Riding the subway here in New York is sometimes an enlightening experience. As I traveled back from the Bronx today I was exposed to a most enlightening question. A group of seemingly normal people were sitting discussing where their church was going wrong. As I was sitting next to them I didn’t have much choice except to listen. Listening to them, really listening, it sounded more like a business meeting than a group of church goers. They were talking about meeting their targets, about growing the church, about the need to “live it” if they wanted to remain church leaders, and most frightening of all the methods used if they failed to fulfill their obligations.
The journey was a long one and I learned their targets were both personal and business. One gentleman, who I learned was “senior leadership”, spoke openly about the methods which they kept the flock in order. He spoke about the commitments that the members made. The fact that if they failed in meeting their tithe commitment, their service attendance, their studies, their evangelism commitment, then the leadership, who kept records of it all, would take action. “In the monthly business meetings we go through the records and make sure no one is falling behind and if they are they get a letter from us.” Those were his exact words. “It’s our duty to grow the church and if anyone is failing in their commitment we remove them.” With phrases like “cutting off the hand that offends you” and “we’re in the business of putting Christ back into this country” I felt the bile rise and had to stop myself from saying something pertinent.
To hear them talk even the most godly of people would have wanted to reach over and throttle them. Apparently the average “Christian” (please insert finger motions here) isn’t. The average person goes to church and hears the word but doesn’t live it. They roll along hearing the words but because they don’t work every day to become better whatever that is and fail to increase the kingdom of God here on earth they will be met with rejection from their father in heaven and realize you “have to live it to win it”. It seems Jesus only wants achievers in his heaven these days. He wants movers and shakers who are in the business of saving souls and planting shiny churches. It seems that the widow’s mite isn’t enough now and that instead he wants the whole paycheck. Can’t feed your family? That’s awesome because you know you are securing your place at heaven’s buffet. Suffering shows you are doing it right.
I listened for half an hour to this diatribe that sounded more like Gordon Gekko than “good christian folks”. I learned that people were censured if they didn’t give to the church and chose instead to feed their family because they had to meet their commitment to God first. First came a letter at the end of the first month, then if they didn’t “catch up” they would be called in for a meeting, finally after three months they were removed from the church. Cast out for not meeting the budget…… how very Christian. But that was the central point. Again and again the conversation came back to how their church had to be the biggest and the best and how in the end if they wanted to spread the word further then more were needed to swell the pockets, I mean coffers, of the leadership. These were baptists talking like they were the C.E.O.s heading to Wall Street.
Why they were on the train receiving this pep talk became clear in the last five minutes of my time with them. They were heading to a hotel and then on to the airport the following morning. How nice I thought. A group of friends off on holiday……. how wrong was I? They were heading out to Nigeria to plant churches. As I stepped off the train I heard the immortal line “we’re going to light such a fire in that country and God’s will for his people will prevail.” Thankfully the doors closed at that point and I was left stunned on a platform not knowing whether to retch or laugh.
What this little insight into the workings of a super-church did was to expose the true heart of Christianity. Despite the protestations of some that “not all Christians are like that” the church is and always has been a business. It’s never been about the faithful just how to separate people from as much cash as possible. It’s about making sure that the leadership have a nice car and a nice home, it’s about the members meeting in a nice, comfortable building. I would remind those who are choking on their cornflakes that one of the terms still used for a clergyman’s work is “a living”. It’s just that some of the clergy seem to want a better living than others.
But even in the “good” world of the Christians who are true Christians it’s still a business. Without increasing membership the church roof leaks, the organ stops working, the pews get dusty, and the preacher can’t feed his family. Where you have a job, a building, and the expectation that there will be comfort then you have to have money. Where that money comes from is a constant nagging concern. So memberships have to be increased and you have to create a product. For the “nicer” churches it becomes the promise of bonhomie, a cup of tea after the service, and the promise that if you agree with the words then you will be safe. So I ask this question? Do you need the things which you’ve been told you need? Do you have an organ when you can play a guitar? Do you even need the guitar when you have been blessed with a voice? Do you need a building with a pointy roof and a cross on top when actually the air is less dusty outside in the park? Do you need a man at the front who expects to have a salary that rises with inflation and a promise of a pension when your book says “where two or three are gathered there am I”? Do you need a leadership? Do you need a hierarchical system where as you rise up the greasy pole you get better rewards? The Egyptians built pyramids but it seems when it comes to being truly faithful the Christians follow their model.
When you take the needs of man out of the equation you see that the business of faith becomes like a man selling snake oil. Through the threat of eternal damnation and the promise of eternal life a man can be subtly pushed to open his wallet more and more. And that kiddies is why the Vatican is filled with priceless works of art and the church is closing schools because they can’t afford to keep them open. As organizations grow and the coffers swell money can be diverted to further the cause. Don’t believe me then look at the money that churches use to influence decision making in government. All denominations are guilty of changing the laws to their view point and it’s usually to the detriment of a huge slice of the population. The obvious examples would be the LGBTQ community and women wanting to have a say whether they have a child or not but they are only the tip of the social control iceberg.
Money has become the true God in the church today and for all the pleading “we’re not like that” you’re really not doing very much to prove you’re not exactly like that. When you would prefer to be sitting in a comfortable church rather than out feeding the poor, when you can afford to put your preacher in a Cadillac while outside the homeless sit on your steps then you are not meeting the marker your founder set. One should not make a “living” out of teachings of a man who threw money lenders out of a temple and taught that camels got through the eyes of needles than rich men got into heaven. Christ never taught you that your priest needed Gucci or gold thread on their vestments. He chose to preach to 5,000 in a field not a mega-church and he certainly didn’t require air conditioning and an organ.
To those of you who still say “that’s not me though” ask yourself the question. What have you been taught to expect from the church? If you need a comfortable pew and stained glass then you’re getting it wrong. If you have to pay a man to tell you what to believe you’re getting it wrong too. If you have need to influence government to further your idea of what the kingdom of heaven should be on earth then you are sadly mistaken. God is not a business he is a personal relationship. God isn’t found in a church but in the faces of the poorest and the most abused in society. He is in everything not just in the little brick boxes you’ve been told he is. He isn’t in the palace of a bishop or even in the tiny tin shack you call a chapel. He’s in you and it’s only you he wants to have a relationship with not via a man who’s paid to spread a consensus opinion. He calls on you to work on your own walk with him and not be led by others or seek to direct others. He talked about brotherhood not patriarchy.
If there is a God and you do get to heaven what will he have to say about the business of the church and your part in supporting it?