Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Buildings, Programs, and Attractive Demographics

My denomination seems to be in the midst of a building boom, though likely current circumstances may slow that trend. It is a natural outgrowth of our way of "doing church," which is mostly find a nice, affluent suburban --or hip, trendy college, or eclectic, regentrifying city--neighborhood, and put a church there.

Then, having attracted a well-heeled clientele, set out to wow them with architecture and accouterments. Whether a massive traditional structure with a roaring pipe organ and stained glass, or a modern theatre-style with the latest in video and sound technology, our church life is expensive --but we have the people to pay for it.

And, we can justify it all, too. As was said to me at a recent (not my) presbytery committee meeting, "The rich need Jesus too." Now, that was not the subject for debate. Everybody needs Jesus. That's kind of a given, right? The subject for debate seemed to be whether the poor needed Jesus. IT seems to me that Presbyterians, in defiance of our history, have decided it is our mission from God to reach affluent, well-educated types. Please. Don't we think well of ourselves?

Difficult words to say. My own church is affluent, and well-educated, though our building, while large, is hardly ornate or attractive in and of itself, nor is it in a desirable demographic. I love majestic church buildings, grand organs. I even love some contemporary worship, if the content of the songs and sermons are meaty. So, I point this arrow at my own heart, too.

I realize all of this could sound like spiritual pride, and I am certainly not immune to pride (no-one is), but I wonder if the joy and excitement of actually reaching the lost and ministering to the hurting (real kingdom work) has passed Presbyterianism by not because we are not culturally accommodated enough, but precisely because we are too culturally accommodated. Not in terms of seeker-friendly worship or a vacuous, feel-good message, but simply because we have made peace with materialism. The American dream and the Christian dream have melded in our thinking. We think and strategize and plan, but maybe we have missed the main thing --Jesus cared about those who had nothing in this world and put them first on his list. The outcast, the notorious sinner, the self-degraded, the fatherless and widow, etc etc.

These are not the people in our Presbyterian churches. Why not? We have lost the ethos of our founders --evangelical Christianity always found far more fertile fields among the meek and lowly than it did in the halls of power. INdeed, when Presbyterianism grew popular and wealthy, it soon lost its Biblical fire. We have tried to find a way to retain the BIblical fire WHILE being prosperous. I am starting to doubt that is an option given to us in God's Word.

May he save us from ourselves. May the harvest not pass us by. May he make us a tool of mercy in his hand.


  1. What!? This is all news to me...

  2. Hmmm... I'll go you one further. I'm going to say I agree with you on the affluence being a problem -- the whole passing through the eye of the needle is the basis for my thoughts. Of course the rich need Jesus, but would the rich leave their riches for Him or would they have to be forced into losing their riches by circumstances beyond their control before actually turning to Jesus as THE only thing important in this life? I don't know. Only the Lord can judge the heart.

    I think one thing that keeps Presbyterianism from flourishing is the paralysis that committee-driven planning pushes onto people. I'm not saying we don't need committees -- we've got to have SOME sort of organization. But you and Paul both said it yesterday -- if you see a need, DO it! Why do you have to get an elder to say yes to everything or a committee to plan it? Each and every one of us is the church and if we are convicted by the Holy Spirit to reach out and we don't, woe be unto us (and yes, all of these arrows are for my heart too!). But I think that years and years of committees arguing and fighting and planning and throwing out ideas and picking prize ideas and politicizing with the "right is might" (or maybe rather "rich is right") has crippled each and every person in the church to where they do not realize that just because their individual church as a whole isn't doing something doesn't mean that they can't.

    Possibly we should pray that the Holy Spirit will fall, that revival will happen and that the chaff will be blown away, even if that leaves us in a tiny building in the wilderness or meeting in someone's living room, as long as the worship is true (and even if that means that those of us who don't consider ourselves rich still have to let go of our materialism)...

  3. WHOOPS! Miniblogged again. Sorry!

  4. Which is why we're killing committees and replacing with teams. More than a semantic difference, I hope, in that teams will have freedom to initiate ministry projects, and elders will serve only as advise and counsel.

    The teams will elect their own leaders (probably often non-officers) each year, too.

    Messy, but it needs to be a bit messy. My mantra these days is "collegial, not adversarial." This is a culture change that needs to happen, and structure change is the easy part. Revival has to bring the culture change.

  5. Yes, I agree the change will be messy but good. There will be frustrations -- there always are. I have a question. What do you (this is a generic and plural you -- not you, Ken) do when you come up against the "well, this is the way we've always done it" mentality?

  6. I usually punch a wall. That keeps me from punching a face. Which would be a bad idea, because I'm kind of a wimp, and would certainly lose the fight.

  7. You could also break your hand. Well, you could break it on the wall, for that matter too... I would prefer the face. But I have to use self-restraint too sometimes.

  8. One must be careful how we define rich. We tend to think of them as "those other people who are wealthy", but looking outside of the economic pool of the United States, even the high end of the lower class are rich to the majority of the rest of the world. The key phrase is "we have made peace with materialism". We are filthy rich when compared to the majority of the rest of the world, but we don't see ourselves that way because we have determined what we "should" have as opposed to what we "ought" to have. I had a middle aged Peruvian woman gawked at me when I told her we had two cars. "Really!?" she said. "What do you need two for?" Good question. We have made our peace that what is acceptable and "normal" is okay, just as long as it isn't flashy or too high end, but all we have really done is made peace with the god of materialism and said I "need" these things to live in this culture. Would we give it all to minister for the kingdom? If you were going to a third world country, you would say sure because in those countries you really don't have the choice, but would we give it all, here in America...
    "All the blessings we enjoy are Divine deposits, committed to our trust on this condition, that they should be dispensed for the benefit of our neighbors." ~ John Calvin

  9. This post reminded me of "Les Miserables" that I watched this weekend. Inspector Javert is so obsessed with never breaking any law that he cannot help anyone (and has no room for anyone helping him). And besides 'modern science' has told him that once a criminal always a criminal. But Jean Valjean and the Bishop reach out to those who can see their own need. Their sacrifical giving was used by God to transform lives.

    David Howie

    PS Pastor Pierce, you are welcome to come to karate on Mondays and Thursdays. We'll teach you how to punch.