At a recent Church Council meeting, the main topic of discussion and deliberation was the annual budget. As is too often the case, the aspirations of the congregation exceeded the pledges of support.
The discussion of where to cut the budget proceeded line by line through the ledger sheets, until we came to “outreach”, that portion of the budget devoted to supporting charities, social services, and relief agencies. At this point, one council member expressed the desire to avoid making cuts in this area stating “after all, this is the reason we are here.”
I decided not to comment at the time as it had been a long meeting and everyone was ready to head home. As I reflected later, it occurred to me that I have a rather different perspective on why we gather as a church.
In a world of government sponsored social safety nets, 401(c)(3) non-profits, and philanthropic foundations, the few dollars that well-meaning churches add to societies’ efforts on behalf of those in need do more to let the churches and their well-meaning congregants feel good about themselves while they go ahead and live in the status quo than they do to make a substantial difference in lives of the people the charities serve.
I submit that the reason churches are here is not to join the ranks of social services agencies and causes. The reason churches are here is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus – to preach a different set of values, norms, and attitudes than those held by “the world.”
The church is here to call out the many ways the world fails to live up to the vision of the prophets who call for a system where justice flows through all ranks of society like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Preaching the Gospel of Jesus challenges the very foundations of an unjust world. Now the Gospel of Jesus is not the gospel about Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world – the gospel heard every Sunday in a majority of Christian churches in America. Preaching The Gospel of Jesus brings forward the words and deeds of Jesus into our contemporary context and reinterprets them in the language and imagery of our time.
The Gospel of Jesus reminds us that we are to live in the world without embracing the values of the world. We are to live in the hope, not of making America great, but of bringing about the Kingdom of God, both here in America and around the world.
We are to strive constantly and tirelessly not for amassing a personal fortune, power, and fame, but for building a world that works for everyone. We are called to bring dignity to the downtrodden, justice for the oppressed, mercy for the wicked, and humility for the righteous.
The Gospel of Jesus demands repentance – a process of self-examination that opens our eyes to see our role in the status quo. Repentance frees us to acknowledge how we benefit from the status quo. Repentance reveals how we unconsciously participate in an unjust system and insulate ourselves from the demands of the Gospel.
Repentance then asks us to simply think differently about the issues of the day. Repentance reminds us of our Biblical tradition and the divine perspective found in our scriptures. Finally, repentance sends us out into the world to think, to speak, and to act differently. Then, as we think, speak, and act differently, inspired by the divine vision of the Kingdom of God, we will find the unique ways God calls each of us to make a real and substantial difference in the world.
In no way am I advocating that as a congregation we abandon giving to charities, social services, and causes that are compatible with our values. In fact, the way we, as a church, spend some of the monies we collect on Sunday morning is one of the ways we proclaim the Gospel of Jesus.
But to declare that the reason we are here as a church is to help the poor reduces us to an inefficient social service agency that spends 90% of its income on institutional maintenance and forwards a mere 10% to those we choose to help.