Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dis-Organizing Religion

When I first became involved with a church (in fact, one which I planted nearly a decade ago), I often would encounter Christians who were burned out on church. They still believed in God, still read their Bibles, but were frustrated with the organizational structure of houses of worship because of the focus on money

In most Protestant denominations (yes, I am Jewish, and the "church" in question was a fusion of both Jewish and Christian belief, but for the sake of illustration let's just stick with the Evangelical Protestant model) there is a pastor who is accountable to a board who is made up of congregational members. There is a set of bylaw, often referred to as a "Constitution" which is like a code of conduct for everyone involved, outlines the church's mission, and sets accountability. It is necessary to have such a document for the purposes of gaining charitable status with the Canadian government.

The pastor is paid from the tithes collected from the congregation - the proportion of the tithes set aside for staff salaries is usually outlined in the Constitution, with the rest of the money going for things like rent and other administrative costs.

Being a pastor is an incredibly stressful job physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To be in full-time ministry is not feasible in today's society unless you are getting paid. In addition, your life (as well as those of your family members) is constantly held up to scrutiny. The same holds true for many in church leadership like elders and deacons. I believe this is a reason why there is so much "moral failure" amongst church leaders - they simply cracked under the pressure, grabbed the secretary, and headed for the broom closet. I am over-simplifying, but I think you know what I am getting at.

I also know a number of people who fled churches and synagogues, becoming involved with home fellowships where they studied the Bible, sang, and shared. People felt more free to talk about issues that concerned them, they got to connect with the others more intimately (I never understood why people would want to attend "Megachurches" where the only people you get to know, if any, are in whatever small group you choose to take part in), and, best of all, no one's hands are in anyone's pockets.

Tithing is Scriptural (Leviticus 27:30; Malachi 3:9) in terms of the amount and also to give joyfully. Most churches harp on the amount and not the joyful part. Another aspect of tithing not spoken of as often is the fact that you give your 10% *after* you have paid your rent, groceries, and other essential bills. It's net, not gross.

But when an institution that is supposed to focus on spirituality becomes driven by money, other messages get lost also. While sermon after sermon harp on issues like homosexuality or abortion, other issues laid out by the Bible are rarely, if ever, touched upon. When was the last time you heard a sermon about business people who lie in order to score a deal? Or CEOs of corporations who profit from the labour of others? Or government leaders who are dishonest with their constituents and engage in foreign policy that leads to the murders of millions overseas? Probably not recently.

I'll tell you why not: because church leadership cannot afford to risk alienating the rich business people and Conservative government supporters who may be in the congregation. People who will pick up and take themselves (and their tithes) elsewhere. When a church is run as a business, business decisions have to be made that are in its best interests, and this filters down to the messages that are presented.

It should thus be no surprise that faith and politics are so intertwined. The US is heading towards an election, and all kinds of messages are coming from both Christian and Jewish leaders about the need to elect the "right" candidate (no pun intended). A government that supports corporations and big business and imperialistic foreign policy serves those who benefit from it the best (the rich), and the more rich people in a congregation, the richer the church will be.

Mega-churches (and whatever the Jewish synagogue equivalent is) are really corporations unto themselves operating under the guise of spirituality. Smaller churches also are affected by similar issues (rich congregants = more tithes) although at least there is some more accountability on the parts of everyone involved, since more people within the church itself are likely to know each other (which leads to another problem of everyone knowing everyone else's business, but I digress).

Because of all of these issues, I have found myself really wanting to connect spiritually in a house environment, or even just amongst two or three others, or even one on one, depending on the situation. Why does worship and study have to be in a set place and time? Where does it say in the Bible that we have to be in a structured church with a paid leader? No one paid Jesus. Instead, He paid in the end. And that should be the ultimate lesson to us all.


tuxandtales said...

Interesting post, Paula. The church I attend has been quite brave about sermon topics, and members of the congregation spend a lot of time with their sleeves rolled up and serving people in the community - with no expectation of reward or of reciprocation. No-one is expected to share their beliefs before they are helped or anything.

But it is true the building and the salaries take a lot of money - not because they are exorbitant (far from it) but because life is expensive and Jesus promoted fair pay. My experience is limited in terms of the number of churches I have been a member of, but none of them were of the sort described. They were all relatively small (fewer than 200 at the Sunday services), inner city, and accepting of diversity. Together they managed to achieve a lot in their communities and provide emotional and spiritual support for the work people did individually.

This is not to say you are wrong; your feelings are totally valid as a reaction to what you have observed and experienced. A standard contemporary church is not for you; the model you seek has been one of the models all along. It will work, too.

Ian McKenzie said...

Well said, Paula. As one of those Evangelical Protestants, I think you're spot-on in your observations.