Tuesday, December 13, 2011

People are not budget items

I mentioned yesterday that world famous Canadian blogger Tim Challies is doing a series on giving in the church. As I expected most of it is little more than a regurgitation of the cultural understanding of “give to the local church to support the local church” dogma. Today he covered the “where” and “how much” question and his answer and more importantly his rationale for answering “where” with “the local church” was quite telling. His first two points were not terrible…
First, the church appoints certain people to be aware of need and responsive to it. In most churches this is the job of deacon who are called and equipped to be both proactive and responsive when it comes to need.

Second, the leaders of the church can identify the most important needs. The elders and deacons work together to identify and determine how to meet whatever needs arise.
That seems reasonable. We see that the early church sold their belongings and gave them to the apostles’ feet to be doled out….
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.(Acts 4:34-35 ESV)
I would point out that elders in local churches today are not exactly the same as the apostles but that is a minor quibble. Now I have never been a deacon in a church except in the sense of deacons being servants and I certain strive to serve wherever I am but I wonder how accurate the assumption is that, i.e. that the deacons are aware of the needs of the church and ensuring that they are being met. I question this for a couple of reasons, one being that in most churches we have been associated with there is not the level of close fellowship that would be required to really know what the needs of every Christian in a local church are (plus our American pride that prevents us from seeking help from friends). The other reason is that in a church budget, benevolence or mercy ministry is but one line item and is rarely (again in my experience) a very substantial one compared to clergy salaries and building maintenance. Still, those first two points seem defensible from Scripture. His third point is that often more can be accomplished by big gifts to a relatively small number of ministries, which seems to fly in the face of the reality that $500 to help a family with heating and food in your local community is probably more Biblical than a $5000 donation to some massive bureaucratic ministry.
Then take a look at reason number four (emphasis added)….
Fourth, the New Testament makes it clear that the church is to set aside certain men to the work of the ministry and some of these are to be set aside to vocational ministry. Most Christians take this to mean that they are to be paid for their work. By making the church your primary means of giving, you are supporting your pastors in the ministry. And, of course, you are also supporting all the ministry of that church, from paying salaries to paying for a building and Bibles and everything else that is needed to keep a church going. If you are at a church week-by-week but giving your money to another cause, you are not supporting and sustaining your own church.
Most of it is typical pay clergy rhetoric but the second from the last sentence was really telling. The mindset that says we need salaried professional clergy and “church” buildings in order to keep going is so prevalent in the church and it is really damaging because the actual people of the church become a line item on the budget and often that line item falls far down the pecking order on the budget. We have to pay for the building and the pastor because without those how could we possible have a church?! Sure the Jones family is beingevicted or having their heat turned off but at least they can come here on Sunday and listen to a sermon in a comfy pew!

This is so contrary to Scripture where sharing within the church and caring for one another was not one of the financial priorities of the church, it was the priority of the church. In the midst of false teaching, violence and persecution against the church and the generally poor conditions of the first century, the church didn’t just “keep going”, it thrived. Today in the midst of unimaginable wealth and cultural acceptance the institutional church in the West is largely spiritually dead and everyone knows it but the proposed solution is always more of the same. More programs, more and better buildings, more clergy.

This is not the time for business as usual. Playing church for centuries has gotten us in serious trouble in the church to the point that the world we are supposed to be reaching associates us with hypocrisy, money grubbing, anger, jealously and politics rather than grace, mercy and love. I can't say that the world is wrong. For all of our talk about “loving one another”, our budgets and financial decisions scream just the opposite. We love religion, we love performance, we love private property. Our fellow members of God’s elect, His adopted family which we were brought into by the blood of Christ and the grace of God? They are just a budget item, somewhere between snow removal and office supplies.

Why do we marvel that unbelievers want nothing to do with “Christianity”? Much of the time I don’t either.

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