Monday, January 20, 2014

The Scandal of the Church in America

Jessica wrote me a note following yesterday's sermon:
You obviously have me thinking. Here is a question that pairs with an article I just sent: if global wealth continues to become more and more concentrated in a small number of people, how will churches be able to stay afloat? If there is more competition for fewer dollars, it makes sense that at some point churches without wealthy donors won't be able to offer much outside of traditional services, and maybe not even that. Am I missing something? Is this an issue that is talked about amongst church leadership?

Here is an edited version of my response to her:
I'm glad that you're thinking! I think the institutional model of the church that has dominated the landscape in the West since Constantine made Christianity the official state religion in 325 AD may be unsustainable. There are many who are looking at a different expression of faith than what we have experienced in the institutional church all our life. Because of that, the church will always "stay afloat," but perhaps in a different form. Many of the trappings of the church - large buildings, paid clergy persons, extensive programming - might become things of the past in the next generations. If so, that is okay. The church in China grew from 700,000 persecuted and imprisoned believers under Mao in 1948 to over 67,000,000 people at the time of Mao's death.
And yes, our leadership talking about these issues. I recently began exploring the issues of cultural engagement, trying to understand how our church can best impact the post-christian culture in which we live. That study is resulting in conversations that I am bringing back to our elders so we can wrestle with them.
What will ultimately define Christians in the west is how we handle our wealth. I imagine a world in which those who vehemently disagree with what Christians believe on issues of morals nevertheless deeply respect Christians because they are characterized by a compassion that moves us to live sacrificial lives so that others can benefit from our generosity. 

Jesus did not say, "the world will know we are Christians by our morals." He said that the world would know that we are his disciples by our love. (John 13:35) This same disciple, John, who recorded those words, wrote this in one of his letters, "If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?" 

The church in America is the richest in the history of the faith. Only 12% of American evangelicals tithed to their church in 2012. This abdication of responsibility for our brothers and sisters in need is the scandal of our generation.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Peanut Butter Boy

I taught all day at the seminary, five hours on my feet.  It was hot and humid and I was exhausted as I made my way through the muddy street back to the mission compound where we were staying.  I heard the cries of children – “blanc! blanc!” – as tried to push my way through the crowd.

By now I had learned to largely ignore their shouting.  Give one a bit of money, or some food, and soon a riot would break out as children and even parents clamored for a gift.  I felt a bit guilty about that, but what difference could one person make in the face of overwhelming poverty on such a huge scale?

I stepped over the open drainage ditch and turned the final corner that led to the mission.  Forced to wait for the crowd to clear a bit, I paused, and felt someone slip their little hand into mine.  I looked down and saw that it was a young child – a boy.  He looked to be about five or six years old.  His stomach was distended, his hair a kinky orange tint – signs that I had come to recognize as malnutrition.  He looked up at me and said two words: “peanut butter.”

They might have been the only two English words he knew.  And, surrounded as they were by a cacophony of Creole and French, they struck my like a hammer blow.  I knew what he wanted and, as he accompanied me back to the mission, I formulated a plan. 

Arriving at the mission, I asked the gatekeeper to tell him, in Creole, to wait there a moment.  I hurried to the kitchen and found a plastic spoon and a jar of Jif.  Plunging the spoon into the golden butter, I twirled it around several times creating as large a “peanut butter popsicle” as I could.  Holding it in front of me, I made my way back to the gate where the boy waited with hope.

When he saw the peanut butter-lathered spoon his eyes grew wide and he smiled.  He took the spoon and said, “Merci.”  Thank you.  I expected he would shove it in his mouth, but instead he spun around and began running.

Puzzled, I asked the gatekeeper what had happened.  He was obviously hungry, so why didn’t he eat.  The gatekeeper replied simply, “He is taking it home to share with his family.”