What I have tried to do over the past several weeks is to demonstrate, through the minutes of one church, Highland Presbyterian, how you can see the struggle of faith fleshed out in the real life of a church.
In many ways I have allowed the experience of Highland Presbyterian Church placed alongside the Scriptures to raise more questions than answers. To truly allow oneself to be addressed by Christ is more a process than a simple message. Another person reading those same Session minutes might hear other Scriptures speaking rather than the ones that I have identified.
As the church members seek to listen to God and discern how Christ is addressing them, they need to bring their various interpretations together and allow themselves to offer it all in prayerful consideration. We are a corporate faith and God makes use of the communal nature of our lives to speak a word to us. Even the prophets were part of a community. They needed to be heard to be effective and their words were shaped by the response of those who listened.
Also, as was true in the words of the prophets, how an experience and Scripture speak in one moment may not be what God is saying in another moment. It may have been courageous for Highland to declare an open worship policy back in the sixties but what happened to that same courage when they refused to host a meeting with The Reverend Jane Spaugh, a leader in the conversation about homosexuality?
While it is important to listen to the patterns of how people have responded from their faith to the events of their time, like with Israel we may discover patterns of disobedience that stand out and call us to repentance. Does the easy acceptance of the non-attendance of members seen in building a sanctuary to seat only a third of their membership speak to us of our need to repent of our casual patterns of worship?
On the other hand, we may also see patterns of courageous faith embedded in our history which call us to repent of a fearful response that we are currently making. Does the immediate decision to tithe a gift that they received speak to us at a time when our decision to balance a budget is based on trimming our contribution to benevolences beyond ourselves? These are the types of questions that Highland Presbyterian Church needs to be asking themselves as a community as they prepare to enter the third millennium.
What are the questions that your church needs to be asking themselves as they lay the patterns of their history over against the Scripture and ask what form of obedience Christ is asking of them as they enter the third millennium?
In the new year, I’m going to try to flesh out the faith in some short stories that depict the life and struggles of clergy. I will also explore how we might nurture the health of those called to be pastors among us.
In Hebrews 13:5, we read: “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’” That is perhaps even harder for an institution than it is for an individual. It was not money but the love of money that was considered the root of all kinds of evil. (1 Timothy 6:10)
The problem for an institution is that it is a principality whose main focus is the avoidance of death. Those who serve on the governing bodies of institutions may be open to all sorts of proposals but the one accusation that they most want to avoid is being part of the decision which leads to the death of the institution.
Since in our world an institution can survive almost any challenge as long as it is financially solvent, the reoccurring temptation is to want to make fiscally conservative decisions. Death is the god which contends with God for obedience in the life of any principality. The church, only by the grace of God, is able to recognize that Christ, not death, is its head.
Paul declares that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:26) The vision of that faith is lifted up in the Body of Christ even when, like Peter walking on water towards Jesus, we are overwhelmed by the fear of the waves and begin to sink. (Matthew 14:28) And, like to Peter, Jesus repeatedly reaches out his hand and lifts up his Body.
If the Gospels are the canon by which we discern the Word of God, we need to recognize that sometimes the Word of God was revealed in the context of the misunderstanding or even disobedience of the disciples as well as at times when they were obedient.
While the goal of Highland becoming a 50/50 church in which 50% of what we are entrusted with is given beyond ourselves has been repeatedly voiced, the pressure of meeting expenses within the church in view of inadequate pledging has rarely resulted in a benevolence gift above 25%. Yet the vision of Christ’s benevolence often results in signs of faithfulness.
n 1958 this new church was already supporting four missionaries in other countries. They have repeatedly been responsive to fund drives of local Presbyterian institutions. In 1988 they responded without hesitation to the request that they give an amount equal to 1% of their local budget in support of theological seminaries. In 1990 when it was learned that we had received an inheritance of $50,000, the Session immediately voted to tithe the gift and gave $5,000 to the local poverty ministry, Crisis Control Ministry. Their local benevolence support of ministries within our community was close to $55,000 in 1995.
Are there signs of disobedience in the inability of the church to proclaim a transforming Gospel which enables their members to respond with at least 10% of their income for the proclamation of the Gospel in the life and ministry of the Body of Christ?
The life of Highland has often been confronted with inadequate resources. They have repeatedly been faced with deficit budgets, emergency appeals to the congregation to reconsider their pledges, borrowing money to meet expenses and cutting back on programs because of a shortage of funding. Yet in one stewardship campaign in the early ’90′s it was calculated that if every member of the church was on welfare and tithed, the church’s budget could be doubled.
Is the Scripture speaking to us when it says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”? (1 Timothy 6:10) In the life of a church one can see the battle between the flesh and the spirit which is repeated in the individual lives of their members. The limits of finances can often drain the spirit of its courage and engender a defensive attitude towards the needs of others. But the spirit of Christ keeps revealing itself in bold acts of faith that call us back to fruits of the Spirit.
If we are to listen for the Word of God in the life of a congregation, we need to listen for the way in which money has played a part in our life together. And if we are to believe that the church is the Body of Christ, we must notice how our response to the issues of money reveal the Word of God.
What was the witness when in 1958, while they were planning a campaign to raise $60,000 for their projected Activity Building, they received a request from Presbytery to commit to raising $84,000 for a fund to develop new churches and decided to postpone their local campaign until they had responded to the Presbytery campaign? Was God speaking through such an action that the development of new churches in our area was a higher priority than our own increase in facilities?
Is God’s Word impressed upon members and non-members when the Session repeatedly responds positively to requests to join in campaigns to support educational institutions, retirement homes and facilities that care for abused children? Were the youth giving their testimony in their decision to use the profits of their successful coffee house to purchase recording equipment for the church sanctuary and some audio visual equipment to assist in a local program for the disadvantaged in 1970?
If you want to exegete a congregation, you can make a significant beginning by examining the history of decisions around money. Sometimes they will be amazingly faithful, even sacrificial decisions and sometimes they will reveal fear more than faith. However, as you view them from a distance, you can begin to measure how God’s word has been expressed and can be expressed in a church.
Is the Word of God expressed in buildings or are buildings also a sign of wealth awaiting the faithful response of a people?
In December 1952 Highland established a policy of “no commercial use of their building.” In June 1954 before the sanctuary was fully completed, they began making plans for the Activity Building and stated that it was to be an instrument of mission and not just a possession. The clear intent was that it was to be made available to the larger community to provide meeting space for groups who were seeking to be of service to the community.
It is rare that a week passes where there is not some announcement in the local newspaper of some group meeting at Highland Presbyterian Church. Up until 1995 none of the groups were even asked to contribute in return for their use of the building. Even in 1995 the contribution requested of community groups was a small portion of the cost to the church of providing heat and lights. The Word of God was given visibility in a “man for others.” What does the larger community see in a church which is generous with its facilities for the sake of others?
It is said that Jesus talked more about money in the Gospels than any other subject. And much of his concern seemed to be directed at the way in which money can enslave a person. Money can become a god which demands obedience rather than a gift by which we can serve God. The concern for money can take a higher priority than faithfulness in determining a church’s decisions. In Matthew 6:24 Jesus says: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”