Thursday, June 19, 2008

Money and Ministry

Last night I watched a movie with a friend. On the high quality end of markedly Christian films, Second Chance stars Michael W. Smith, but features urban music and a message one wouldn’t intuitively associate with best-selling pop Christian song artists. Honestly, having given as much thought to the themes of the movie as my friend and I have, we noticed some inconsistent messages.

The main character is Ethan, the son of a megachurch pastor who is hoping, having returned from his prodigal days, to inherit his dad’s church. In the mean time he’s the church’s worship leader – a big job involving worship team, worship band, choir, and orchestra – all while trying to impress the large congregation, television audience, and the board that pays his salary. The church board is in the middle of big money – ahem, stewardship decisions; their television crew has trouble keeping up with changes Ethan makes in the middle of the production commonly considered to be congregational worship. On top of all this the recent public relations spot with the mayor at their mission church in the inner city exposed some resentment in the pastor of that church.

That pastor and his wife, who were saved in prison and off the streets respectively have an incarnational view of ministry. No cross-topped building in the middle of a messed up neighborhood would have reached them with the gospel, so they too are taking the gospel to the people, meeting them on their own turf. They run ministries inside the walls of their church, even hosting women trying to turn their lives around. But the only reason people come to the church is that word has gone out. The waitress at the diner knows the pastor, and so do the local drug pushers and gang members. They know he’s tough and he’s real. To this atmosphere Ethan is exiled on a double mission of punishing his non-compliance and supervising the uncooperative pastor. While the student of clich├ęs knows this is not the smartest course of action, for a long time it seems that Ethan will never learn to leave behind the write-a-check mentality, and the pastor will never accept “Gucci” (Ethan), the son of a man who betrayed the personal side of ministry so that he could provide his son with all the luxuries of life.

Does Ethan live for cameras? Is Church about more than a building? Is money the answer to everything? Does demanding excellence preclude giving grace? Even if you do everything right, will you win every time?

One big theme of the movie, which I’ve mentioned already, is money. When you’re working in the inner city, you don’t necessarily want to throw money at problems. A drug-addict or alcoholic will find a substantial amount of money a huge temptation. Yet only a substantial amount of money would pay the rent they owe, or send them to visit their children and discouraged fleeing wife. The inner city pastor in the movie tosses an empty bottle back to the homeless alcoholic and promises him a sandwich in the park. But he won’t give charity to a man who refuses to support his family because he thinks he’s above the jobs that are available. What’s the common thread?

The call is to invest in the lives of people, not giving them money necessarily, but spending time coaching them, visiting them, praying with them, and giving them an exposition and example of the truth.

But the movie suggests at the same time that the rich white people don’t have problems. It says you have to go to the inner city and face drug rings and prostitution and immigrants to find real need. Ethan says he wanted to serve God where it was comfortable. I argue that serving God is never comfortable; it’s not a matter of location.

If throwing money only enables homeless, addicted, or at-risk people to continue in their sin and ignore their real spiritual need, what are the rich white people but those further along in that trap? And is the call not then to invest in their lives to make them aware of God’s grace (a grace, by the way, made for walking)?

I don’t want to tell anyone to stop giving money. There are real needs, and money does fix some problems. If a family is impoverished because their car and washing machine broke down, or because the father lost the job at the same time that gas prices skyrocketed, or because of uncontrollable medical expenses, then what they need is money and community. Sometimes even those who were at fault need material goods, like sandwiches in the park, as part of a ministry to them.

Writing a check does not fix the problem. Writing a book does not fix the problem. Starting a megachurch does not fix the problem. God saved us to a relationship with Him that is personal and constant. He designed the Church to be a community of personal relationships that is more than weekly and more than small talk. And He designed evangelism to be a literal voice on the streets, as you go, being the salt and light in His world.

To God be all glory.

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