Saturday, June 27, 2009

The problem with focusing on eternity

Today I was reading Shane Claiborne's Irresistible Revolution, and came across this quote:

Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death.
Shane has a way with words, and he succinctly expressed something that I had been mulling in my mind - there is a fundamental problem with the salvation/eternity-centric faith that is so prevalent. I know that in theory (I have a blog post coming on those two words, and will link it when it's done) the eternity-centric faith isn't solely eternity-centric, and offers more than just life after death, but in reality, that's not what comes across.

If we place our focus on "getting saved" and "making it to heaven" then we miss out on the vast majority of Jesus' ministry. As Shane again points out:

And yet I am convinced that Jesus came not just to prepare us to die but to teach us how to live. Otherwise, much of Jesus’ wisdom would prove quite unnecessary for the afterlife. After all, how hard could it be to love our enemies in heaven? And the kingdom that Jesus speaks so much about is not just something we hope for after we die but is something we are to incarnate now. Jesus says the kingdom is "within us," "among us," "at hand," and we are to pray that it comes "on earth as it is in heaven."
This is exacerbated by the sense that the world is evil, ruled by Satan, and a trial we have to wait out. "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passin through" may make a great old hymn, but ignores a big chunk of Jesus' life, which was helping and loving people in this world, and making this world better.

I was looking for the lyrics and came across a blog post that exemplified the mindset that is so depressing to me:

My son, a mortal creation like myself, has started the adventure of this short life. For a few years we will suffer together under the various afflictions of our current human condition, and then, eventually, we may both enjoy eternal love and fellowship beyond this world.
Now, I'm not sure if that is an outlier in her thoughts, but it does frame the problem pretty well. If this world is just something to suffer through, longing for our eternity, we aren't likely to try to make it better.

Shane quotes Rich Mullins, from an address he made at his college chapel:

You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too...[pause in awkward silence]...But I guess that's why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.
Obviously eternity and "getting saved" are important, but they should not be the focus. Living out Christ, being his love, should be the focus. And that's a focus I can get behind.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Money God

Today I got TweetDeck set up via Adobe Air on my Ubuntu Linux, and up on it popped a tweet linking to a post on the Mars Hill Blog titled "Death to the Money God". That is what this post is about.

During the last three years, I have come to dislike, to put it nicely, the idea of churches having budgets. And having just finished Pagan Christianity?, I had even more reason to dislike it, and some additional reason to boot. Obviously, this is tightly connected to the idea of tithing, and the "Money God" (aka Mammon) that this blog post over at Mars Hill was about. You can read it yourself, but it was a pretty stock "you should tithe because God says to" kind of message that comes around every year about this time. In particular, Pastor Jamie recounts a story of him as a youngun, giving $10 a week to church and feeling good, and then being convicted to give more. He (yes, I checked my gender pronouns) also noted that Christians need "encouragement, instruction, rebuke, or in some cases even assistance" when it comes to tithing, citing 2 Corinthians 8-9.

Now, I have a few problems with this. Don't get me wrong - I'm not against tithing, or giving money, and I am not denying that Mammon is a big problem. In fact, the problem of Mammon is one of the reasons I so strongly disagree with a "Christian America" and most American Christianity. Any true Christianity is antithetical to capitalism - it shouldn't fit well in America. But that's beside the point. The point is, the idea that assistance is an afterthought is highly disturbing. Now admittedly, as one of my profs used to say, I'm not a theologian, but I read all the way through 2 Corinthians 8-9, and (admittedly with some background from Pagan Christianity), this is what I saw:

  • The church in Macedonia, entirely on their own, gave, even in poverty, to serve the saints (that's other believers) - vv. 3-4
  • Paul encouraged the Corinthians to finish what they had started a year back, seeing the example of Macedonia, and give to their bretheren - vv. 6-7, 10-11
  • Paul says that the giving is so that "at the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need," referring to the Corinthians sharing their bounty with the other Christians - v. 14
  • Starting in Chapter 9, Paul says he wants to ensure that the Corinthians make good on the intentions Paul has been bragging on to the Macedonians, to avoid making either Paul or the Corinthians liars. - vv. 2-5
  • The purpose of the gift is "supplying the needs of God's people" and giving "thanks to God" - v. 12
  • Other people will thank God for the generosity of the Corinthians - v. 13
Now, I see a couple themes in this passage:
  • Paul is very careful to emphasize that giving is not to be coerced or proscribed - repeated phrases like "Entirely on their own", "I am not commanding you", "sincerity of your love", "here is my advice", "your eager willingness", "if the willingness is there", "a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given", "what he has decided in his heart", "God loves a cheerful giver", "your generosity in sharing" clearly show that giving is the result of an internal desire, not external pressure.
  • In the case of the Corinthians, Paul is largely encouraging them to make good on a specific promise to help a specific church - parts like "bring also to completion", "no need for me to write to you", "I know of your eagerness to help", "finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised", show that it is a planned gift that simply has to be followed up on, not a continual plea for funds.

The passage, as far as I can see, leaves little room for any kind of scriptural support for continual maintenance, or base salary for the apostles, or anything that is such a huge part of the church budget today. In fact, it leaves little room for any kind of "budget" at all - all the giving here is from church to church - one church that is blessed helping another in need. Indeed, in summing up, Paul writes:

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little." (8:13-15)
Whatever "tithing" is present in the original church was to directly help other Christians in times of need, and there seems to be no concept of a budget or ongoing support costs.

It is because of this - the idea that the very purpose of tithes is to help our bretheren in need - that phrases like "in some cases even assistance" are alarming to me. And even if that was simply a bad choice of words by Pastor Jamie, we can look at the numbers. Of the $12 million budget [PDF] that Mars Hill plans to work with this year, a solid half of it goes to staff, another $2 million to facilities, and over a million to operations. In fact, I made a nice pie chart, which wasn't supplied in the budget: The chart makes the last explanatory note painfully clear: "Staffing and facilities expenses for Mars Hill Church account for 72% of our total budget." They include a parenthetical statement that is supposed to make me feel better: "The norm for churches is 70-80%." The idea that on an optimistic average, 30% of what I give to a church actually goes to those in need is not comforting in the least.

In addition to the numbers above, Mars Hill has another $25 million in land, equipment, and furniture, most of which is used probably a couple days out of the week. I assume Mars Hill uses its facilities more than the average church, but it seems to me, and always has, that sinking so much of the money that could be going to those in need into a building that's used, save a small bit of office space, for a few hours a week (perhaps a few days a week in the best case) isn't the best stewardship of the offerings of the body. The entire purpose of tithes under the new covenant should be to help others in need - especially Christians. It is not to pay rent, or salary a leader, or buy flowers or communion crackers. In general, using only 20% of the offering to actually directly help people is apalling when you step back and look at it. It is to me at least.

I believe, in fact, that if the tithe was actually going to people in need, getting people to tithe wouldn't be such an issue. I, at least, am discouraged when 70-80% of the money I am giving is going straight into just keeping the church running. I believe that people will be much more apt to give if their money is actually going to people, instead of paying the bills.

In the organic church, without a pastor or building, there is no salary or rent payment that needs to be supported by the tithe. Everything the body gives could go to helping fellow believers, or reaching out to those around us. As Paul says, giving out of our bounty to help those who are in need, that when we are in need, we can humbly rely on the Christians around us to support us in that need. If it sounds communist, that's because it is. Christianity is very communist in nature - the good, pure kind of communism. Neither Christianity or communism work as government, because you can't force people to care for each other. But in a community where people care for one another, and strive to help each other, it works wonderfully. That's what Christianity, in its true form, is.

A few cleanup items. As to the pattern of tithing in the Old Testament, tithes went to support the Levites - the priesthood class that was forbidden from having any kind of income for themselves, to support the festivals, and to help the poor and widowed. Today, and in the New Testament, that priest class has been superseded by the priesthood of all believers, headed by Christ himself - the only hierarchy is that of Christ over all believers, and Christ definitely doesn't need a salary. We also don't have any ritual festivals - we do have Christmas and Easter, and if the body wants to pitch in to throw a party for those, that would be fine with me.

You might protest that the clergy needs to be paid, they need to make a living, we need to pay for the building, none of this translates into today's society. But all those problems are a direct cause of the advent of the church building and the clergy/laity split, both largely thrust upon us by Constantine, and carried on by momentum and the ferocious power of tradition. If we didn't have a building, and truly operated as a living body, a priesthood of all believers, none of this would be necessary.

Also, in their followup "Two Weeks Left to Make Budget" post, Mars Hill mentioned the "biblical model of cheerful, regular, and sacrificial giving." Many people will try to take 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 as mandating a regular, weekly tithe. This passage, however, also seems to be referring to a special, pre-arranged gift (probably the same one mentioned again in his next letter), and the weekly tithe is simply a matter of logistics - instead of worrying about having one lump sum when Paul shows up, make sure to be setting aside a little at a time so there will be something to take to the Christians in need when Paul gets there. It's hardly a mandate, or even reccomendation for a weekly tithe of 10% of your income.

Am I saying that Mars Hill hasn't done anything good with their money? Of course not. Could they be using it better? Probably, but not dramatically, at least in their current form. Should Christians give? Of course. That is very biblical. Should they be obligated to pay rent and salaries to keep the institutional church running? Currently, maybe. My problems with the church always come down to the fact that you can't change things instantly. I acknowledge that the current model, however suboptimal, must be supported due to the millions upon millions of participants involved, and tithing to the building is one necessary support structure. But going forward, I can, and will, do things differently. And if as a community of Christians we work to move towards it, we can become a more vibrant body that better does the work we are mandated to do.