I received two requests for help today. One was from a pastor overseas. He didn’t ask for money. He asked for prayer. I happen to know he needs money. But his most earnest desire is that Jody and I pray for him.
I also got another request in the mail. It comes from an organization that does much good. They are raising money for a substantial building project that will make things more convenient, even much more convenient, for people in this country who are preparing to be missionaries. The amount is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe a thousand times the amount that would relieve the pastor’s need.
What am I to do? I am not naming any organizations, because I don’t want to criticize them. I don’t know what the needs are or whether the kingdom will be built by this particular expenditure. But I do have to look at where I put my very limited resources. (In case you’re wondering, being in the Christian publishing business, at least in the manner in which I practice it, is not the road to great personal wealth!)
But it’s not just this particular project that concerns me. It’s the proportion of our resources that go to providing for our comfort, for making it easier for us to do whatever we do, as opposed to the amount we put where it’s needed. I think of this when I see large recreation centers attached to churches that are empty most days of the week. Now I understand the need for places for sports and social interaction. In fact, a great deal of ministry can be carried out by providing a place for young people. But I know of more than one church that closes its facilities to outsiders. They want to avoid “those people” getting in there and perhaps damaging things or causing an increase in their insurance rates.
I understand liability issues. I really do. But I don’t recall Jesus saying to do good to the least of these only when there was no risk. As a matter of fact, the gospels record that Jesus did it at a rather great risk. So many times we have facilities built that are just to entertain those who are already in the church.
Again, I understand that people need rest and recreation. The church does need to provide for its members. But the ultimate purpose of providing for members is building the kingdom, and that means getting those members to go out and serve others.
And so we come to church sanctuaries. In many churches the only use of the sanctuary is for a worship service on Sunday morning. That has to make it the most wasted piece of architecture around. One or two additional meetings a week may make it a little bit better, but it’s still underutilized space, space we pay a great deal of money to have.
This isn’t the complaint of someone who doesn’t appreciate church architecture. I really like a majestic church sanctuary. I enjoy being in it. I enjoy sitting in the pews. If it has stained glass, it’s even better. A pipe organ? I’m in ecstasy. Just play it and let me look at the windows.
But that’s the problem. I like it. It’s for me. The question is, just how much money should go to pipe organs and stained glass as opposed to feeding the hungry. I’m not saying we should put an end to all church music, or eliminate all church architecture, but what are the priorities? Where is the balance?
In doing ministry in southern Mexico in the 1960s, my parents lived in a building with rough concrete floors (just try to sweep them), with a tin roof and walls that were not solid, so rain could blow in. My dad was a doctor (MD), and my mother a registered nurse. They could have had a great deal more, if they’d chosen to go to work in Canada (their home) or in the United States. But most of the time they didn’t, and when they did, they sought underserved areas. There were many things they wanted that they could not have. My own life is not without its problems, but I keep comparing it to theirs. What were their priorities? What are mine?
I have had wonderful times of worship in fine church buildings, but I’ll never forget worshiping with a small Gypsy congregation in eastern Hungary on the first mission trip I led there. I was to speak. I had been a bit disoriented, because while I had been overseas before both as a child and young person with my parents and on mission trips, I had never been to a country where I couldn’t speak a word of the language. My Hungarian was such that the couple of words I had learned were potentially dangerous. I didn’t understand what people were saying.
The room was small, too small for the number of people. The floor was concrete. The building was not beautiful. They had a small electric keyboard that would have been discarded had it been in one of our churches here, or probably even in a home as a child’s toy. Someone started playing it, and the people started singing. I didn’t know the words, but I felt the Spirit that was in that place. In fact, I have rarely felt the presence of the Spirit more than in that particular meeting.
They didn’t need the things that we all think we “need.”