Though still officially on Paternity Leave, I’ve been itching to write a blog post about the financial costs of doing ministry – specifically, of starting new congregations. We like to debate and discuss theology and Bible and liturgy on our blogs, but what good does it do if we do not have places in which that theology, that Bible, that liturgy are heard, discussed, experienced and shared? "How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim?" (Romans 10:14) And how can we do these things without places set aside for proclaming and hearing, for teaching and learning, for serving and witnessing?
Two articles got me thinking about this. Cities Shed Middle Class And Are Richer and Poorer for It (subscription required) by Janny Scott appeared in the July 23 edition of The New York Times Week in Review section, and observed that cities are increasingly becoming dwelling places of the mega rich and the mega poor. Fewer and fewer "middle class" families can afford to live in the cities and invest themselves in the city’s wellbeing. The poor have few financial resources to offer fiscally-challenged cities, and the mega-rich who are flocking to cities pay taxes but have lower levels of connection or investment in the community, chosing to send their children to private schools rather than public schools, and recreating at private clubs rather than the public swimming pool. The vitality of cities are at stake when only those living at socio-economic extremes can call a city home.
The other article that caught my eye was in the Summer ’06 edition of Mission Partner Focus (available here as a PDF), the newsletter of the Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission department of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The cover story, Soaring land prices, daunting barrier to mission churches ready to build, highlights the challenges of developing and planting new suburban churches when the real estate market is on a never-ebbing boom. When a start-up congregation of a few dozen families has to compete with Best Buy and Home Depot to purchase available land, and when local municipalities develop zoning restrictions that keep churches out – when is the last time you saw a church in a newly built cookie-cutter development? – the task is daunting.
Setting aside commentary about suburban sprawl and new urbanism for another day, I don’t have much of an answer to this problem, except to say this: I know we have the money to build new churches. The money is in our pews (in our wallets, in our bank accounts, in our new SUVs and our vacation homes). And in addition to that, we have the money in our offering plates ($2.7 billion in 2005). So with the money that walks through our doors every Sunday, and the money that actually makes it into the offering plates each week, we have the means to build dozens of new churches – even in the rapid-growth, high-end markets of suburbia. But do we have the will? Do we believe that church-planting is important? Can we convince our members that perhaps this is a worthwhile investment? Can we convince our congregations that perhaps they should invest more money in new church start-ups rather than on upgrading the pipe organ, purchasing the latest digital projection technology, or hiring an inadequate part-time youth director? Or, perhaps, there are other answers to this question. Perhaps we should embrace a radically new/old model for our church, such as congregations gathering without dedicated buildings, served by part-time leaders who make a living by making tents. What other options are available to us as we seek to grow the church and proclaim the Word?
"Go therefore and make disciples . . ." This is our calling, dear friends. Are we listening?