I am a big podcast fan. I don’t go anywhere without my ipod and always have it loaded with hours of my favourite podcasts to keep me company. One that I listen to regularly is a podcast by two Australian DJ’s named ‘Hamish and Andy’. They are hilarious, and this week they are off in the US on their ‘Gap Year’. This is a brief discussion between the two about a TV Evangelist Hamish came across while channel surfing in his hotel room:
Obviously this is a humorous (yet tragic) example of Western Church at it’s worst: in desperate need of unlearning it’s own Capitalist mentality, but it does raise questions. How does the average church use it’s money? Does it give out to others, or does it give much more to itself? Does your average church seek to spread the wealth, or hoard it? This is a really pertinent question as we are a church situated in a world with unprecedented inequality of wealth. Are we part of the problem, or part of the solution?
What do our budgets betray?
You’ve heard me speak hear about the minuscule percentage of our church budgets which go towards anything outside ourselves, and I bang on about it because I believe this is going to one of marks of this reformation.
It was in the last reformation too, but apparently we forget quickly.
When Luther posted his 95 thesis to the doors of Wittenberg Castle they included statements like number 45: “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God”, or number 57: “That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the [priests] do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them.”
Today we’re dealing with a fragmented global Church trying to build mini-empires on every street corner, rather than one ‘Holy Roman Empire’, but I think the problem still remains. We just seem to excuse ourselves because everyone does it. It’s how our world works.
I believe part of this generations reforms will include a turning of the tide where we no longer hoard our wealth in fancy church buildings, with fancy church programs; but we who say we follow Jesus in the West, would start to give away in reckless abandon to right the wrong of hideous inequality perpetrated by our rampant Colonialism.
It sounds like something Jesus would be keen on.
This is an excerpt from my book, Unlearning:
“It seems to be a plague in churches; this kind of self obsession. Our sense of superiority, our feeling of entitlement, somehow trick us into thinking we are worth more than everyone else. Our selfish soteriology has trapped us in our pretty venues, while the rest of the planet suffers on. From what I read it seems Jesus gave a damn, so why are His followers hiding indoors?
I came up against this issue with unusual clarity during our practical ministry week at Seminary. The idea of the week is that we were to visit three different types of church over a week; an inner city church, a rural church and an affluent church. As it turned out my group were visiting both the affluent church and rural church on our list on the same morning.
We arrived early in the squatter camp outside the city limits. It was a place filled with shacks hammered together from corrugated iron and inhabited by refugees fleeing from unknown horrors in their homelands. As the sun rose over the sprawling metal city we trundled along a dusty road to a tent in the heart of the settlement. It looked like a dilapidated circus big top that had been retired long ago, only to be salvaged by someone from a rubbish tip for one last job.
Inside were rows of simple little wooden benches facing a stage built with drinks crates and boards. We took our seats and the place soon filled to capacity with 300-400 worshippers. They immediately launched into the most joyous singing and vibrant preaching you have ever heard. As the sun rose and the space filled up, the temperature soared to close to 40 degrees Celsius. The sweltering heat and press of bodies made for a very claustrophobic space and we were all soon dripping with sweat. No one seemed to mind though. Everyone just seemed happy to be there. I was moved as I watched these people pour out their hearts and souls in gratitude to a God who didn’t seem to have given them much to celebrate as far as I could see.
We couldn’t stay long though because we had to make the second morning service at the affluent church down the road. It was a surprisingly short drive into the wealthy suburbs and we pulled into the car park of a very large modern building, filled with some very fancy vehicles. We rushed into the foyer, being slightly late for the start of the service. One of the ushers at the door seemed very miffed with us for being late and told us to make our way in ‘quietly’, which he said in that odd way you do when speaking to a disobedient child, enunciating every syllable, very deliberately. We took our seats at the back of the auditorium and enjoyed the comfortable chairs and cool air-conditioning.
The juxtaposition of our morning was already obvious, but then the pastor got up to lead the congregation in prayer. The content of his communique with God seemed to be all about money, and getting more of it. He prayed for more money for the building fund so they could add a new office block to the church. He prayed for more money to get a better sound system in the auditorium. He prayed for more money so they could get more staff. Then he prayed, and I’m not kidding here, for the businessmen in the church who were, “struggling with their share portfolios because the market had had a difficult week”.
I walked out at that point.
I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Prayers like that can only make sense when prayed in a bubble. If you pray them in the context of the world we live in they just seem elitist, self indulgent and downright greedy. The congregants at the church I had just come from likely had no idea what a “share portfolio” was. I didn’t really know either, I just knew that you had to be rich to have them.
I started to think about how much money in our churches gets wasted on things which Jesus never thought were important. I think that the sad truth is that most Christians, because of their church context, have become institution-builders, instead of world-changers. They probably don’t even think about it because they just give to the church out of obedience with little thought to where that money actually goes.
I mean, just daydream with me for a moment about what would be possible if all our giving went to ‘people’ instead of ‘stuff’.
What is the total income of the global church annually? It’s gotta be well into the hundreds of billions of dollars. What is the total land ownership of the church globally? I heard scary stats in this regard but can’t find anything solid. Most of this money goes into maintaining this massive amount of property in one way or another, which only gets visited a few times a week for very specific meetings. What if we sold all that property? What if we gave all the money we usually give to people who actually need it, instead of giving it back to ourselves in a roundabout way? I would love someone to do the numbers for me on this stuff, but I am sure that we would be living in a very different world tomorrow. I once heard a stat that said to provide clean drinking water, health care and basic nutrition for everyone on the planet would cost about 20 billion US Dollars… which is how much Americans spend in one year on Ice Cream! Heaven forbid that America decides to give up something as frivolous as Ice Cream, before the church gets off it’s ass and does it’s job!”