Thursday, October 13, 2005

Big Church-Little Church Blues

Yesterday I was inside a big church. Not my church, mind you. My church is rural and small. This was a large church I was unfamiliar with. At least I call it a large church. Maybe to you it's just a normal size or a little bit bigger than normal. Some may attend a church that makes this one look tiny. All I know is that my entire church building would fit inside this church's lobby! I had to use a map, complete with a "You Are Here" sticker in order to find the church offices. The coffee shop and bookstore were each closed, but there were around a ka-jillion people dribbling basketballs in the gym.

I wandered the halls, looking for the person I needed to meet. There were a few signs and the aforementioned church map, but I had a hard time figuring out what each of these rooms were for. It reminded me of walking through a school building after hours -- kind of institutional feeling. The facility was obviously built to handle a large number of people. I never even saw the sanctuary or auditorium or whatever a church that size worships corporately in. I can only imagine what that must be like.

As I walked, I have to admit that this small church pastor's mind was filled with covetous thoughts. I saw plenty of things that I wanted to in the back of my truck and bring home. I saw plenty more that I would have needed a crew of building movers and a much bigger truck to take! I thought about the ministry which could be done with facilities the size of the local elementary school. Upward basketball... concerts... recovery groups... all great outreaches. With a physical plant like that, the possibilities are endless, right?

So what do I do with a church that fits in that other church's lobby?

My denominational district meetings were always interesting. My district included a very small church, some churches of around 100 in attendance and some larger ones. The second largest church in the denomination sent over a dozen staff to these meetings. They would each give a report on their own portion of the church's ministry. While some of the reports were occasionally inspiring, for the most part it was like listening to tales of ministry in other countries. When they saw a need a new ministry would begin to meet that need. Volunteers would be found, space in the church building was utilized, and people would be given anything from the Gospel to a cup of cold water in Jesus' name. It was wonderful. I'm sure there were many problems, but that's not what they talked about. Their reports were wonderful stories of ministry making a difference in many different lives.

But I live in a different world. In my world the same handful of people are the volunteers for every church activity. In my world there is no available space on Sunday morning or Wednesday night. In my world we see needs but cannot even hope to meet most of them. We pick a few and do our best, which I guess is what I do as an individual as well.

I think it's natural to harbor some resentment for those who have more than ourselves. The poor resent the middle-class. The middle-class resent the rich. The rich resent the filthy rich. That's part of our materialistic society. But that's not the way it should be in the Church. I hope I never fall into that trap.

But I looked at the coffee shop and bookstore in that big church yesterday and I saw a big pile of money. That pile of money could have been sent to Nicaragua or Sierra Leone or Jamaica or Ecuador or Mauritania and have accomplished much good for the cause of Christ. Instead it goes to make middle to upper class Americans more comfortable being in a church building. Is that really a good trade-off? I can even find waste in my own small church that would be better served building church walls in Central America. Where is that line? What is the proper balance?

Churches are planted where they can reach people who can, in turn, support the church. Meanwhile those folks who could never financially give enough to get a church going fall through the cracks. And large churches who could support such a church plant choose instead to build more classrooms or install new technology in the auditorium.

I've mentioned Mark Waltz's book First Impressions, where he talks about all the "Wow-inspiring" features at his church meant to show visitors that they matter to God. I understand his logic. But at the same time there are thousands of people who need only a thatch roof and mud walls to be shown that they matter to God. And I've come down to the question: How should we be working to show people they matter to God? Is it by pampering them with shuttle buses from the parking lot and discounts on cafe latte? Or should we be encouraging those people to do as John the Baptist told those he baptized:

John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and
the one who has food should do the same." Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?" "Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay."

Is that accomplished at a coffee shop? No. Of course the coffee shop isn't evil, but neglecting those in need is. Sure we're all doing something for those less fortunate, but are we sharing with those who has none?

I'm not sure where I'm going with all this. But I do know that over and over again it is impressed upon me just how much we waste trying to make it easy to be comfortable in a church. But comfortable is the last thing we should be. I see repeated attempts to bring Christ to the pagan suburbanites and precious few tries to show God's love to the people in the low rent district. And it bothers me that, like everyone else around me, I seek to make myself, my congregation and anyone who comes in the church doors, comfortable. The more comfortable we get, the less we grow. Yet we never seem to get it.

Maybe I'm just dealing with middle-class guilt. But it's just not right.

Part Two is here.

Part Three is here.


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