When Church is Less Like Home and More Like ‘a Home’

(Another sermonette, of sorts.)

We call it a “church home,” but sometimes it’s … not.

At least, not home like a family home: a somewhat secure and comfortable family place where we spend a portion of our time, sometimes relaxing and eating and pursuing interests that captivate us and other times doing housework and chores and routine maintenance. Not a home that is a central gathering place or a base of operations for the time when we’re not at school or the office or the gym or wherever.

No: too often it seems more like a “home,” a rest home, an assisted living facility where the good church people hang out with the good church people and do good-church-person things. At these rest-home churches, we don’t often look beyond the church walls to see what we can do to make the world a better place. (Stained-glass windows are hard to see through.)

We’re shut-ins, and too often we shut out the world.

That’s not universally true, of course (but so little is). Some churches function fairly effectively as temporary refuges, where believers can refresh themselves before going back out into work and life and service. Some churches, though, appear to be permanent refuges, strongholds against the world, as if Christ had said “take yourselves out of the world” instead of telling us to be “in the world, but not of it.”


Stained-glass windows can be beautiful, but they’re not easy to see through. (Image: The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral. NASA photo.)

In a similar vein, we may call it a church “family,” but sometimes it’s not. Many churches do have a family atmosphere in which believers support one another and help one another through crises — even if it is dysfunctional at times, it’s still a caring family that does the best it can. Sometimes, in some respects, it can be better than a real family; sometimes it can be far worse.

But we don’t often mean a family like real relations in a household, in which — if we do it right — we encourage one another to grow and reach for the dreams that drive us, in which we learn right and wrong and discover our talents in order to make our way out in the world. As a church, nurturing young believers into mature believers — making disciples — we don’t always do so with the intention of preparing them to serve and live out their faith outside the church, in the real world. Often our attention is turned inward, as if serving the church and the church family is the single most Holy-Spirit-approved way of glorifying God.

But Christ didn’t tell his Disciples to stay in Jerusalem and serve only each other. And Christ doesn’t tell us to stay in the church and serve only each other.

Lord, forgive me when I prefer to stay safe in the cloister instead of walking with you in the wider world.

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Putting ‘The Gift Church’ on Indefinite Hold

(This is the fifth, and possibly last, entry in an on-again, off-again series. Links to the first four are at the end.)

Scripture tells us to “wait upon the Lord” — in Psalms, in the Epistles, and famously in Isaiah 40 — but how long we have to wait is up to the Lord alone. That point occurred to me when I realized that I’ve been thinking about the “Gift Church” (or “Gift Fellowship”) idea — i.e., of starting a church that would practice radical generosity — for nearly three years.

Sure enough, when I went back to check I saw that my first notes on it were in early March 2015. Over a few feverish weeks I searched Scriptures and drafted guidelines to flesh out the idea before I shared it with my Bible study group. We discussed it a few times, off and on, and I thought doing so would get it out of my system — but the idea had me in thrall.

Eventually, that October, I first wrote about it here on the blog in a post entitled “The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES.” That was akin, I think, to crying out in the wilderness, but I didn’t actually do anything about it: I didn’t recruit people or organize interest meetings or whatever. I did put together a Facebook page and posted on it a few times, but I’ve since deactivated it. And as of now I haven’t written about it for nearly two years, outside of occasional Facebook comments.

But I can’t shake the vision.

Every so often I return to the idea and ask the Lord if I’m supposed to do something with it. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a clear “No” — at least I hope I haven’t just ignored it — but neither have I gotten a definite “Yes.”

I keep asking for a sign, and I think I finally looked in the right place to find one.

Your Family is Waiting for You
Wouldn’t it be great to have a single clear sign? Alas, it doesn’t always happen … so we wait. (Image: “Your Family is Waiting for You,” by Christian Senger, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

What sign have I been given? Simply that the Lord has not prompted anyone to partner with me. A few people have expressed mild interest in the concept, but that’s about it. No one else has had the same or a similar vision, and unless someone does I’ve decided that I need to give up this thought, this dream, this notion. (From a practical standpoint, of course, I suppose you could say I gave up — or gave up on — the notion long ago.)

Partnership is important to me because as I was studying the Scriptures, thinking about how such a church might govern itself, I focused on the fact that Jesus sent out the Disciples in pairs (as recorded in Luke 10), and that Paul always traveled with a ministry partner. Partnership offers support when times are difficult; provides for accountability to ensure vital tasks get done; and makes it less likely that a ministry will serve the minister’s ego more than the people or cause at which it is directed. I’ve come to believe that no ministry should operate except in partnership, and so I’ve put this ministry idea on indefinite hold.

And I’ve come to accept that no one else may ever catch this vision.

I may be the only person dissatisfied with the state of the church these days. Not so much the trappings of church, the worship or preaching or fellowship: the various churches I’ve attended recently haven’t satisfied my spiritual hunger, but that may say more about me than it does about them. No, I remain disheartened by the operations of churches that spend so much money on themselves — even going into massive debt like so many of the rest of us — that they spend relatively little on helping people. I wonder if it ever bothers their congregants to spend more every year on church programming, or more on utilities and maintenance of buildings that stand empty and unused most of the time, than they spend to feed the hungry or clothe the naked. I wonder if they even think about it.

When I was young, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland came to my hometown and spoke at my church. I recall two things about that Sunday. First, before the offering he prayed: “Lord, forgive us when we come before You with empty hearts, and empty hands.” That admonishment affected me deeply, and still does today.

Second, he based his sermon on the text, “What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” (Mark 8:36). That was the day I learned that Christ had first asked that question (until then, I had only associated it with the Beatles). But I bring it up because lately I have come to view many Scriptures as applying to the corporate church as much as they apply to us as individuals, which leads me to wonder: What does it profit a church, if it gains all manner of worldly appurtenances but loses the soul of the Gospel? And the soul of the Gospel is to serve, rather than to be served.

I don’t know if I will find a church that puts serving others ahead of serving itself. I don’t know if the idea for The Gift Church, which would do just that, will ever catch anyone else’s attention.

All I know is that I will continue to wait upon the Lord.

___
Previously in this series:
– 1: The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES
– 2: The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle
– 3: The Gift Church: How It Might Work
– 4: The Gift Church: Choir Loft, or Orchestra Pit?

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Self-Control, Worship, and Life

Those of us who are Christians rightly appreciate the characteristics that Paul described to the Galatians as “the fruit of the Spirit.” A few years ago, a friend of mine pointed out that they form something of a hierarchy with “self-control” as the base. I don’t know where he learned or came up with that idea, but I like it.

I also like what Douglas Wilson has to say on the subject in the latest installment of his “State of the Church” series, Church and Kingdom, Cathedral and Town:

… the Spirit moves throughout the earth, converting and restoring individuals, fashioning them into saints, into believers. As His fruit is manifested in them, one of those fruits is self-control, self-government, or self-mastery. This self-government is the basic building block for establishing non-tyrannical governments in the other spheres that God has established among men. Without self-government, families can become autocratic tribes…. Without self-government, the church can become a grasping and despotic monster…. Without self-government, the civil magistrate can become an overweening and covetous thug….

I love that he starts with the point that the Spirit is what “moves throughout the earth” to convert people. I cannot convert anyone; I cannot restore anyone; I cannot compel or convince anyone on my own. I don’t “preach” to my non-Christian friends for precisely that reason. What I try to do — and here I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t recall the quote or the original source — is to live a life that, if I succeed, may invite someone prompted by the Spirit to ask me about whom I follow, whom I serve, whom I worship.

And, speaking of worship, I love the metaphors in this excerpt:

The worship of God is central to all of life, but it does not devour all of life. The sun does not burn everything up, but it does give light to everything. The water does not flood the world, but it does irrigate the entire world. The anchor fastens the ship, the ship does not turn into a gigantic anchor. The cathedral is at the center of the town, but does not “take over” all the activities of the townspeople — their printing, their auto mechanics, their software designing, their lawn mowing. In one sense all of that is none of their business. But at the same time the church instructs the townspeople in the adverbs — how these things are to be done, meaning, honestly, before the Lord, with one eye always on the text, and with a hard work ethic.

Lord, help me govern myself well; help me worship You in all I do, whatever I do; and help me be about the business of my life in a way that pleases You, and points others to You.

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If Buttercups Can Do It, It Isn’t Ministry

Among the 21 Maxims for Discouraged Pastors — in fact, as part of the very first one — we find this gem:

In 2 Tim. 2:3-6, the apostle Paul compares the work of ministry to three vocations, and all of them involve a goodly amount of sweat — soldiers, athletes, and farmers. The calling of the ministry is not for buttercups, and if buttercups can do it, it isn’t ministry.

The entire post seems as if it would be valuable for every pastor, whether discouraged or not, to review periodically — and for every one of us who has ever thought of going into the ministry to bear in mind when listening for that call.

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Two Warring Spirits

We have two warring spirits inside us, of criticism and of discernment, and of late I have become acutely aware of their battle within me. Even in posting this, and admitting my own failures, I’m tempted toward criticism rather than discernment — tempted to point out the motes in others’ eyes (maybe even yours) rather than acknowledging the beam in my own.

What is this critical spirit I struggle against?

The critical spirit bites and devours. The critical spirit tears down and does not rebuild. The critical spirit speaks without thinking or reflecting. The critical spirit does not have equal weights and measures; it does not apply the same level of scrutiny to itself as it does to the other.

In contrast, what is the discerning spirit that I try — and all too often fail — to employ?

The discerning spirit wants to protect, not destroy. The discerning spirit warns; it does not push. The discerning spirit can speak hard words, and often does, but it is the scalpel of the surgeon, not the cudgel of the mugger.

Do you struggle with this, at all? Or am I the only one?

Lord, help us — help me — discern more than criticize, build more than demolish, and support more than undermine.

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Holding On

If I Had Been an Apostle on that terrible Holy Saturday,

… would I have gone into hiding? Yes, I would.
… would I have sunk into despair? Yes, I would.
… would I have wondered if it all had been for naught? Yes, I would.

Because I am fickle and uninspired and weak. Because all I had dreamed of and hoped for had been crushed. Because I would have known, with the surety that I knew the sun would rise, that I was bound for the same fate.

Despair
Sometimes all we can do is hold on. (Image: “Despair,” by Lloyd Morgan, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

And yet, when the next day dawned for the Apostles, all was not as they feared it would be. The world was the same, but their lives were radically changed. They held on long enough to see the new dawn, and sometimes — when we are hiding, in despair, and wondering if what we’ve done is for naught — all we can do is hold on, as well.

Wherever you are, whatever you may be going through … hold on.

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Should We Tear Down the Stage?

This is something of a sequel to — or maybe a tangent from — my post about Choir Lofts and Orchestra Pits.

Does your church have a stage?

Some churches have built impressive stages, with elaborate lighting and backdrops and such. Some churches can’t help but have a stage, because they rent space in a theater or a school auditorium or amphitheater or whatever. Our old church had a choir loft in front of the sanctuary — our pastor was always careful to call it a “platform,” because as singers and musicians we weren’t supposed to be performers on a stage — and we rearranged it to put the musicians together, but if you read my last post on this subject you’d be right in guessing that I think now that was probably a mistake.

Anyway, yesterday while worshiping at a small church I wondered how the worship leader, singers and musicians would react if someone from the congregation just walked up on stage while they were playing. Would they panic? Would they stop playing, or keep going?

Worship Set

(Image: “Worship Set,” by David Amsler, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

When I was a worship leader, I think I would have been stupefied. I expect I would have gotten flustered and missed more than a couple of beats, whether I was playing guitar myself or just conducting the rest of the musicians; certainly my attention would have been drawn to the person rather than to what I was doing. I hope that eventually I would have settled back into the singing, and I hope I would have come across as more surprised than irritated (though probably not; I have an unfortunate tendency to radiate my annoyance).

But the more I consider the question, the more I think that the best reaction would be to welcome that new person and keep on worshiping together.

The point of a worship service is not for the congregation to enjoy worship, but for them to experience it — to participate in it. It’s the difference between being a part of and being apart from the worship experience.

I feel more and more strongly that placing musicians and singers in front — and especially separating them from the congregation by having them on a stage (no matter what we call it) — skews the congregation’s experience in favor of observing rather than contributing. From my observations over the last couple of years, often the worship team performs while the congregation watches.

What do you think? If you’re a worship leader, a singer, or a musician in a church, and normally you’re separated from the congregation, would you welcome any worshiper onto the stage, any time? Is your worship team exclusive, and have you made worship the exclusive province of a few people?

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The Gift Church: Choir Loft, or Orchestra Pit?

This is the fourth entry in an on-again, off-again series. Links to the first three are at the end.

It’s Holy Week, which seems a good time to re-visit the idea I floated last year of “The Gift Church” — a Christian church that would practice radical generosity on a regular basis by spending more on the needy than it did on itself. This week, as we commemorate the central event around which the entire Christian faith revolves, the question is: how might worship be different at The Gift Church?

Over the past couple of years, as my wife and I have attended different churches here and there, I’ve observed an all-too-common sight in contemporary churches: worship musicians who seem to be performing for the benefit of the people in the seats rather than leading those people into a worship encounter with the living God. (I observed this so often when we first moved south that in 2009 I wrote a short essay about it that you can download, entitled “Ignore the Tour Guides, If You Can.”)

Easter Saturday at Destiny
Church service, or concert? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. (Image: “Easter Saturday at Destiny,” by Andy Rennie, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Then two weeks ago I began to think that the design of most of our contemporary Protestant churches makes it too easy for worship leaders — musicians and singers — to become performers, and thereby too easy for congregations to become passive recipients instead of active worship participants. My first thought as I walked out of the service that morning was that instead of choir lofts, our churches might do better to have orchestra pits.

Consider how the choir loft in many Protestant churches differs from the choir in, say, many cathedrals. In cathedrals, the choir area is often built such that the singers face the central aisle with their backs to the outer wall, leaving the area open so the congregation can see all the way to the apse, which often faces the rising sun and presents a beautiful if not inspiring display of stained glass. In contrast, a choir loft, platform, or stage, often backed by nondescript decor, has dominated the front of many of the churches we’ve visited, placing the choir or worship leaders under bright lights and face-to-face with the congregants.

But worship is not meant to bring congregants face-to-face with stage-lit people: it’s meant to bring them face-to-face with God.

(Yes, I know that some churches seat the choir in the back, in a balcony. From what I’ve observed, that’s relatively rare. Permit me to continue with the contrasting idea.)

Consider, in contrast, the orchestra pit. In many performance venues, only those who sit in balconies can see much of the orchestra in the pit, because a pit orchestra is not meant to be the center of attention. That orchestra is in place to augment, supplement, and set the mood for the action on the stage; likewise, worship musicians are there to augment, supplement, and set the mood for worship. They are not there to be worshiped, nor to attract attention to themselves, but to make it possible for the congregation to worship.

If the worship team — whether an acoustic combo, a power band, or a full orchestra — were below congregants’ line-of-sight, rather than between the congregation and the cross or between the people and the altar, would it help the people worship better? Maybe not: maybe people want the spectacle; maybe they want to be entertained.

But it would remind the musicians that they are not there to be the center of attention. They are there to serve the Lord and the congregation — it is a worship service, after all — and not just a chance to show off their musical chops.

(Yes, there is a place for special presentations, whether solos or duets or quartets or choirs; whether instrumental or vocal, accompanied or acapella; whether songs or readings or full-on dramas; and in those cases putting the presenters on a stage works so everyone can see them. But those are not intended to draw the congregation into worship.)

There just might be an even better arrangement than either choir lofts or orchestra pits.

I’ve never seen this tried anywhere, but what if church was conducted “in the round,” so to speak, with the worship musicians gathered in the center of the worship space and the congregation ranged around them. Instead of being on risers or on stage, singers could be spaced out among the congregation to help the people sing (which seems infinitely preferable to those worship teams in which soloists sing almost all of the songs, such that the congregation seems unsure if they should be singing or not). In this arrangement, the musicians and singers in the worship team would be worshipers along with the congregation, inviting the rest of the attendees to sing along because they are close to the music, almost part of it themselves.

Maybe that wouldn’t work — maybe the sound would be too uncontrolled, too inconsistent. Maybe it would work. But maybe what really matters is paying attention to the fact that it’s a worship service, not a concert.

Which brings me back to the question posed above: how might worship be different at The Gift Church?

In putting down my thoughts on how The Gift Church might operate, I wrote this:

Worship. The Church shall present worship opportunities that emphasize reverence for God’s holiness, majesty, and power, and gratitude for God’s presence, protection, and salvation. Worship services shall respect but not be bound by Christian traditions and, when practical, shall incorporate elements of prayer (Philippians 4:6), music (Colossians 3:16), teaching and exhortation (1 Timothy 4:13), and fellowship (Hebrews 10:23-5). Worship leaders shall, to the best of their abilities, focus attention on God rather than on themselves or the congregation. The worship environment shall, to the extent possible, be designed, built, and/or arranged to minimize distractions and to concentrate attention on the object of worship, i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ, more than on worship leaders. The Elders and others responsible for planning and presenting worship shall develop a rotating calendar of worship services, suited to the needs of the congregation and the community, to celebrate all major Christian holy days and such additional festivals and holy days as they may see fit.

Most of that I wrote last year, because I wanted to emphasize that The Gift Church would not be a church built to entertain itself — and certainly not to indulge itself. Worship would be an important element of The Gift Church, but the church would not exist just to provide a space for worship. The church would exist to serve: purposed to spread the Gospel not by just talking about it — “God bless you, go in peace,” as Keith Green sang, “while all Heaven just weeps” — but by living the Gospel, denying itself and taking up the cross and channeling its contributions to the needy.

As I’ve noted in earlier installments, maybe a church with that purpose wouldn’t survive for very long. But it might make a difference while it lasted.

Anyway, I just added the line about the worship environment last week, when I started thinking about choir lofts and orchestra pits.

What about you? When do you feel the most engaged in worship? Would a different worship environment, or worship approach, help you feel closer to God? Do you want to be invited to participate in worship, to take an active part in the praise to the extent you feel comfortable? Or do you want to be sung to, talked to … entertained?

And if you are a worship leader, what are you doing to keep the attention off yourself and on the Lord?

Or am I the only one who cares about these things?

___
Previously in this series:
The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES
The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle
The Gift Church: How It Might Work

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The Gift Church: How It Might Work

This is the third entry in what has become a series. Links to the first two are at the end.

A few months ago on one of my walks, I started thinking about the idea of a church that would practice radical generosity on a regular basis. I had been reading about charities that were accused of not spending much of their collected funds on their target audiences (for instance, the Wounded Warrior Project apparently spends much more on its television commercials and executive salaries than it does to actually help wounded veterans), and I began to wonder about churches and their use of collected funds.

I’ve been active in many different churches over the years, in mainline denominations (e.g., Baptist, Presbyterian), in nondenominational churches, and in what I liked to call the “multi-denominational” environment of the chapels on various Air Force bases. I’ve visited many more churches, from the East Coast to the West Coast, many places in between, and even a few churches in other countries. In comparing all those churches, it should come as no surprise that some of the churches did more to serve the needy than others.

This past year in particular, I began to suspect that the donations we’ve made to local rescue missions did more to directly help the needy than the donations we’ve ever made to a local church, of whatever type. Why? Because the local churches’ receipts went almost entirely to cover their own operating expenses, and those expenses were not usually devoted to serving the needy. So I began to think about how a church might work if serving the less fortunate was its primary purpose for being.

Jesus Feeds the Hungry (5 of 12)
Serving the needy, two Saturdays out of the month. (Image: “Jesus Feeds the Hungry (5 of 12),” by Tony Fischer, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Gradually a picture formed in my head of a church — I called it The Gift Church — that would spend more money on helping others than it spent on itself. I outlined that purpose and the guiding principle behind it in the previous two posts on this subject. If you missed those installments, here’s how I put it:

Purpose. The purpose of the Church is to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ through service to the community and the world. The Church has been given gifts that are meant to be shared.

Central Tenet. Believing that the Lord Jesus Christ’s declaration is true (as reported by Paul the Apostle to the Ephesian church leaders in Acts 20:35), that it is indeed more blessed to give than it is to receive, the Church shall devote more of its monetary resources to serving the needy than it does to its own internal obligations, needs or desires.

Guiding Principle. In the same way that the Lord Jesus Christ did not select disciples so that they could serve only one another or that He could serve only them, the Church does not exist so its members can serve only one another or keep His blessings to themselves. If the Church ceases to serve others, or serves itself to the exclusion of others, it shall not have fulfilled its purpose, because the observation that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, and especially Luke 12:33-4) can be understood to apply to the corporate Church as well as to individual believers, and so can the Lord’s teaching that service to the poor and downtrodden is, in effect, service to Him (Matthew 25:31-46).

How might that work in practice? First, I should admit that it might not. But if it could, I envision a few elements of its operating as:

  • Regular Charitable Support. The Church would donate regularly to organized charities that directly serve the needy (and/or give money directly to people in need), such that for every dollar the church spent on itself, it would spend a little more than a dollar on the needy. If the Church spent $100 on, say, office supplies, it would then donate $101 to charitable work, and so forth. The Church would have to keep its own expenses reasonable in order for its receipts to cover its own needs and its charitable donations.
  • At a Minimum, a Tithe. If the Church kept its expenses very low in relation to its receipts, it could conceivably retain a great deal of money as a surplus. That would not be bad, as Scripture encourages frugality and planning for lean times — and once some of the surplus was spent on church expenses, a charitable donation would still have to be made. However, it would seem appropriate for the Church to donate at least a tenth of its total receipts, regardless of its expenses.
  • Meeting Needs As They Arise. At any time, members may become aware of needs in the community or the wider world, so any member of the Church could propose a charity (or person) to receive a donation from the Church. The decision-making authority, however, would rest with the assembly of Deacons since that’s why the office of deacon was established.
  • Meeting a Mix of Needs. To keep its focus from becoming too narrow, the Church would distribute its donations to a variety of local and non-local charities. The actual mix might vary from year to year, but the Church would give more than a fourth of its donations to non-local charities. Of the remainder that stayed in the local area, the Church would ensure that no more than a fourth of its donations directly benefited its own needy members. But even a balance like that could be changed if the Elders and Deacons became aware of specific needs that the Church could help meet.
  • Charitable Missions. To maintain its focus on helping the needy, the Church would only count donations to missions as “charitable” if those missions themselves involved direct service to needy people.
  • Provisions for Large Donations or Expenses. From time to time, starting in the early church, people have liquidated property and given the proceeds to the church; most churches could receive such a large gift easily, but under the “tithe” provision above a large gift could stress The Gift Church’s ability to live up to its own central tenet if it did not have funds on hand to donate one-tenth of the gift’s value to charity. Likewise, sometimes a church is faced with a large expense for which making a more-than-matching lump-sum donation would be impractical. In these events, the Church would have the leeway to make its charitable donations in installments.
  • Reporting and Accountability. The Elders would report the cumulative receipts, expenses, and donations to the congregation at intervals throughout the year, and provide a detailed report at year’s end. In this way, the members could be sure the Church was living up to its stated purpose — and if for some reason the Church failed to do so, could take corrective action.

Do you think a church like that might be able to function for very long?

Would it be able to keep its expenses reasonable and encourage its members to give sufficiently to cover the expenses and its charitable work?

I don’t know.

What I believe is this: When Scripture tells us to “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (Malachi 3:10), the implication is not that all the food in the storehouse is intended to stay there. It is intended for the Levites and the needs of the Temple, yes, but not for the worshipers. And any excess is not meant to be left in the storehouse to rot.

But maybe I’m the only person who thinks that.

___
Previously in this series:
The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES
The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle

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The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle

In late October, I posted about The Church I’d Like to Start: a church that, more than anything else, would serve others more than it served itself. As I noted then, I would call it The Gift Church, or The Gift for short.

In this season of giving, it seems appropriate to revisit the idea.

Pablo Picasso The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away
(“Pablo Picasso: The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away,” by BK, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

In that earlier post I laid out what I see as the purpose and the central tenet of such a church, a congregation that would make “giving its most fundamental reason for being.” Basically, the church would commit itself to spending more on the needy than it spent on itself.

How could a church begin to do such a thing? Obviously (perhaps), all who joined it would have to agree on the importance of service to others. But it seems important for the church to develop a clear statement of why they consider it important, such that even those who might just think about joining could understand.

In my musings on the subject, I put it down like this:

Guiding Principle. In the same way that the Lord Jesus Christ did not select disciples so that they could serve only one another or that He could serve only them, the Church does not exist so its members can serve only one another or keep His blessings to themselves. If the Church ceases to serve others, or serves itself to the exclusion of others, it shall not have fulfilled its purpose, because the observation that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, and especially Luke 12:33-4) can be understood to apply to the corporate Church as well as to individual believers, and so can the Lord’s teaching that service to the poor and downtrodden is, in effect, service to Him (Matthew 25:31-46).

How does that break down?

In the same way that the Lord Jesus Christ did not select disciples so that they could serve only one another or that He could serve only them, the Church does not exist so its members can serve only one another or keep His blessings to themselves. What did He say to the fishermen? That if they came with Him, He would make them “fishers of men.” Once they were gathered together, did the disciples settle down and have weekly Bible studies and monthly family night suppers with one another? Maybe they did, but if so it wasn’t important to the Gospel writers to record it.

What we do have from the Gospel record is that Jesus sent disciples out into the towns and villages, and to do what? To serve (primarily to heal the sick). And when that phase of the ministry was over, He continued to lead his core group from place to place as he taught and healed and inspired the multitudes.

If the Church ceases to serve others, or serves itself to the exclusion of others, it shall not have fulfilled its purpose…. It seems that statement could — emphasis on could — be true of the church as a whole: the small-c catholic or “universal” church. But it would certainly be true of the specific church as visualized here, the church that would adopt this Guiding Principle. The “Gift” would be a church with a clear purpose, and definite call, to serve others more than it served itself; and if it failed in that purpose, then it should disband and free its members to serve in other places to accomplish other purposes.

… the observation that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, and especially Luke 12:33-4) can be understood to apply to the corporate Church as well as to individual believers…. What do those passages teach? That “you can’t take it with you.”

Those passages encourage believers to make themselves ready for the coming kingdom of God by “laying up … treasures in Heaven” rather than accumulating treasures on Earth. On Earth, treasures lose their value, can be destroyed or stolen; not so treasures in Heaven. And while the passages are almost always discussed in personal terms, i.e., with respect to what individuals might treasure, have you ever thought of the church as having a heart that reflects what it treasures?

Have you been to churches that have laid up for themselves treasures here on Earth? Churches, for example, that treasure their facilities, their buildings and yards, their parking lots and playgrounds, their stained glass windows and sound systems, etc., etc., more than they seem to treasure the people that use them? (As a point of reference, I was once told I couldn’t have a bottle of water in the sanctuary of a church, because I might spill some on the carpet.) That’s not to say those things are bad, or that they should be taken for granted, only that the perception of their worth can be out of proportion.

Consider that the passage in Luke’s Gospel goes further than that in Matthew’s, in that it quotes Jesus as telling his listeners to sell their possessions and give to charity. In that context, it is hard enough to justify as individuals the accumulation of wealth; how can a Christian church justify it?

Have you been to churches that seem as if they devote more money to the parishioners’ creature comforts, whether air conditioning or cushy chairs or flatscreen TVs, than they do to helping other people? The sanctuary, classrooms, and furnishings in many churches are usually used only a few hours a week (as an exercise, drive by almost any mainline church at 2 p.m. on Thursday afternoon and count the cars in the parking lot), and even if the cost per attendee per hour was low, do those things amount to Heavenly treasures?

In contrast, have you been to churches that denied themselves in order to more fully serve others, in order to lay up treasures in Heaven? Or at least tried to serve others to the same degree they served themselves? I’m not sure I have.

I’m not sure such a church could long survive.

… so can the Lord’s teaching that service to the poor and downtrodden is, in effect, service to Him (Matthew 25:31-46).

This Scripture, about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, etc., is also usually invoked in reference to individuals. But the Church is a group of individuals that considers itself one body; why can’t the instructions directed at people be taken to include the collective Church itself? Should the Church exclude itself from opportunities to serve Christ by serving those in need, or should it seek out those opportunities?

Some churches do this very well, by operating food pantries or soup kitchens or job programs or a myriad of other services. Some, however, seem to offer little more than platitudes; and Christ is quite clear that when the day of reckoning comes the King’s response to those who failed to tend to the thirsty, the strangers, the prisoners, etc., will be, “Depart from me.”

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That’s what I came up with as the guiding principle behind The Gift Church, a congregation that would take “it is more blessed to give than it is to receive” (Acts 20:35) seriously.

Do you think such a church could operate long enough to make a difference in the world? Does the idea resonate with you at all? Or am I the only one?

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Previously on this topic: The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES

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