Beholden to the Buck: Trusting Geld over God in the Church
Below is a really, really, really long blog.
I even told my daughter that I’ve spent a crazy amount of time researching and writing the longest entry I’ve ever posted and therefore, because it’s a schlepp, it’s a real possibility that no one will ever read the thing anyway!
But I’m hoping that at least a few of you give it a skim, and maybe even an extended linger.
I’m trying to tackle the connection between these competing truths: the church needs financial donations to keep it afloat and to keep doing righteous deeds, and these same financial donations have become a false god to the Church, preventing it from preaching and teaching the radical, deep-seated, faith-based claims of social justice and of our tradition’s commitment to call out wealth and the inequity it breeds.
So…it’s long, because it’s a bit of a Thing to think through, since there are more than a few angles, and both nuance and naming are necessary.
But I’m throwing the piece out there in hopes of inviting some conversation, and maybe even some solutions, about what to do if indeed I’m even a little bit right.
Luther was all about calling a thing what it is.
When a person does that, it can get dicey, because there is a fine line between insulting and inspiring.
While I’m not quite yet willing to say that I’m calling a thing what it is, I do confess that I think I’m a little bit right.
I am also a little bit afraid I’ll insult someone.
But I’m hoping instead to inspire conversation.
And maybe some conversion too.
Here’s my working theory:
The primary reason why the Church has avoided boldly preaching and teaching about inequity, privilege, oppression, systemic injustice, racism, sexism, bigotry, nationalism—in short, about anything that concerns social justice—is fear of losing offerings.
Not losing people, not losing our message, not losing the integrity of our purpose, but losing the offerings that the people are bringing, even at the expense of losing our fundamental identity.
Our worry about money is often for good—and sometimes noble—reasons.
But still and even so, I fear that the Church has become beholden to the buck.
Every organization needs financial support: my name is Anna, not Pollyanna, so I get that.
But here’s the confounding piece about being the Church: as people who claim to adhere to the First Commandment (“I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods but me,”), the powerful role that dollars play in discerning what we in the Church say and what we do…well, it skims around and flirts a bit with having another god.
The obvious thing of it is, whether we are speaking of the church or any other organization, if weren’t for the donations that people put into the plates, nobody would care a whit how many people would show up, because the point of the organization would be, well, to care about the point of the organization.
Ideally, anyway, that’s how it should be, right?
Like, if I am a Minnesota Twins fan, say, and want to start a Twins fan club, I’m going to be all about the Minnesota Twins whether they win or lose, even if a Brewers fan sneaks into the club and, while there, tries to woo me from my beloved Twins to Milwaukee’s Boys of Summer with the offering of unlimited Wisconsin brats and beer…
[ahhh…that sounds so good…]
My allegiance wouldn’t be compromised by anything, including a donation to the cause (albeit a really enticing one—dang, a good sizzling brat and a crisp dark brew on a summer day at a ballpark…sigh).
But the more I mull, the more I visit, and the more I read, the more convinced I am that this fear of losing coins in our coffers has dictated what we preach, what we teach, and what we do, more than the fear of the Lord and the freedom of the Gospel.
As but one for-instance, note this blog I wrote a few months back, Mindful of the Risks, a summary of a series of keynotes I gave at a synod assembly, in which I tell of a man in the Q and A time who said: “You know that everything that you just said would get you kicked out of most every church, don’t you?”
Now, I’ve had hunches, I’ve had inklings, I’ve had stirrings, but of all things, it was this book by Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, that helped me piece it together.
Giridharadas is a journalist, political analyst, and teacher, whose basic premise, one which is rocking all sorts of worlds, is this: the moneyed-albeit-often-well-meaning-elite have amassed not just disproportionate incomes but (and thereby) disproportionate influence.
Now, it’s true, Giridharadas grants, that the non-profits which many benevolent wealthy people create (e.g., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) or to which they contribute (hospitals, universities, research centers….churches….) bring good into the world.
But at what cost?
In the secular world, Giridharadas is of the mind that:
the good created and maintained by the wealthy and privileged is done at the cost of collective benefits (roads, schools, environmental protections, universal health care) which could be reaped by way of taxation, but aren’t (because the dollars are donated to particular charities that appeal to the donor, and therefore are restricted to her/his agenda);
the good is defined as good by those powerful and influential enough to donate money to various causes and politicians—even if by other measures it is bad (to my mind, consider the effects of Citizens United);
the need for the good is maintained because the fundamental causes of the bad are left unchallenged, even though the manifestations of the bad are addressed via these non-profits and charity donations;
and the glut of monies available and used to dole out the good depends on the very systems of inequity that create, wait for it, the need for the good.
Not only am I convinced that he is right, I’m convinced that, albeit cut at a different slant, Giridharadas’ words and insights gibe with how things go down in the Church.
We do do good in the Church. We do help people in poverty, who are homeless, who hunger, who are sick.
But we have been and are far less apt to condemn that which causes poverty, homelessness, hunger, and illness, and we have been and are far less apt to condemn systems and contexts that are more controversial: GLBTQIA rights, climate change realities, immigrant rights, economic inequities, and so forth.
It takes, that is, way more courage to preach and teach about social justice, about ‘good’ as defined by the gospel, about the call to pick up the cross and follow Jesus rather than any worldly leader’s agenda, than it does preach and teach about feeding the hungry, and donating clothes to the poor.
We might say it’s about pastoral care concerns, we might say it’s about finding the right timing, we might say it’s about building trust, but what it really boils down to, as I lay out below, is simple: we don’t want to tick off the people who keep the Church, and most specifically congregations, financially afloat.
Because the gospel’s idea of what the good is, and what the good news is, isn’t at all the same thing as what the wealthy and privileged think—and have been allowed by church leaders to think—it is.
Giridharadas speaks of MarketWorld.
It’s defined as a tight sphere of elite, wealthy, powerful people who nonetheless are trying:
…to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo. It consists of enlightened businesspeople and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government, and think tanks. It has its own thinkers, whom it calls thought leaders, its own language, and even its own territory—including a constantly shifting archipelago of conferences at which its values are reinforced and disseminated and translated into action. MarketWorld is a network and community, but it is also the culture and state of mind. (30)
The people in this elite enclave aren’t mean-spirited, that is.
They make up a collective culture bent on intentions of doing good.
In fact, they do do good…but with simultaneous intention that they don’t do themselves harm.
With a couple of tweaks, if that doesn’t describe how the church tends to work, then I’ll eat my…well…I’ll eat my ELW.
It’s not a 1:1 compare, I realize, but enough so that some of Giridharadas’ fundamental observations offer some relevant parallels to the Church: MarketWorld and Church both believe that they are doing good things, both depend on an insular way of perceiving the good, both do not want to offend the power-brokers, and both are concerned to protect their ability to do good, as they’ve defined it, from being harmed.
Here’s the paradoxical kicker, though: the very people that each group purports to help is, in fact, harmed by the very way they attempt to do good.
To this point, Giridharadas quotes Oscar Wilde:
Just as the worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do the most harm are the people who try to do most good. (8)
So, vis-a-vis the Church, obviously it seeks to bring good in the world.
And obviously it does bring good into the world.
But good intentions and deeds though they are, they are thwarted, in a mind-blowing sort of way, by these same good intentions and deeds.
Raw and base capitulation to dollars, however, is not the driving force here, though.
Instead, far and away the concern to avoid alienating these congregational financial supporters is—just like the goal of doing good in MarketWorld—very much motivated by good intentions. Unfortunately, these good intentions are informed and sustained by trust in misguided, but not malevolent, myths.
So these last several days, using a few crossover insights from Winners Take All, I’ve spent some time sifting some of these myths out.
They’re below, with some “So What Does This Mean?” chaser questions below.
The Pastoral Care Myth
As often as not, when I ask rostered leaders why they are not more forthright in their preaching and teaching about the gospel as it relates to social justice and politics, it takes but a nanosecond before they name their sensitivity to their role as pastoral care givers.
They don’t want their preaching and leadership, no matter how righteous the message of either is, to offend people so much that these parishioners might leave the Church.
If they leave the church, the reasoning goes, they will leave access to broader messages of hope and love and support.
Too, the community of which they’ve been a part will be harmed by their absence.
The whole thought trajectory is noble, has integrity, and I get it.
But at the end of the day, it turns out that the very thing they are afraid of doing—cutting themselves off from providing pastoral care—is the very thing that they do (cue a spin on Romans 7:15-20)
Giridharadas tells the story of Darren Walker, well-intentioned president of the Ford Foundation, and who therefore, as Giridharadas notes, is “in the social justice business.” Of Walker, Giridharadas says that he:
…believes that it is key to “‘meet people where they are’ and ‘not be judgmental.’…When he [Walker] worked in Harlem, it was hard getting parents to bring kids to medical appointments. There was a temptation to judge and criticize: here we are trying to help you, and you can’t even get up off your couch. Walker said he knew that that was not the right approach. He knew they would have their own logic, their own story. ‘You don’t knock on the door and say, ‘you’re a loser. Your a bad…’ You’ve got to meet people where they are….’”
“‘That’s my view writ large,’ he continued. ‘And so where we are meeting them’—he was now speaking of the highly privileged—‘is where they are, which is they actually believe that they are doing good, they are contributing to our economy. They’re contributing to the tax base. They are contributing to philanthropy through their own personal giving and commitments to boards and whatever. So that’s where they are.’
The analogy is telling, because it illustrates how an ethic of not judging that had developed to protect the weak could serve just as well to guard the strong. Meeting people where they are means one thing when applied to a mother with mental health issues in Harlem, juggling three jobs, two kids, and their appointments. It is quite another thing for the private equity tycoon to enjoy the same suspension of judgment. Should he, like the subaltern, really be met wherever he is?” 183-84
That “meet people where they are” phrase, straight out of the quote’s chute?
A key piece of the pastoral leader lexicon.
It’s what Jesus did, it’s said, ‘meeting people where they are,’ which is, in point of fact, true.
Buuuuuttttttt I don’t think, when someone makes this case, that they are thinking about those moments when, say, Jesus upended the tables, or hurled insults like “you brood of vipers,” or told the rich man that he wasn’t going to get into heaven.
In each instance arguably, he met people where they were.
Or Amos (of “You cows of Bashaan” fame, as well as “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to to ruin the poor of the land….on that day…I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentations…”), Mary (known not just for bearing Jesus but for these words that, I believe it is safe to assume, she actually meant, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”); and again Jesus (when separating the nations, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…Truly, I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me…”).
They all, in fact, met people exactly where they were, but not where these people thought that they were.
For that matter, Amos, Mary, Jesus (not to mention Isaiah, Micah, the woman at the well who straightened Jesus out, Paul, etc) also weren’t so particularly interested about “meeting people where they were” if that nebulous place were necessarily determined by the self-perception of the meet-ee, so to speak, rather than by the meet-er who carried the word that these folks had to, even if unwillingly, hear.
It is no exaggeration to say that hundreds of people have suffered or died, arguably, collectively even in this last week, and assuredly thousands over the course of time, because of the Church’s concern to meet people where they were.
Alas, who are the primary ‘people’ in mind to “meet where they are”?
Not the poor, generally, when we are talking about the pastoral care reasons moving us to avoid preaching and teaching social justice.
It’s the rich and the powerful and the influential in our pews whom we don’t want to offend.
But it raises a question, doesn’t it: where is the same concern for pastoral care for the poor and the oppressed?
And, for that matter, the more one fusses with the notion, it becomes clear that in our attempt to provide pastoral care to the privileged by not offending or alienating them, we are actually doing the exact opposite.
As my New Testament professor Mark Allen Powell said of the message of Luke’s gospel, just as the poor need to be redeemed of their poverty and oppression, so too do the rich need to be redeemed of their wealth and privilege.
Rather than our timidity being an extension of pastoral care to the powerful in the pews, it is in fact an abdication of it, for we allow them to worship a false god, and worse, we don’t even let them in on the news.
Quite possibly worse even than that, at the end of the day (or fiscal year), our fear of alienating them has also reduced them and their importance in the Communion of the Saints to their monetary worth.
We have seen them as dollar signs instead of beloved children of God and sisters and brothers in Christ.
It’s also a bit possible that the “meeting people where they are” take is less about meeting people where they are, and more about not meeting them at all.
Conflict is not fun.
Perhaps latently behind the ‘meeting people where they are’ philosophy lies, in fact, self-protection.
It’s not fun to fight.
So let’s avoid the whole thing, and settle for agreeing to feed the poor instead (again, and again, and again, and again, and again).
The Myth of the Prudent Euphemism
Words have power.
We all get that, which is why, when someone asks our opinion about a positively horrible new piece of art, or new outfit, or new Significant Other, that such-and-such or so-and-so surely is… interesting.
Similarly so with ideas, says Giridharadas.
For example, when reflecting on an exchange with Bruno Giussani of TED Talks, he says that:
…ideas framed as being about ‘poverty’ are more acceptable than ideas framed as being about ‘inequality.’ The two ideas are related. But poverty is a material fact of deprivation that does not point fingers, and inequality is something more worrying: it speaks of what some have and other lack; it flirts with the idea of injustice and wrongdoing; it is relational. ‘Poverty is essentially a question that you can address via charity,’ he said. A person of means, seeing poverty, can write a check and reduce that poverty. ‘But inequality,’ Giussani said, ‘you can’t, because inequality is not about giving back inequality is about how you make the money that you’re giving back in the first place.’ Inequality, he said, is about the nature of the system. To fight inequality means to change the system. For a privileged person, it means to look into one’s own privilege. And, he said, ‘you cannot change it by yourself. You can change the system only together. With charity, essentially, if you have money, you can do a lot of things alone.’ 122-23
“Poverty…does not point figures…[but] inequality…flirts with the idea of injustice and wrongdoing; it is relational.”
A check can reduce poverty, but it can’t reduce inequality.
People and systems can get away without being publicly indicted by sermons on poverty, but inequality takes names and calls them out loud.
The names that they take are names we fear will stand up when called, and will walk right on out the church’s door.
Unfortunately, we so rarely know the names of those affected by inequality, and who are therefore stuck in poverty.
As I note in my new book I Can Do No Other, Luther was all about giving alms to the poor, and laudably so.
But when the poor began to call a thing what it was, by calling into question the underlying systems which helped create poverty (as the peasants did, after reading Luther, and arguably thanks to having understood the implications of his theology better than he did), Luther was outraged.
His outrage was fueled by at least two things:
First, he believed in Natural Law, which asserted that all things were as God intended them to be—for this reason, rejecting a system rejected the providence of God;
Second, who helped keep his Reformation afloat? The wealthy who benefitted from the systems which put others into poverty.
The word ‘euphemism’ literally means good (eu-) speech (pheme).
Sometimes (it must be said out loud), even silence is a euphemism.
In trying to do good, we use good speech (or no speech).
Sometimes, however, good speech, euphemisms (silent or spoken), are really cacophemisms—offensive speech.
It’s worth noting that etymologically, the word ‘cacophemism,’ literally means bad (kakos) speech (pheme), but the root word comes from the Proto-Indo-European kakka, which means, um, “to defecate”.
And sometimes, calling a thing what it is means to call out, quite literally, B.S., even of the well-intentioned sort.
The Myth of Giving Preference to Solving Symptoms Rather Than Problems
So poverty is a symptom.
Inequity is the problem.
But it’s been determined most prudent to keep that truth at a whisper, if spoken at all.
Giridharadas interviewed Andrew Zolli, an author and a curator at PopTech.
Zolli, in fact, prefers euphemisms, being persuaded that naming dicey issues only fractures relationships rather than builds them. “For example,” retells Giridharadas:
…he praised research at Emory University that illustrates how ‘contemplative practice’ can ‘bolster the psychological and physiological resilience of children in foster care,’ which was a lot easier than fixing foster care. He spoke of inflatable bridges and electrical micro-grids that could help communities survive exploding transformers at sea levels continue to rise. He was quick to admit that none of these fixes ‘is a permanent solution, and none routes out the underlying problem they address…You can talk about our common problems, but don’t be political, don’t focus on root causes, don’t go after bogeyman, don’t try to change fundamental things. Give hope. Roll with the waves. That is the MarketWorld way.’ 89
“Don’t be political, don’t focus on root causes, don’t go after the bogeyman, don’t try to change fundamental things.”
In other words, don’t call a thing what it is.
These very same rules-of-thumb? Advice taught to and by pastoral leaders in exactly the same way for exactly the same reasons.
These aren’t, that is, just MarketWorld Maxims.
In MarketWorld or the Church, it’s far easier, safer, and less conflictual to donate monies to good causes, than to question, let alone challenge, the politics, root causes, or fundamental things which create the need for our donations in the first place.
If you do, well, then pretty soon you’re speaking of justice, and social justice, and we can’t have that—turns out in MarketWorld either.
Giridharadas tells of Emmett Carson, a Silicon Valley advisor to entrepreneurs hoping to “do good.”
Carson learned quickly this lesson, because ‘social justice’ was perceived as “taking from the rich and giving to the poor,” or “giving to people who didn’t earn something.”
So, says Giridharadas, “Carson started using the word ‘fairness’ because ‘I’m about getting to a solution…If using the word ‘fairness’ allows us to say something is wrong and needs to be changed, that’s a better word for me. I am about trying to minimize the distinctions and the splits, and creating frames that different people can say, ‘I can buy into that.’”
Giridharadas goes on:
Carson began to understand that if no one questioned the entrepreneurs fortunes and their personal status quo, they were willing to help. They like to feel charitable, useful. They liked the chance to sign off on the help that the poor received, not to have that help organized through democracy and collective action…’If the view is I took it from you, versus you gave it, it changes the entire dynamics of conversation,’ Carson said. Perhaps they had a feeling ‘that I’m being targeted because I’ve been successful, I’ve worked hard, I made it; and because I made it, I am now the target, that you think you deserve some of my success that you haven’t earned.’ 51-52
People love to give, Carson has learned.
But there’s a bit of a relevant asterisk, here, when we speak of such things in the Church.
People do not love to give up their way of life, or to take up their cross and follow Jesus.
Out of perceived necessity, then, the Church has learned to talk around things, rather than talk about them.
Imagine how hard it would be for doctors to treat their patients with the same approach: unable to talk candidly about the detrimental effects of smoking, they address wheezing with inhalers; unable to talk candidly about the implications of high fat and salt in a person’s diet, they speak about antacids; unable to talk candidly about the lack of regular and sufficient sleep, they note the benefits of caffeine.
The Church has become that kind of doctor.
The Myth of Buying Time to Gain Trust
It’s often said, in the Church, that one cannot effect change until trust is built.
The rule of thumb ranges: one year, five years, seven years, twelve years…at the very least, a leader must be in place a significant spell of time before initiating something new.
And it makes sense, and in many ways and cases it bears out.
Moving the flag, changing worship time, having a new liturgy: just thinking about initiating such things even after a decade or two tends to give rostered leaders the shudders.
But when we are talking about naming systemic issues that perpetuate real suffering, real despair, or real death, a true sense of urgency has been lost, or is kept at a comfortable distance.
Hidden behind our desire to inculcate long-developing trust is one manifest truth, and one uncomfortable consequent truth:
a) quick change is uncomfortable, unadvisable, and quite possibly impossible anyway;
b) we are implicitly more comfortable with the in-the-meantime suffering incurred by the Least of These, who are expected to wait patiently for the optimal days/weeks/months/years to pass before the necessary trust threshold will have been met, and before the already comfortable are still more comfortable, enough so to be ready to comfort the afflicted, precisely those whom we are called as Christians to serve.
Soon and very soon…
That these people, in contrast to those in our pews—or at least the powerful ones in our pews—are often nameless and faceless, it’s anyway easier to ask them to ”hold that thought” than it is to ask the privileged in our pews to release their hold.
Turns out that the same sort of maxims hold true in Giridharadas’ MarketWorld.
According to him, referencing conversations with Giussani, “…one does, often but not always, have to keep certain ideas at bay in order to gain hearing.” He quotes Giussani: ”You need to cut some of your moral corners or some of your convictions in order to package your ideas to make them palatable to this kind of environment…”
And then he turns to Daniel Dresdner, who wrote in The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans and Plutocrats are Changing the Marketplace of Ideas, “To stay in the superstar rank, intellectuals need to be able to speak fluently to the plutocratic class…If they want to make potential benefactors happy, they cannot necessarily afford to speak truth to money.” 124
Sure, the truth will set us free, but at a huge cost.
If leaders in the Church call out wealth, the inequity that creates it, and the unjust systems that perpetuate it, they simultaneously run the risk of alienating the benefactors, who keep the lights on, pay the salaries, purchase the elements and paraments, and also give money to really important, good, causes.
That’s excruciatingly true.
But sometimes we don’t see, or don’t want to see, that we are imprisoned by false truths.
And even if we do, captivity is far more comfortable than the freedom Christ has promised us.
So the powerful remain captive to their comfort, the Church remains captive to its concern to not perturb the powerful, and the Least of These remain captured in their suffering by the both of them.
The Myth of the Mission Trip/Good Deed Day/Food Pantry Donation Drive
Chiara Cordelli, a political philosopher at the U of Chicago, says that the financial elite “live their life through a sense of themselves as entrepreneurs, as agents of change.”
But according to Giridharadas, “this gung ho attitude about bending the world to their will turns out to be rather temperamental.”
“Yeppers,” says Cordelli, although not quite like that.
Instead, in a more nuanced way, she says that the wealthy love to create change that “makes them feel good–when it comes to building a business, lobbying for certain things, effectively helping some people through philanthropy,” because “then they are agents…they powerfully and intentionally can exercise change.”
But “…when it comes to paying more taxes, when it comes to trying to advocate for more just institution, when it comes to actually trying to prevent injustices that are systemic or trying to advocate for less inequality and more distribution, then they’re paralyzed. There is nothing they can do [so they say]…This is absurd in the sense that it’s a concept of agency that doesn’t make sense philosophically and doesn’t make sense practically.” (260-261)
In other words, the movers and shakers know how to shake and move, unless their own worlds are shaken and moved.
It’s far easier, and far less troublesome, to address a problem on the terms of the problem-solvers, namely the wealthy and privileged, than to actually solve it on the terms of those who are ill-affected by the problem—and the problem-solvers. 38-39
Same thing happens in the Church.
People of means or privilege are enthusiastic about repainting buildings in impoverished places, or stocking a food pantry, or providing medical assistance to remote places with lack of care.
But it is far harder to invite them to evaluate why these opportunities are necessary, how their way of life contributes to them, and then to advocate in the streets and in the voting booth for a different systemic structure, as an expression of gospel living.
The grounding to evaluate our status, to critically engage the reasons for it, and then to repent of it, is all over our Holy Scriptures.
It’s way easier to see it than ignore it…unless it pays to ignore it.
The gospel news, though, that Jesus is risen, announces to us (as I have said so often before, repeating the words of Walt Bouman), “Now that we know that death doesn’t win, there’s more to do with our lives than preserve them.”
The reality is, we are afraid of relinquishing our lives, and our way of life, in part because we fear that if we do, we will lose our privilege, and might even end up living like the ones we try to help with our well-intentioned, but at best stop-gap, solutions
In fact, worse than stop-gap, our donations arguably perpetuate the needs: if people keep coming to the rescue of the oppressed—people who are oppressed because of systems that oppress them—we also and thereby keep coming to the rescue of the oppressors.
The oppression won’t stop until the systems which create and allow it are stopped.
The Myth that Numbers Matter Most
Every congregational leader knows of the bane of parochial reports.
Annually, congregations are to send in their numbers, including perhaps most precisely numbers of people in the pews, and numbers of dollars in the coffers.
Once, in fact, when applying to a denominational grant, I was asked how many more people would come to church as a result of the plan, if put into action.
I refused to answer the question, because I honestly didn’t know.
When told that I could not leave that answer blank, I owned up that, in fact, because of the idea being proposed, it was entirely possible that fewer folk would come to Church.
That answer? Not satisfactory.
I needed to predict an uptick.
Rather than promise what I couldn’t, I pulled my application.
The thing of it is, gospel preaching might, in fact, mean that people will be offended, and people will recoil, and people will leave.
“Take up your cross and follow me” would be a great elevator speech, said no Marketing Professor ever.
The thing of it is, it’s harder to factor in the financial impact of those who aren’t there.
We can only count on, so to speak, we can only depend on—and do depend on—the donations of the people in our pews.
But it is worth nothing that research shows that a significant percentage of those who were in the pews, but left, or those who are not there and never were and don’t show signs of signing up for New Members Classes any time soon, are absent precisely because the Church is not preaching about social justice—peek at references here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here, for starters.
It might be, that is, that if we preach the gospel, some might leave, but more might come.
And it might be that, if we live faithfully, the question of whether more might come or leave is an utterly irrelevant question in the first place.
The Myth that We Should Be Most Concerned About Who Is Already In The Pews
A month or so ago, I presented in Canada, and my host spoke with frustration about the apparent Ultimate Concern of getting bums in the pews.
I cocked my head like adorkable our dog Gimli.
Bums in the pews? There had to be a kinder, more respectful way of making the point.
And then I realized that he was speaking Canadian, and I was hearing U.S. English.
He meant getting butts in the pews.
I heard getting homeless people in the pews.
Getting butts in the pews is a very different agenda than getting bums in the pews.
Jesus, I do believe, would care more about the latter than the former.
The more that we preach a word that enables people to live as they do, the more butts we will see.
The more that we preach a word that frees people to live as God intends them to….well, we’ll lose some butts, but gain some bums.
I‘m fairly sure Jesus would be down with that.
De-mythicizing the Church
Myths always have a bit of truth laced through them, and the ones above are no exception.
But here are some additional facts, and competing truths, that put the myths above in further context:
1. The Church is dependent on benevolent donors. The greater number of donors in our congregations, the greater amount of security we have, and service we can offer.
This security, far from being a bad thing in and of itself, translates into many good things and ways to serve: adequate pastoral and staff compensations, consequent pastoral stability and sufficient staffing, building mortgage payments, updated and kept-up facilities, electricity, printings, mailings, as well as donations to needs in the immediate and wider communities: crucial health, healing, and wholeness ministries near and far happen because of what lands in the offering plate.
2. But paradoxically, given the mission of the Church, if a congregation opts to be bold with the implications of the gospel, not least of all by way of calling out death-dealing systems, and calling into being life-wielding ones, that congregation could very well lose not only donors, but also, potentially, viability.
They could, in fact, cease to exist.
And, consequently, many other righteous ministries (see above) would also cease to exist.
That’s a problem.
3. If a rostered leader speaks with clarity about inequity, if she or he condemns the inordinate power of the wealthy, if the preacher announces that the agenda of the present administration is contrary to Scripture, to the life of Jesus, and to the gospel news that we are freed to be ambassadors of radical life, there is a real risk that that courageous one will be out of a call.
If that person is out of a call, that person cannot (immediately, at least) pay a mortgage, afford groceries, pay for a child in college.
There is real reason for fear and legit prophetic timidity.
That’s also a problem.
4. It is not easy, but easier, to speak to these things at a denominational level. Conversation and debate occurs at a Churchwide Assembly, and in this sort of setting, it’s abundantly clear that any move to assert claims revolving around social justice are just one person’s agenda, but that of many.
To that end, movements, causes, efforts, advocacy, and resolutions occur more often and more radically as the Church aperture widens.
Locally, however, where the focus becomes clearer, the image then sharpens, and so do the words, the barbs, and the anger.
It’s no wonder that resolutions passed at the denominational level don’t always, and perhaps even often, trickle down to the congregational one.
That’s a problem.
5. Rostered leaders are called to do just that: to lead. But leading can be very lonely.
Often, deacons and pastors are supported by their communities in avid ways, but if the congregation feels as if their way of life is threatened by proclamation and education, the support wanes, and animosity gains.
It is hard, sometimes, especially during times of conflict generated precisely by fidelity to the gospel, to trust that a person is called to serve the gospel in a community, which means something entirely different than serving the community.
Prophetic isolation is for real.
That’s a problem.
6. All of that said, sometimes life, and life as a Christian, is messy.
I recall that, some time back, the South Dakota Synod came out with a statement that gambling was bad. And by all objective measures, it is: it leads to poverty, it is tied to addiction, it encourages people to live on false hopes rather than real vocations.
So right and true, but then you try to be the pastor in Deadwood or Lead SD to make that case.
Or, relatedly, our beautiful ELCA statement on creation care mentions, and not in passing, that there is reason to eat less beef.
I was asked to teach on this document at a congregation in South Dakota, and during the class, a hand shot up, and a woman said, her voice quivering with rage: “My family owns a cattle farm West River. Are you telling me that my own denomination is opposed to our family’s vocation and livelihood?”
In related news, she walked out, and I was not asked back.
So how is it that we can announce radical news in a way that does not seem like we are speaking in a vacuum?
How is it that both can be true: that gambling is bad…and yet an entire communal and congregational economy is based on it? Or that especially given the climate crisis, we need to eat more vegetables and less meat…and families—and congregations—depend on livestock for their livelihood?
What Does This All Mean?
The whole thing is complicated.
But we have some faith resources to sift a few things out.
The second chapter of Acts (most probably written by the same author who wrote Luke) tells of the day of Pentecost. Here the disciples were huddled in a room, but then the Holy Spirit, in the form of fire, showed herself.
The next thing you know, people of all nations heard the gospel, namely the news that Jesus is risen, in their own languages.
Others, who opted not to see the Spirit at work, assumed that the disciples were drunk.
In fact, living according to the gospel instead of according to the world inspires strange behavior, just as a person expects to see from a drunk person, so we won’t fault them for that misunderstanding.
But note what Peter says to the judgmental crowd:
14“Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy….
22“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.
25For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope.27For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
29“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ 32This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses….
37Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
38Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.
44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The Spirit showed up, the corruption of the present generation was condemned, and people lived life in a different way: they shared, they supported, they communed, they praised God, and they had the goodwill of all the people (have you seen this column about the Church living out the Gospel in Minneapolis?).
They did it together.
So, with all of this in mind, I am left to wonder:
What would it take to:
1) Establish a very present benevolent posse of support when a rostered leader opted to preach and teach the implications of the Gospel, to make it clear that no, no, really, the leader was living out her or his call faithfully, and inviting the congregation to do so too?
2) Create a fund of financial support that would assist a rostered leader and, if necessary, the family, in the event of a loss of call?
3) Form a foundation that would tide a congregation over if financially significant people, or a significant number of people with finances, would leave?
4) Re-imagine how we consider congregational financial security? Presently, it is akin to school districts, which provide services calibrated to the tax base of its immediate surroundings. This leads to abundant inequities in education, and, arguably likewise in congregational stability. Can we come up with a more equitable, and therefore more uniformly secure, budget blueprint for congregations?
5) Reject the numbers game, and embrace the notion that “wherever two or three are gathered…”?
6) Tangibly support families in our congregations who depend on the systems that are changing, or need to be changed?
7) Remind congregations that the separation of Church and State was established to protect the Church from forced religious belief via the State? As long as a congregation does not support a candidate, can demonstrate that its preaching and teaching is consistent with purported core religious beliefs, and that a preponderance of its time is spent with religious activity instead of political activism (ensuring that a supposed community of faith is not a disguised PAC, for example), then speaking to the issues of the day is utterly germane to the purpose of the Church and the call of the gospel.
8) Foster new congregations which see as its fundamental purpose being the presence of Jesus (who had a habit of feeding, healing, welcoming, teaching, encouraging, expressing righteous indignation, exhorting, dying, and being raised) in the world?
At the beginning of one of his chapters, Giridharadas quotes Upton Sinclair, who said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” (86).
For too long, and for too many reasons (unrighteous and yet really, really understandable ones), the Church has been quite timid to get congregants, and congregations, to understand that the gospel speaks against wealth and privilege, exactly because its ”salary,” so to speak, depends on the congregants not understanding it.
But our salvation does.
Our salvation does.
I am not talking about whether we will be welcomed by Jesus after we croak.
But the Christian gospel is not just relevant for when we die, but while we are living.
And too many people have died, and are dying, because the Church is too often beholden to the power of Geld rather than God.
Let’s call a thing what it is.
And then let’s consider what a new thing could be.
Because what are we Christians about anyway, if not seeing death, rejecting it in all of its clear and nebulous forms, and being ambassadors of resurrection in the face of it?
Now that you know that death doesn’t win, there is more to do with your life than preserve it.
Resources for Clarity and Courage
Visions and Expectations, especially the section on Faithful Witness, pages 15-17
Pr. Jennifer Butler’s Faith In Public Life
(Please submit more to me if you have suggestions!)
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