Ok, now that I have your attention, I don't really mean done with the church. I love the church. I've given my life to serving and leading the church. I just wanted to get your attention. Pastor is as much my identity as husband and father. But...from a few things I've seen on social media lately, there does seem to be a growing number of folks who have taken that attitude about organized religion, so through theological reflection, or rant, or some of both, I'd like to take a few minutes and address that.
First, I've never considered myself an apologist. I don't think the Gospel needs me to defend it. I certainly don't think JC needs me to have his back like we were kids on an elementary playground. However, I do feel that the church just might. Here's why I say that. Over the last couple weeks I've noticed not one, but several social media posts blaming the church for everything from ignoring homelessness, to turning a blind eye to abject poverty, to being self-serving, to tax evasion. I wish that I could say that none of those things existed in any church setting, but I'm sure that somewhere out there are churches who are guilty of one, if not more of those.
Let me assure you, though, that this is not the case everywhere. The church isn't like any other organization in the world. We don't sell a product. We can't increase production to increase income. We rely entirely on the generosity of those who gather with a shared vision as part of the holy community every week. In addition to that, we feel called, nay, mandated to do all that we can to end poverty, end homelessness, end racism, end discrimination, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the prisoner, and see that our neighbors have their most basic human needs met. Do we always succeed, Good Lord no. But we try.
I've waited several days to write this so that my words would be rational, relevant, and not emotionally charged because, let me tell you, my last three weeks have been anything but quiet. I have dealt with folks who see the church only as an ATM. I have dealt with extreme mental illness. I have dealt with folks who have stumbled in their walk to recovery. I have dealt with people I've never met expecting me to pay their utility bills. I have dealt with transients. I have dealt with rudeness as we handed out a plate of food. AND I DON'T MIND. It's just part of the job. This is what I get up for every morning. Preaching on Sunday morning may be my favorite part of the week, but prep time aside, it's a very small part of my week.
To the folks who would condemn the church on social media, may I ask this? When was the last time you were part of an active community of faith? Now, I'm not talking about some back woods, ultra-fundamentalist, "You're going to hell if you don't change your ways," let me guilt you out of hell and into serving, kind of community. I'm not talking about a mega church where the pastor has a six figure income, and you can slip in and out unnoticed on Sunday morning. I'm talking about a midsize, active congregation, who sees what's going on around their community, and is actively trying to make a difference?
See, that's my context. That's where I work and live out my faith...a midsize congregation, in a rural community, surrounded by an epidemic of addiction, poverty, and declining demographics. Folks in my community are struggling. I mean really struggling. There are very few employment opportunities around here and it's beginning to have some major impacts.
To those who would condemn the church for ignoring homelessness, poverty, hunger, addictions, whatever the criticism of the day may be, may I brag on my folks for a minute?
Our average attendance bounces from 120-140 on Sunday morning. We have a budget that is at the upper edge of what we can support. Some of that is salary, modest salaries by the way, but most of it is just the expense of doing ministry...utilities, programming costs, supplies, VBS materials, paper plates, food for our feeding program, and things like that. We are very careful to be good stewards of what we have been entrusted with. But, with that goal in mind, my folks are doing some amazing things.
Twice a week we provide a hot meal for anyone in the community who wants to come. It doesn't matter that I saw them walking out of the liquor store with a case of beer under their arms. That's not for me to judge. Once a week we host Celebrate Recovery so that folks can get the tools they need to help them step into a brand new life. We have a very active Relay for Life team. In fact, I'm not sure we don't have two Relay for Life teams now, who are working to see that everyone gets another birthday. We offer utilities assistance through His House every month. My folks support the food pantry, not just through food donations, and dollars, but by actually going down there and helping hand out food.
We dreamed big and built a 4 1/2 acre lake so that folks in our community could have a place to hang out with their families and we could work with at risk kids in the school, which is right across the road. Next year we'll open it up to the public for catch and release fishing. We kept dreaming and built a walking trail around the property. It took 400 tons of rock, but we wanted to give something to the community because we know that physical health and spiritual health go hand in hand. It's 8 tenths of a mile long and open all day long to anyone who wants to use it. This summer we're building some primitive campsites on the property so that we can increase our mentoring programs.
When the school approached me and said they were afraid they were going to lose their after school program funding, we began working to get a plan together that would let us pick up the slack. This gave birth to our Quest program, one afternoon a week.
Last night, I met with some of our gals in the church who started a support group a few years ago for those struggling with fertility issues and/or adoption. Last night, they went over grant applications and awarded $4500 in grants. This started with the dream of 3 of my gals. $4500!
I know that I'm leaving something out, but the point is, Grace Church LaCenter is doing everything we possibly can to follow the gospel example and ease the suffering of those around us, and we're not the only church doing exactly that.
Could we do more? Could any church do more? Absolutely!!!! However, over the last few decades, the number of folks sitting around saying, "Screw the church" has surpassed the number of folks gathering each week and saying, "We are the church." If more folks would give us a chance, (I know that many of you have tried a church and been hurt. For that, my heart breaks,) and if the ones who would give us a chance would support the ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness the church could do so much more.
We could not only feed folks, but we could give them tools that would help them get back on their feet. We could not only help folks with recovery ministries, but we could attack the systems that cause folks to pick up the needle in the first place. We could not only help with utilities, but we could begin the look for ways we could be involved in rebuilding our local economics. We could do more than just put folks up in the motel for a night. We could build tiny home like homeless shelters. (which, by the way, we are trying to figure out how to do already)
See? It's not that we don't want to, but at the end of the day, we are limited in what we can do. I'm not just a theologian. I have to have some basic business skills so that we can take what we've been entrusted with and stretch it as far as possible. This is one of our foundational prayers.
So, before you say, "Screw the church," and start slamming her on social media, come check us out. Give me one week to change your mind about the role this church, and others like her, play in bringing the kingdom and I guarantee you I can do it.