It is cliché to say that one does not “believe in” organized religion or “needs” the institutional church. I admit that many times both clergy and laity ask themselves if they are witnessing anything happening that Jesus would have wanted. Hardly a week goes by that I do not ask myself if it is in any way worth the effort. My United Methodist clergy friends left St. Louis more fatigued and desperate than usual in both body and spirit. The difficulties of the Institutional Church are plain to see. Last month was equally difficult I am sure for Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholic Church is probably comforting itself with taking the long view of things eventually working out. In short, we are about to begin the season of Lent needing something to lift our spirits. I wish I had that to offer. Rather, I want to discuss something that made me pause this past summer.
Being a pastor often puts me on the spot. And this past summer my world was collapsing. I wound up with a broken marriage, a very important life and death need for addiction treatment, and attention to other health concerns. So, while dealing with those matters, I was asked by another patient about churches. Specifically, “I don’t understand why churches need buildings and money. What does that have to do with Jesus?”
I really wish I lived in a society where ministry could be done without the need for property, resources, and money. I don’t. I live in a society where property, resources, and money are necessary in order to do ministry in many situations. If I make a pastoral visit, I will need a way to get to the person I wish to see. If I serve food to the hungry, I will need a way to obtain the food. The list of situations continues for ever it seems. I decided to answer the question without addressing it directly.
One of my favorite ministries I have ever been part of is Wonderful Wednesday. What’s that? It is an after school program for elementary school children in one of the most impoverished counties in the state. What we did those days was to feed the students a small meal, helped with homework, played board games, taught prayer and stories from Scripture, played outdoors when weather permitted. And essentially taught the children to live together in a small community. They grew spiritually, emotionally, and mentally in what we did with them each week. I gave more description and examples. But, as a reader I think you get the gist of what I am describing. Church workers (mostly volunteers) who attempt to give a safe space of comfort and loving kindness to children who live in a volatile world. Wonderful Wednesday works and the larger community recognizes it.
My friend replied, “That’s what churches should be doing!” I said that I agreed wholeheartedly. We did not though hold the program in the church building where the Sanctuary was. We held it in another building also owned by the congregation. In fact, we could not carry out the Wonderful Wednesday ministry as effectively without the property, resources, and money that is part of “organized religion” or “the institutional church.” The children we minister to would not return if we couldn’t provide what they needed. The ministry need was provided for by the institution that we find ourselves having to manage, cajole, fight, and push most of the time. Without it the grace provided by the religious organization would be missing in the lives of those students.
We can only see through our own eyes. We only view from our perspectives. We talk about the fact that Jesus did not say to acquire property to do ministry. We forget though that Jesus preached in open areas, from fishing boats, in synagogues, in personal homes, and in the Temple. The mission was the goal. And the good carpenter knows how to make best use of tools. The stories I was told about how the church acquired the annex building demonstrate a difficult and divisive situation for the church. The mission for which the building was used became possible out of that struggle. The need makes the struggle worthwhile. Turning away from the struggle could leave the need unfulfilled. That would be the most devastating situation more than the pain and sacrifice of the struggle itself.