I was having a conversation with a brother at church Sunday. We were talking about the local homeschool athletic group and how changing the way it was funded had a radical impact on the group. Previously they tried to offer it for free to make it as accessible as possible and because of that they spent a ton of time and effort fund-raising. In return, some of the parents who had kids in the program became pretty entitled and wanted more, not less, from the program that they were not even paying for. So the decision was made to start charging a fee to participate. By changing the structure so that parents paid for their kids to participate, those parents had some skin in the game and really had to want to have their kids playing. It had some meaning to them because they were personally invested in it.
As an aside, I think the same principle applies to the public schools. Sure you pay for it, but only in the most ephemeral way. Most people have mortgages and as part of your monthly mortgage payment you pay into an escrow account that funds property taxes and insurance. Your $900 monthly payment might only be “paying” $800 toward the mortgage principle and interest, the rest is held aside and paid on your behalf for property taxes. Through the intricate and intentionally murky world of tax laws we pay a ton of different taxes without really thinking about it. So for most people the public school is there to be used and you are paying for it whether you like it or realize it or not. Because it is perceived to be “free” or at least free in the sense of expected, few parents are terribly engaged with the public school outside of sending their kids there and the occasional meeting at parent-teacher conferences. On the other hand, there are enormous expectations that parents have for the public schools that cross the line into complete unreasonableness. Parents expect to put their kids on a bus at age five and have their kids become well-educated, nice to others, properly socialized and suitable citizens of the United States when they cross the stage at 18 wearing a cap and gown. They expect all of this to happen with as little inconvenience as possible on their part. Little wonder the public schools are broken or that private schools where parents pay tend to get much better results at a lower cost. But I digress.
Getting back to last Sunday, our conversation turned to the church. For many Christians, the local church is "free". A small percentage of people fund the majority of most local church expenses and a small percentage of people (often the same group) do most of the work. The rest of the people, at least in churches with perhaps 100 "members", attend Sunday services, bring their kids to AWANA and VBS, get counseling when they need it, are “married and buried” in that church and have to invest little more than an hour or three of their time during the week. Even during that minimal time investment the only expectation is that they sort of pay attention and remain mostly quiet. What scares people of all stripes when considering real reform in the church is that the Body is going to be asked to contribute, to be involved. There is going to be a cost. It might not be financial but it may be something far more expensive: their lives. I think it scares pastors who are afraid people will say the wrong thing or do something the wrong way and it scares the laity who don’t see themselves as qualified or called to serve in the church.
I also think this has something to do with how we view grace. I don’t think that it is even a debatable issue that what is called “easy believism” or “cheap grace” is rampant in the church. With a focus on getting people (and even worse very young children) to make a superficial gesture in order to be declared saved, grace has lost any semblance of meaning. In the effort by evangelicalism to make being a “Christian” as easy as possible, the reality of a transformed life, dying to self, the hatred of the world, the whole life sacrifice that comes with being a Christian is lost.
As long as “going to church” is as simple as a tie and showing up more or less on time and nothing more is asked of people, the church will continue to be just another optional activity to be worked into our schedules. Church cannot be an event, something you slip in and slip out of when convenient. For far too many people, there is no cost to being a “Christian” in America and so it has little value. If you are pining to see more people who are sold out for Christ, then you need to stop selling out the Gospel. No one is doing a lost person a favor by peddling a cheap substitute Gospel that makes someone who is lost into a religious person that is lost. You cannot buy your salvation but being saved definitely carries a cost. There is a cost to taking up your cross daily but that burden is truly light as a feather in light of the wonderful value that it brings.