I’ve got a problem. I believe in organized religion. I believe in a thinking man’s religion. I believe I’ve found a really good faith community in general within the umbrella of the Episcopal church, and in particular the parish to which I belong.
I also believe in a real theology of good stewardship, as opposed to a functional model where we’re paying our dues to keep the doors open, how much would each parishioner have to give on average to support our ministry mentality, sense of duty, etc. (i.e. a smattering of that theology would be notions such as our first fruits belong to God. We give because we must give, the widow’s offering was greater than the rich people’s, etc.) But the one who accepts my offering must reciprocate by being a wise and faithful steward of it, too. This creates a difficult conflictedness within me.
Here’s the problem. The current model of doing church isn’t financially sustainable. There’s something really special about knowing and being known in a congregation with average Sunday attendance under 100. Lots of my fellow parishioners treasure that, and fear losing that specialness if we grow “too much.” (believe me, until attitudes and policies radically change, I believe we run ZERO risk of that kind of growth!!!) I could worship in this church with more people, and I am prepared and ready to work with, and maybe even assist in leading the way to change to get there. (what can I say, I dig church, and I want it to survive and thrive!)
I could also be very happy and satisfied if it stayed this size IF we made some other very difficult choices. And I do mean radical choices, but I think they are ones that would allow us to remain small and continue to attract well-educated, inspirational, loving clergy. And that is a HUGE priority for me! I don’t believe that clergy “are” the church, but their leadership makes a huge difference in the feel and tone of the place and the directions we set…together! I want my church to give more than lip service to “go now in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
I’ll tell you what is NOT a huge priority to me, and one that I believe is sucking our current small churches in all parts of the country dry, financially and passion-wise. Buildings. I believe we get WAY too attached to our buildings. We are dismissed each Sunday with the words, “go now in peace to love and serve the Lord.” GO, not slave away over the church building with so much of our collective time, talent, and yes, treasure. GO!!! Get out there and do something, be the love of Christ for someone outside our church’s walls. What would it look like if we could get buy-in from enough people to ditch the building and invest our existing moneys into awesome leadership, developing lay discipleship more and more through education, grants that support and grow personal outreach ministries, etc., instead of strapping people for more and more money to fix/replace things? What would it look like if we held onto the traditions of our prayer book and celebrated Eucharist together, but did it in public places, or rented facilities, or parks? Go and give what you have to the poor. Are we the young man who turns away saddened, for we have so much that we’re willing to forgo the possible prize offered by letting go of our worldly attachments? What kind of evangelism might it be if we were more visible and accessible? What kind of a coffee hour could it be to be in a park on a summer Sunday morning, regularly, something more than a once annual party for our own insiders? What if our churches were “out there” every Sunday for kids and families and joggers moving past our committed visible worship gathering of the faithful? Or a restaurant for brunch? What of those onlookers? Could we have discreet signs that invite them to join our table(s)?
I just hate raising money for organizational life-support and maintenance. I think our weekly collection, our personal collective stewardship should cover our ongoing costs, and if it doesn’t then some difficult choices ought to be made about cutting those costs. I propose ditching buildings. Not ditching a “bad” building/location and “starting over” elsewhere. Really and truly (radically!) leaving our “things” attachment behind until we reclaim our collective passion and excitement and yes, economy of scale, for mission and ministry, and have sufficient gathered human bodies each week to warrant and support a new building’s demands on time, talent, and treasure.
It’ll never happen though. I often wonder what will happen to my parish, and the many other dwindling parishes like it that insist on trying to have one priest to one (small) congregation and maintain an expensive building while they’re at it? I wonder if the simple arithmetic that illustrates this financial unsustainability has occurred to those who treasure sub-100 Sunday morning attendance? I wonder if there’s a housechurch I could join that would share my values and passions and theology? (you know, not feel too “weird”. I still love and treasure tradition, just don’t want it to weigh us down needlessly in unnecessary trappings of buildings and things.) I wonder if wondering about these things is unkind to my existing parish family? I’m really quite seriously depressed about it. The thing is, I wouldn’t be this depressed or expend this much thought energy on it if it weren’t for the fact that I really love these people and this community. Nah, I’m not going anywhere. But I yearn and long SO MUCH for a mission worth standing up and shouting out from a soapbox about to anyone who will hear me. I’m willing and excited to do that, but I can’t fake it. <sigh>
Returning to the theme of stewardship, I don’t tithe to my parish. I hold a personal goal I’m working toward to tithe from our household income to the “work of God” in the world. If I were to place a value-based pricetag on worthiness of distributing my particular “pot” of money, small though it may be, I could not with integrity give even the size of it that I currently do to my local church. It pains me to say that, but it would be dishonest to say anything else. There are secular organizations that do more of the things God cares about than my local church. I think it is not due to a lack of care and concern, quite the contrary as these are some of the most loving, caring people I have ever met! But I truly believe there exists a fatigue in maintaining the “thing.” The thing is bigger than the people gathered can be expected to maintain, and still have energy and passion and drive to go back into the world to love and serve the Lord as I know we could do, IN THE NAME OF GOD/OUR CHURCH.
Some have accused Generation X (of which I am a part) of being lazy or self-centered. I want to do my part for my church, but I don’t want to “live there” to the exclusion of following the greater calling God places on my life. And ironically, I even consider a great part of my ministry/calling as being appropriately inside church walls…but by golly, that’s not the case for most people. And nor should it be. Most people’s calling ought to be primarily “out there”…where they work, where they play, following their calling from God, not being guilted into meeting yet another need of the parish plant. I want all of us to help out and do our part, and be held to that expectation (NOT permit laziness!), but either have enough of us to spread that workload easily with an easy yoke, or ditch that particular plow maybe? (where plow=the demands of maintaining a building) Why not have church in homes or public places? Hmmmmmm……. All the tradition and teaching and grounding that “old” churches provide…a well-paid, well-educated clergy person to call us out of ourselves, but into the world, not into propping up a mere building.
And maybe this need not be an all or nothing approach. It probably shouldn’t be. Maybe the radicalness of it will plant a seed of brainstorming of what we COULD do though? I don’t know, I’ll keep praying and listening as best I can, I guess….