Helping the Church Be the Church: Part VI – God’s Economy
If you are new to this series of posts, you can read the intro here. This post is somewhat longer than others as it includes excerpts from the introduction as well as sections on missional monastic church planting and the established church.
Sometimes, when I’m alone with my thoughts, I am afraid they made a poor decision. Nevertheless, it is easy for me to name a long list of wise, godly men and women who have made a considerable investment of time, money and even their own lives in me personally and in my development as a leader. To whatever degree I have learned, matured and grown in leadership, I owe a debt of gratitude to the Spirit of God at work in these teachers, advisers, coaches and friends; a work that continues to this day.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s work in God’s Economy emphasizes the value this type of investment over a carefully and meticulously crafted stock portfolio, retirement account, business venture or McMansion in the ‘burbs.
He believes in a theology of abundance and invites us to approach God with a desire to be blessed with a rich and full life; we ask the Father for our inheritance of great wealth. Meanwhile he sets out to show that in the new (or very old) economy of the Kingdom, wealth and success are defined in much greater terms than society and even many of our fellow Christians realize.
Some of the accepted wisdom passed on in the Church and in seminaries reflects this confusion of economies and reflects Western business principles more so than the radical abundance of God. Preachers and televangelists wearing two thousand dollar suits telling the lonely widow to invest her money in their ministry so that God will give her more money in return are an easy target in this conversation. But perhaps the danger goes deeper and is more subtle than that.
Few people significantly challenge the tenured and well-respected professor at a certain seminary who teaches future ministers that they cannot have true community within the congregation they serve because they are an employee that can be fired at will. I hope and pray that he is wrong, but I think he’s accurately describing the present situation. What disturbs me is not that he is wrong, but that neither he, nor those who hang on his words seem to believe this is a travesty which must be eradicated.
More recently I remember a conversation with a good friend and coach who was reflecting on something said to him by a friend and advisor to us both. He said, with a hint of resignation, that as we grow up we must accept that spending time with good friends is probably redefined as regular phone calls and an occasional get-together for coffee or a meal. The reality is that we are busy and highly mobile. Our close friends will move away and our work keeps us from being able to spend face-to-face time with them regularly. That conversation has haunted me since.
Wilson-Hartgrove highlights a reality that many outside the white, middle class seem to know intuitively; the lifestyle of isolation and upward mobility is not the only choice.
I have several Hispanic friends who are part of a community in Dallas. Some of them are doing well financially, many of them are not. Some of the families have lived here in the States for two or three generations, quite a few grew up in Mexico and came here for a fresh start. Some speak perfect English, most used to push me to dust off my Spanish if I wanted to communicate. All of them know how to party.
It is not about impressive presentation or outdoing the last soiree. I’ve heard that all Hispanics need for a party is grass and Corona. That statement, meant as a joke, actually provides a glimpse into a worldview that is rich in the new economy.
I don’t remember many of their gatherings, formal or informal, that didn’t involve a feast. I don’t remember a single one of those feasts being catered and I don’t remember ever wishing one had been. They taught me to put my grill in the front yard and have extra to share with my neighbors. They taught me that the best way to help newcomers become part of the group was give them a job cooking or helping prepare for the meal. I think its fair to say that the development of my “strategy” for incarnational ministry in our neighborhood is credited as much or more to the Trejos and Vejars as it is to the missional church folks like Darrell Guder, Alan Hirsch, Hugh Halter, etc.
These truths of community contain wisdom for us all, regardless of the outward appearance of the our church structure. These truths are very much part of God’s economy. They require investments in people rather than financial security. They value stability, consistency and loyalty over upward mobility. And, like the parable of the shrewd manager highlighted by Wilson-Hartgrove, they appreciate the “wisdom of the weak” to develop economic friendships which provide security that seems so counter intuitive to many of us.
For Missional Monastic Church Planting:
“What are we inviting people into?” This question has come up from time to time among our leadership. It is easy to fall into the trap of defining ourselves by what we have rejected. We may have spent time processing through and deciding that wasn’t our motivation on the front end, but it still tries to creep in when we aren’t looking. We are convicted that the Kingdom of God is not driven by programs and passive consumerism, but merely avoiding those things is not a sufficient calling.
We are so used to inviting people to a worship gathering, retreat, youth group activity, revival, Christian concert, marriage seminar or some other event that it can sometimes be difficult to imagine any other kind of invitation. The invitation to a new life; to walk with us in community in the Way of Jesus can sometimes seem a bit ambiguous, particularly to those who have a clearly preconceived notion of “church.” For those looking for ways to describe the calling to whole life discipleship, God’s Economy can be a tremendous help.
We have made a decision not to ask new house churches and incarnational communities to tithe toward corporate building funds, administration costs, overhead, salaries, etc. That decision means that I’m now a seminary trained roofing contractor who offices at local coffee shops and worships with his community wherever the doors are opened. We don’t always know where we’re gathering until Friday or Saturday and some people don’t really like that. We have several kids under the age of six and that often brings up issues for which we don’t have good solutions.
It has been very difficult, but I am convicted that this is precisely how we are called to operate at this time. We are being reminded of our roots as nomadic people, with a God who tabernacles among us. We are free to use our community’s resources to invest in people, to give generously to others. We aren’t compelled to base our decisions on what will boost the bottom line financially. We are no longer under the illusion that ministry requires a line item in the budget.
We are learning, and God’s Economy is going to be a useful resource in this, to reject ecclesiological mindsets that assume scarcity. Our young network of communities will most likely never have stacks of money in the bank. Still, we are learning to expect wealth of a different kind without waiting to leave this rock and this body behind for a mansion in the clouds. We’re learning that if our friends have a car, we have a car. If we have a lawnmower, our friends have a lawnmower. Just like that our resources have multiplied without increasing our clutter.
For Established Churches:
For those within the established church who are wondering whether these young communities have adequate theological grounding and biblical support, God’s Economy can be quite informative. Yet, I also think there are benefits that established churches themselves can reap from this book as well.
A few years ago a church I knew of laid off several ministers for budget reasons even though they had (literally) millions of dollars in the bank. This money was earmarked for missions, not ministry. Besides, good stewardship wisdom suggested that the principle balance remain untouched and only interest be used… after all the money needs to last. Overnight, several people learned precisely what my professor had warned – the minister’s relationship with the congregation is a transactional one, and they found themselves alone without a job, a church or a support network.
I was once informed by a well-meaning minister of a five-hundred member church that they were interested in church planting, but until their weekly contribution averaged twenty-thousand dollars they would be unable to give any money to outside efforts.
When approached with the idea of serving as an anchor church for a missional-monastic church planting movement, a local senior pastor asked, “What is the financial benefit for us?”
I do not believe that any of the congregations just described are evil; I don’t think that the leaders are malicious or their love for God insincere. They are simply functioning within a system that is bound to the rules of the empire. As Wilson-Hartgrove, quoting Dwight D. Eisenhower, reminds us, “you cannot amass great possessions without also having to take up the sword and defend them.” This quote doesn’t merely refer to violence, it affects our process for decision making and world viewing.
That isn’t to say that established churches have to sell their buildings and fire their ministers. It might mean that they draft new criteria for decisions regarding the use of congregational funds. However, I think that this book is extends beyond merely calling congregations to change their budget process.
Image the possibilities for blessing if a church of two hundred people began taking the needs of one another more personally. What about a church of five hundred or two thousand? Can you imagine any single mothers in those congregations still struggling to decide whether to pay the electric bill or buy groceries? Would there be any way that an elderly widower would die alone because he couldn’t get out of his house and didn’t want to burden his children living in another state?
The Kingdom of God will not support such travesties; they are unsustainable in God’s economy. You do not have to move into a large house with several other people to see this kind of community develop. It may take more work if you don’t automatically see each other everyday, but it is far from impossible. Imagine the possibilities!
Imagine what affect it would have on a city if suddenly there were hundreds of people experiencing this kind of life in their midst. I predict that this type of economy and kingdom would roll forward with such force that no gates – be they of hell or a gated community – could stand against it.