving neighor as self should rate a higher place in the church's list of priorities. And then, the work done should be more about justice than charity. . .but that's another story.

rcorum said...

Anon 904, If anyone has read this blog at all will know that I do not share many of the views of Larry, but I do believe him to be an honorable man, and if that money were given to Larry's organization a ton of poor people would be helped. Everyone ought to take some time and check out CDM and Larry in particular. There have one of the highest rankings of any cherity out there. One reason why I come back to this blog is that I know Larry will always treat me and others with respect. Disagree all you want. I do as well as others, but if you are going to engage in personal attack at least don't hide behind the anonymous tag.

Daniel said...

"4 And they said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth." - Genesis 11

18 ”Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” - Luke 12

I am conservative, but if we as a church think it's about having a building, we're idiots. Jesus wanted his followers to be a bunch of weeds (mustard seeds) that grow all over the place, not a towering oak tree.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Anons 8:13 and 9:04 - Just a little defensive!?

Larry is just asking a question. One that any of us who sit in a church pew should have already asked. Do you really think, in the WWJD spirit, Jesus would spend $115M on a building? Then respond to the substance of the question asked and defend that position. Don't just take pot shots at the one asking the question.

Larry - I am not sure where the line is, but I'm pretty sure this crosses it. How different would the story be if the church announced it was spending $55M on a new sanctuary and $55M on a new state of the art ... (i) facility for the homeless or (ii) food pantry/kitchen or (iii) day care for the working poor or ... all of the above and more with that kind of money.

Topher said...

From Generations X & Y to $155M church builders... Once you all die and your goes bankrupt, we would like to use your multi-purpose facilities for our community center.

Casey McCollum said...

"Lord, if I thought you were listening, I'd pray for this above all: that my church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That is should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow 'Get out, you don't belong here?' Does the tree say to the hungry man 'This fruit is not for you?' Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?"

-Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful quote, Casey. Appreciate the sentiment, Topher.

Anonymous said...

The current poll on your site asks us to consider why churches don't give more. Two thoughts: (1) more than what/whom? and (2) the four response choices are poorly devised. These choices are biased in favor of the assumption that a thing called the church is supposed to do the giving. Further, the survey item does not allow for a different kind of response - that no more giving is necessary, or that less giving is a good choice.

I believe Christians are called to give sacrificially, but not churches, per se. Here is a report of a survey of giving, which introduces factual information to this discussion.

"Nowhere is the divide in values more on display than in religion, the frontline in our so-called "culture war." And the relationship between religion and charity is nothing short of extraordinary. The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey indicates that Americans who weekly attend a house of worship are 25 percentage points more likely to give than people who go to church rarely or never. These religious folks also give nearly four times more dollars per year than secularists, on average, and volunteer more than twice as frequently."

"It is not the case that these enormous differences are due simply to religious people giving to their churches. Religious people are more charitable with all sorts of nonreligious causes as well. They are 10 percentage points likelier than secularists to give money to explicitly nonreligious charities like the United Way, and 25 points more likely to volunteer for secular groups such as the PTA. Churchgoers were far likelier in 2001 to give to 9/11-related causes. On average, people of faith give more than 50 percent more money each year to non-church social welfare organizations than secularists do."