Sunday, October 13, 2013

People Don't Need Church Until They Do

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            You have heard me repeatedly say from the pulpit, "The church is not a building; it is a community."  I deeply believe these words.  If-God forbid-our church building burnt down tomorrow, we would still have a church, because we would still have our community.  This year we began a new ministry called Church Out of Bounds, where every fifth Sunday we cut out of worship early and spend some together as a congregation serving others outside the walls of our building.  I can't think of a healthier thing for a church with a building to do, because all too often church people get confused and think the church is in fact the building.  That's the problem with our religious language.  We use the same word for the building and the community that uses it.  We get confused about our identity and think it is found in brick and mortar rather than as followers of Jesus Christ.
            The vast selloff of religious real estate over the last decade speaks to the truth of our inadequate vocabulary.  Everywhere you look individual congregations and entire denominations are selling off buildings they no longer can afford.  Yet, the presence of God still resides among faithful people whether or not they own real estate.  A building is not necessary to be a church.  That wasn't the case in the first century and it remains the case among many congregations today.  There are plenty of churches with buildings that look like a church in terms of real estate but not in terms of actually being a community of love and grace.
            I can name a long list of congregations that today are upside down on their real estate, sort of the way many individuals and families are upside down on their mortgages.  There are churches who built tremendous buildings when their congregations were larger and our culture approved of going to church.  Now these same congregations cannot afford their big (and empty) buildings anymore, and they devote all their energy and money to keeping the buildings from falling down.  After all, generations of blood, sweat and tears (and building fund contributions) built those buildings.  Children were married and baptized in those buildings.  Funerals for loved ones were held in those buildings.  Faithful people experienced God in those buildings.  Letting those buildings go involves grief and pain-not to mention it feels like failure.  It's too bad however that most churches in this situation cannot make the difficult but healthy choice to let go of the buildings they can no longer afford and devote their money and energy towards something other than building preservation.
            I am thankful such is not the case at our church.  When I interviewed, I asked a lot of questions including ones about the building.  I learned about the building campaign in 2005 and the approximately half a million dollars spent on renovations.  I learned that continuing maintenance is expensive and it is difficult to find the funds to do that maintenance.  (What church with a building these days doesn't have that problem?)  Yet, I also learned that the membership of this congregation has financial means to do what it wants to do when it is challenged.  I heard what I needed to hear-namely that the building is expensive but the congregation is not in dire straits (at least not yet) when it comes to meeting those expenses.
            Furthermore, our building is an asset to ministry, because it is beautiful and situated so nicely at the intersection of 65th and Linden Streets, people are attracted to it.  We frequently have visitors who drop in out of curiosity just so they can see what goes on in this kind of building.  It is not an eyesore.  Currently, we have more space than we really use when you take into consideration the basement and top floor, but that is more a question of us using our building intentionally for ministry than an issue of having too much space.
            I believe firmly that the church is more than a building.  Without the community of people, the only thing you have is a building and nothing more.  The building, however, can be important to the community of faith and to the community outside its walls, if it is used for ministry.  In my sermon this past Sunday, I quoted from an opinion column by Amy Butler, a Baptist minister in Washington, D.C.  She states eloquently why things like a church building and a church staff matter.  The following is an excerpt from her column:

think before we do even one more church budget, we need a whole new framework for thinking about church and ministry. 

In the past we churches thought of ourselves as the backbones of society, places where good, moral and faithful people gather to pool resources so we can go out into the world and feed the homeless and convert people in order to save their souls. Keeping administrative costs as low as possible would help us to help the needy.

While many good and righteous things have come out of this view of ourselves, the truth is that that way of thinking is a pretty arrogant self-assessment borne out of a climate of popularity and ease.

With our role in society shifting, we are no longer bastions of benevolent and overflowing food pantries that we graciously bestow on the less fortunate and then return to our churches filled with other scrubbed and spiritual do-gooders to plan new ways to do ministry.

What we are now is mission outposts. We are islands in a world full of increasingly adrift people. We are places of solace and hope, community and hospitality for people who are too smart to believe in God and pretty convinced they don't need the church - until they do.

I cannot count the times people who never grew up in church stumble into worship looking for solace and discover - to their shock and amazement - liturgy, music and preaching that help them begin to connect with the tradition of the church and the message of Jesus, things they find they desperately need in their lives.

Or the inquiries I get from people looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, feeling they might vaguely enjoy some kind of traditional twist on things. After five sessions of required premarital counseling they begin to discover that maybe spiritual grounding of relationships has some merit they'd never considered.

How about the calls from the mayor's office asking for a spiritual perspective on justice issues in the city? There are plenty of people around who can offer opinions about what's most politically expedient, but it turns out that sometimes our leaders want to talk about what it would look like to do the right thing instead of just the easy thing. So they come to us.

And there are the times I get called to do a funeral, visit a hospital or intervene in a crisis for people I don't know. They call because they don't know who else to call. The church-free lives they've constructed don't offer the kind of resources they need to navigate the death of a child, the loss of a job or the break-up of a marriage.

So they come to church, and when they do they encounter grace-filled community that changes their lives.

All these things require substantial investment of resources that we have labeled as "administrative" - pastors, musicians, church staff, bulletins, air conditioning, janitorial services, capital repairs, instrument tuning - but all of these things are ministry. In fact, they're frontline, on the ground, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of ministry.
How we go about being church in the world is changing radically. With that change, now more than ever, our whole life together in faith community is mission and ministry.

And we'd better start seeing it that way soon, because the call to live "Jesus' two Great Commandments" in this world is going to take a heck of a lot more than our church mission budget line. It's going to take the full engagement of everything we have.

As we go through another stewardship campaign, I hope we at CCCUCC will listen to Butler's words.  "Administrative costs" like our building and our staff matter.  When all things are working as they should, the building and the staff create space for people to find healing, discover community and experience God.  If we really believe that is what we offer in this community that is our church, then these things are worth investing in.  As you consider what you will give to this community of faith in 2014, I hope you will consider digging deep, thinking sacrificially and giving joyfully, because these costs are investments in making sure there is a church here when people discover they need one.

Grace and Peace,

1 comment:

John Ellington said...

The theological grounding that underlies your blog is compelling. It helps me to understand at the center of my being why giving financially supports and gives meaning to the church's mission in the world. Thanks.