William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Tag: Doug Pagitt

The Church and Global Crises: Putting our Money where our Mission is

This post originally appeared on the  Homebrewed Christianity blog.

After engaging further with the work of recent Homebrewed guests like Doug Pagitt and Mark Scandrette, and with all the talk recently about various process eschatologies (the Emergent Village Theological Conversation), the issue of the church’s mission and its direct role in addressing the foremost problems of the world has really been on my mind.  In fact, Brian McLaren gave a great talk about this just this past Sunday at Claremont School of Theology.  Watch it here.  The main idea I’m wrestling with is this: if it’s true that our participation in bringing about new creation here and now is supposed to be significantly contributive to the reality of God’s economy on earth – but not necessarily determinative of it – then what does this mean for the mission of the church in concrete terms?

The most measurable and tangible way I know how to pose this question is something along the lines of the following: how does your church spend its money, and what does this show about its values? (we could talk about time and energy as well, but I’m focusing on this dimension because I think it might be the most important for our context.)  It’s temping at first to suspect that this is too much of a practical way to frame the topic from a theological perspective, but I want to argue that it might be one of the most profound theological questions that can be asked, especially for churches that are enjoying the privileges of imperial security.

Defendants of the currently dominant but perhaps waning church structures in America are quick to argue that there’s no “one size fits all” solution, and that’s fine.  But then I would still want to say to them, how and when do you plan to start actually contributing to this so-called mandate for change in the world with your current financial model?

Most churches dedicate the vast majority of their budgets to payroll, building and utility costs.  Obviously, these things are necessary, and I would even concede that something like the aesthetic quality of a worship venue can make a big difference with respect to what audience is being reached and that it is therefore sometimes a worthwhile investment.  Programs that foster spiritual formation shouldn’t be neglected, and of course staff members have to be paid in order for some tasks to get done.

At the same time, I don’t think this is enough, and in my view it’s probably not even a primary concern for Christians in comparison to the severity and urgency that characterizes the concerns of our global ecological and political-economic situation.  And this has everything to do with eschatology.  Along with many other homebrewed deacons, my contention is that if our beliefs about the future are such that relying on God is emphasized to the point of justifying the apathy that we as Christians seem to be comfortable with most of the time, then we have a bad eschatology.  On the other hand, as Tripp and Bo articulated quite well on the TNT podcast a few weeks ago, an eschatology of co-laboring orthopraxis – as opposed to an otherworldly one – need not consign us to completely depend on our own strength either.  That was one of the mistakes made with the post-millennialism of protestant liberalism at the turn of the 20th century.

With that said, let me give an example of how this might be done in practice.  So there’s a church in Austin that set a goal a while back to work toward structuring themselves so as to allow for giving away half of what they receive in monetary donations every year to non-profit programs and charitable project partners (a homeless food ministry in Guatemala, building a school in Uganda, staffing an after-school program in East Austin, and various other sustainable development initiatives).  A few years later now, they are already more than halfway there, having consistently been giving 35% of their tithes and offerings to these outreach partnerships.  They see this as only fair, since they expect themselves as a membership to tithe… because if we’re all giving ten percent of our income, but the church spends most of that on itself, how do we expect to actually do something about the greatest threats to our planet and human life? And this is not a small church.  They have a big building and a big staff.  And yet with this long-term goal in place, they’re still using their big suburban resources to make a substantial difference in the world despite the other challenges that come along with a missional-attractional approach to ministry.

Perhaps even more radically, a totally different church in Waco, TX of comparable size pays all of its staff members the same salary – from the senior pastor to the secretary (in addition to a stipend per child in the family).  This frees up a ton of their resources for their missional church planting efforts around the world and forces their team of pastoral leaders to walk the talk of living simply.

Now, it may be that neither of these churches are quite “up to speed” with an appreciation of the most pressing global crises from the standpoint of their theological significance, but at least they understand the intimate relationship between organization, budget allocation and missional accomplishment.  In light of these examples then, I just have to wonder: can we not ask this same question about balance sheets and God’s economic values wherever we are and begin to think creatively about how to work toward a better future – by leading churches to put their money where their mission is, by actually contributing a sizable portion of their cash flow to the realization of new creation in the present?

From "aha" to "uh oh" and then what?

Here is a post that went up on Provoketive.com recently which I am now occasionally writing for:

I was just listening to an interview with Doug Pagitt (whose book Preaching Re-imagined, among others, was a big eye-opener for me when i first started doing youth ministry) on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, and he was talking about how the dominant narrative for Christendom prior to recent decades was one of moving from “being lost” to “being found.”  This is illustrated well by the extensive familiarly you find in the West with songs like “Amazing Grace”… “I once was blind but now I see.”  This idea was, and for many perhaps still is, the dominant thinking about religion in general and Christianity in particular.

What Pagitt suggests is that in today’s cultural climate, which he calls “the inventive age” (see his latest books with this phrase in the title here), people in North America are more likely to have conversions for “aha” to “uh-oh” than from “I don’t know” to “aha.”  Pagitt is not implying, however, that these people are all saying goodbye to their Christian faith.  He makes a distinction between the current context as a post-Christian era vs. post-Church era, arguing for the latter more so than the former.

In many ways, I find this to be true in my own experience.  It’s not a new story; I hear it frequently.  Like Pagitt, my faith background was significantly influenced by conservative evangelicalism.  For those who can relate, what’s funny about the way this story usually goes for people is that we started singing “Amazing Grace” so early, it’s hard to remember a time when we were ever “lost.”  I didn’t have time to get lost!  By my baptism at age ten, I don’t even know how many times I had already prayed for Jesus to come into my heart.  During high school and most of college, if I did any reading related to difficult theological questions, it was usually to seek out confirmation for what were already my solidified doctrinal presuppositions.

After college and partly during seminary though – though not really because of seminary – I went through a challenging season of having many of my assumptions questioned . . . in some ways I may have even been too open-minded for my own good.  Nonetheless, I experienced what I guess could be called a second-conversion – a conversion to not knowing.  It was a conversion to a place of frustration with preconceived boundaries and filters.  I wouldn’t have ever have called myself agnostic; nor would I fit into the popular category of “spiritual but not religious.”  But a fundamental paradigm shift definitely took place, and it has deeply affected my worldview. It wasn’t just about the creeds of orthodoxy.  My transformation touched the political, economic and cultural.  Nor was it about left and right – while there may have been implication there.  The product is unfinished, and there’s a combined sense of both liberty and estrangement as a result.

I still confess the faith of my upbringing, but its significance for me has evolved substantially.  I sometimes wonder how this fits into the rubric for discipleship.  Maybe I’m off course a bit? On the other hand, maybe I’ve learned how to be a little more honest and gracious toward myself and other people.  Most importantly perhaps, the journey doesn’t have to end at this point, and having conversation with others about it might be the doorway to the next chapter.

Despite my resonance with Pagitt’s thesis, I do have some doubts about its soundness insofar as it’s superimposed on American culture writ large.  To what extent do others really relate to this, and to what extent is it more of a sub-cultural, Bible-belt phenomenon as a result of things like the information revolution, hipster Christian trends, and environmental changes in the burgeoning stages of young adulthood?  In addition, this narrative might also just nicely follow the typical stages of faith development – rules, doctrine, doubt, mature belief (or second naiveté) – but for some reason I’m not sure.  Maybe I just want to feel more special than that 🙂  The Emergent Church movement (with which Pagitt is associated) has sometimes been accused of being too ethnically and culturally insular, of being composed primarily of middle-class folks.  Whether this is fair, would it necessarily take away from the legitimacy of this testimony for a portion of North American Christians like myself?

Peter Rollins talks a lot about a church “beyond belief”.  We have our differences, but what Pete proposes seems to me to be striking a chord with a lot disenchanted would-be Jesus followers.  In order to do or be much of anything, a community certainly needs belief.  Going beyond belief doesn’t mean doing away with it or even changing it – though change might happen.  Moving beyond belief means changing how we believe.  Do we believe primarily with epistemology (knowledge) or ontology (being)? Do we lead with confession or action?  Do our beliefs first comfort or direct us?  Which kind of belief did Jesus embrace?  Maybe it’s not always either/or.  Dark days require consolation.  But what does belief look like for privileged citizens in the land of plenty and power?  This is one of the main questions I hope to explore here, especially with regard to the responsibility that churches have in light of this belief.

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