Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I want it to cost me.

I grew up attending a small church in Virginia. I realize here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, any church with fewer than 1,000 attendees and less than a million dollar budget for stage decorations is considered small, but this was a proper small church. There were probably 100 or so parishioners, and they were some of the most genuine, salt of the earth people I've ever met. They were barbers, mail carriers, engineers, photographers, carpenters, and line workers at the local Anheuser-Busch brewery. They were men who literally built and maintained the church building themselves—they had the scars on their hands to prove it. Like all churches, it was made up of imperfect people who had squabbles and petty disagreements, but nonetheless they earnestly sought to bless the community with the resources God had blessed them with.

We didn't have the resources to send our teens on overseas mission trips, but we did support missionaries as much as we could. We tended to support ones who were nationals of the country where they were doing ministry so they would know the language and culture and be able to relate to the people. One Sunday when I was in middle school, my Sunday school teacher, Danny, read us a letter from one of the missionaries we supported in India. In the letter, the missionary asked for prayer because his old motorcycle had finally bitten the dust for good. He had used the motorcycle to travel to different small villages and serve the people living in them, sharing the Gospel along the way. After his motorcycle died he started using a bicycle to travel to different villages, but it limited his range—he wanted a new motorcycle but couldn't afford the $800 it'd cost. After reading the letter, Danny shared his preposterous idea with us—he thought we should buy the missionary a new motorcycle.

After much lively debate among the prepubescent youth, we finally accepted Danny's challenge and proposed to organize a spaghetti dinner to raise funds for the motorbike. The plan was to sell $10 tickets for the dinner, use the money from the ticket sales to procure the spaghetti dinner ingredients, host the meal, and hope to have $800 in profit. Danny agreed to our little scheme, but added one stipulation: we could only sell tickets to people in the church. As the middle schoolers saw their market potential dwindle drastically, they immediately threw objections at Danny. "Why? I know people outside the church who have much more money than anyone here—they'll probably buy tickets just to get me off their front porch, and won't even come to the dinner!"

Danny's response made such a profound impact on me that it still guides my decisions, 20 years later. He said as Christians, we're called to love and serve our neighbors, and to be a blessing to those who are not believers. If we were to guilt trip our neighbors into paying for a ministry they didn't even believe in, we would be forcing our beliefs on them in a horrible, guilt-driven way—the opposite of being a blessing to them. He applied the same principle to the supplies for the dinner—we couldn't beg businesses for a handout, we would pay full price with joy. After all, supporting this missionary was our calling, and we shouldn't take a cop out on our calling by guilt-tripping others into giving their resources when we should be the ones making sacrifices. Sure, we were welcome to invite people from outside the church to the dinner, but we needed to pay for their tickets out of our own pocket.

I believe in loving people genuinely, uniquely, and without ulterior motives, and I think hospitality is an exceptional way to do just that. We strive to make our home a place full of laughter and lasting relationships, where people from many different walks of life can be loved individually for who they are. A place where stories are told, honest discourse happens, perspectives are gained, and the Gospel is shared. We consider this our ministry and our calling. Over the years, this has taken many different forms, from cooking homemade french fries in the dorm kitchen in college (causing a few grease fires) to inviting coworkers over to our tiny apartment for frozen pizza and wings when we were first married and had no money, to throwing parties for 100 people when we had more resources and friends who shared our mission. All have been amazing experiences, and all have had a commonality: they cost us personally. 

Feeding and entertaining people is expensive and hard work, and we have to make sacrifices to do it. We've put off home repairs and decided against replacing aging furniture and appliances, and I went 18 months without buying a single article of clothing, all because we believe hospitality is worthy of the investment. So when we invite someone into our home, we're telling them we highly value their company and think they're worth spending our time and hard-earned money on. We've found this personal cost and lack of expecting anything in return has added rich levels of authenticity to our relationships. If we were to ask non-Christian businesses to foot the bill for our ministry, not only would we be forcing our beliefs on them by guilt-tripping them into paying for a ministry they don't believe in, but we'd also be robbing our relationships of the authenticity that comes from self sacrifice. We'd go from being a blessing to the community to a net drain on the community. I believe this principle applies on a larger scale as well and has disastrous consequences when it's ignored.
A party at our house

I spent much of 2010 and 2011 in the great Nordic country of Sweden, where God is dead. Seriously—Sweden has the highest population of atheists per capita in the entire world. Yet as I walked through the streets of Stockholm, I saw many beautiful church buildings, and they were all in business—lights on, service times, full-time pastoral staff—the whole nine yards. I asked one of my Swedish colleagues how these churches could afford to keep their doors open when no one was coming in, and he told me "it's simple—they're funded by taxes." He went on to explain how even though the vast majority of Swedes are atheists, they still go to church for baby baptisms, weddings, and funerals—y'know, to get their tax dollars’ worth. As the church traded discipleship on stewardship for easy government money, it went from being a blessing to the community to just another state agency, and pastors became bureaucrats. The church passed responsibility for the poor over to the state instead of serving them with their own resources, and it’s been in decline ever since. No wonder so many Swedes are atheists—I can't blame them.

I know many Christians with grandiose visions of how they'd like to make the Kingdom of God tangible here on Earth, and I think they're great. I also think Jesus set up a wonderful model for helping these visions come to fruition, called discipleship. As we follow Christ and act as self-sacrificing stewards of the resources we're given, we welcome people into the narrative and point them to Jesus. As those people fall in love with the epic Gospel of God's creation of the world, its fall due to sin, its redemption through Christ, and its ongoing restoration through the Holy Spirit, they'll want to be a part of the restoration. I think inviting others to serve the community alongside you is an essential part of discipleship, but going straight for their wallet without participation seems like a dangerous shortcut. Discipleship takes immense amounts of time and is arduous, but it’s the most worthy investment you can make, and circumventing the process through handouts and government funding will cheat you out of the beauty of seeing someone coming to follow Christ. If you have so little faith in discipleship that you'd rather guilt-trip non-believers into paying for your mission or, even worse, take the money from them forcefully through taxes, then pick up a hammer and help Nietzsche put a nail in God's coffin. All you're doing is coveting the possessions of others, and it's killing the church. We should be so focused on serving the community that we render state programs unnecessary, not becoming another corporation looking to suck on the teat of big government . I'd rather die with my goals unfinished and my vision unrealized than become the next Sweden.
Sweden leads the world in atheism.

By God's provision, our spaghetti dinner raised more than $1,200. Not only was the missionary able to buy a new motorcycle, but he was also able to pour the additional funds into the impoverished communities he was serving. We didn't covet the resources of the megachurches and snark at how they could've bought 3 motorcycles with their weekly coffee budget alone. We didn't daydream about what we could've done if we had just received a government grant. We didn't go and brag to non-Christians about what we had done, either (except for this non-authorized public post 20 years later, sorry guys). We merely made personal sacrifices with the resources we had been given and thanked God for letting us be a part of His epic story.

What I'm listening to during this post:


  1. And all of God's people said... Amen!

  2. Interesting, and thought provoking as usual.