"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


money & the church

Given that it is midterm time, I'm pretty busy grading exams and haven't had time to do much in the way of thoughtful blogging. Or to reply to a comment from my pastor on this post the other day. But this morning at church, a friend from Dallas was in town, so we spent a couple of minutes catching up. We met in Kenya last spring, where she was on a mission trip and I was meeting up with Laura the Elder and Preacher J to collect the chili powder my mom sent to save me from bland cooking (thank-you again, mom!). She's also friends with Laura the Elder, so we all had a good time hanging out, shopping, and enjoying Nairobi's good restaurants.

My friend is not only from Dallas, she is Very Dallas, in that lots-of-makeup-and-perfect-hair way that we just don't do in Austin. But she's also been to rural Kenya and seen what true poverty is, and she has a heart for making things better for children who suffer unnecessarily. She joked about the $34 million gift to Baylor that someone has made to build a new football practice facility/athletic complex, and we laughed, only half-joking, about all the other things we could do with $34 million.

So that's got me thinking about money and the church again. A theology of money is something I'm really interested in, and something that I and my Sunday School class have been thinking about for many years. Here's hoping these thoughts keep the conversation open. I'd love it if the rest of you would join in as well.

Is it right for Christians to spend money on unnecessary stuff? Certainly in the United States, almost all Christians spend money on things we don't really need. And I don't want to argue that the wealthy should be held to a different standard on this point. We all have a responsibility to use our resources well. But $34 million goes a lot farther than what I can give in a year, so it does raise a number of questions, a couple of which my pastor asked:

Question one: would people give money to another cause if they weren't giving it to build an athletic facility? Probably not. But that's not what bothers me. What concerns me is the sinking sensation that most churches won't ever suggest to their wealthy members that they might do something else with their resources. Churches get so scared of losing their big donors that they don't always question what people do with their money. (I do not mean this as a personal critique of these particular donors; I don't have the slightest clue what else they do with their wealth.) But what bothers me is that, with most wealthy Christians, churches don't seem to ever call them to account for what they choose to do with their wealth. I think churches should be calling all members to use their resources well, to God's glory. Much as I love football, I don't see how paying for a football practice facility helps to advance God's kingdom.

(Baylor isn't the church, of course. But as a university that claims a distinctive Baptist identity, I hold it to a higher standard.)

Question 2: Do people progress in their attitudes about money and wealth? Of course they do. I believe that God brings people to the places they need to be with respect to every aspect of life, and I know that it takes time. People give money to a variety of good causes. I don't mean that everything has to go to one place, or even to one type of program. My concern is that we waste a lot of money on really unnecessary things. And I'm sorry, but I think this is a waste of $34 million. Baylor doesn't need a new football practice facility, or a new pool. They built a new athletic facility while I was a student, just eight years ago. It might be nice to have these things, but is it really critical for Baylor to have top-notch facilities when members of the body of Christ are starving to death? When the working poor in our own cities can't afford basic, decent housing in which to raise their children? When missionaries can't afford to bring their children home for the holidays?

Why do we not challenge people to address these realities now? Shouldn't churches be more concerned with helping people to journey rather than encouraging them to stand still, content to have their name on a building? Do we challenge them on the other ways they use their money? I'm willing to bet that someone with several million dollars to spare wears expensive clothes, carries handbags that cost more than my monthly salary, and has more house than he or she really needs. Do we challenge wealthy Christians not to do that? Do we stop saying that it's okay to waste money in the name of "needing to minister to the rich" or keep up appearances so someone can keep making money and therefore keep having enough money to give away?

Bill and Melinda Gates have done a lot of good things with their wealth, but they still live in a ridiculous house. If they were Christians, would that really be okay? Is it really okay to have a house with a room for everything when children are dying because there aren't any anti-retroviral drugs to treat the HIV their mothers contracted from unfaithful husbands? Really?

I think this problem is more than just about what individuals decide to do with their resources. I think it's a problem in the church, and with our fear of challenging the culture around us to do better. Maybe it has to do with our sense of scarcity, and our need to make things happen with the resources we have. Churches waste money on lots of unnecessary programs, facilities, and stuff.

Here's the problem: I'm not convinced that facilties and programs make ministry happen. Goodness knows churches in Africa can teach us on that point. The church I attended in Congo has extremely limited facilities (their new building is on top of the lava flow, and they have to wash and refill Communion cups during the service for everyone to have a turn!) and even more limited financial resources, yet they minister to a war-battered population very effectively, simply through the commitment of their people to sharing God's love. Hearts that are in the right place and a call from God make ministry happen, not the right curriculum or the right budget or the right location.

That said, L'Arche Church of Goma sure could put money to good use. Just in case you have an extra $34 million around.

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