Thursday, July 17, 2008

Constructing Kingdoms

Many churches seem to prioritize their time, efforts, and money around building campaigns. I once met a man who had faithfully attended his church in South Houston for over 20 years, since its inception. I asked him how he felt about his church home and why he stayed there for so long? He proceeded to tell me about the numerous building campaigns they had successfully planned and accomplished. His face was beaming with pride on behalf of his church and their new, multi-million dollar facility. They were clearly a growing success.

However, in my conversation with this suburban family man, there was no mention of the relationships he had undoubtedly formed over the years. Not once did he cite an example of his church’s involvement in the surrounding community. Instead of commending his church’s ability to serve, he praised their ability to spend. All across the western world, this is the pattern of pride I have witnessed in the evangelical community. Bigger means better while success goes hand-in-hand with excess.

It’s almost as if we are trying to keep up with the quickly constructing cities we live in. After all, the buildings that receive the most attention are in the highest places, owned by the largest and wealthiest companies. Their towers dominate our skylines, exerting influence over all who sit in its shadows. From their top-floor, corner offices, CEO’s map out the landscape so as to divide and conquer as far as the eye can see. Who wouldn’t want that sort of supremacy or clout in their community? Couldn’t the church gain that kind of influence and use it for good?

While having lunch with a friend who once attended a megachurch, I asked him how some of these churches could reconcile spending more money on an air conditioning bill than on the poor and broken in their own communities? He told me straight-faced, “The bigger they build, the more people they believe will be attracted to hear the gospel.” I certainly understood the logic, but I’m afraid the means do not justify the end. I think we have confused Kingdom ethics with those found in the business world.

Much of American Christianity has failed to live counterculturally by giving into the American business model. The Tao of the business world is build big or go home. Unless your company is building, spending, and growing, success will be as fleeting as yesterday’s stock scores. Amongst countless passages about the Kingdom of God advancing as a covert movement, I am reminded of Matthew 20:20-28. The mother of James and John approaches Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and asks that he grant her sons seats of power in the Kingdom. Knowing that he is on his way to die, Jesus questions whether James and John are ready for such a position of humility. To make his point clear, Jesus compares those who rule “the nations” with those who rule in his kingdom. Exertion, pressure, numbers, and strength mark one kingdom, while the other is best seen in the heart of a servant or slave. This is what Jesus means when he later says, “my Kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36).

So what should be the next move for the American church? Should we tear down the large buildings and go underground? Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not knocking all large, wealthy churches. I am simply asking for motives to be checked and philosophies of ministry to be reexamined. In my city of Houston, two churches are forking over a ridiculous amount of cash in order to construct enormous white crosses and consequently “mark our city for Christ.” Is this the way Jesus and his original disciples sought to impact their world? Are we fighting for positions of power in our culture by using the tools of the culture or the tools of Jesus’ humble Kingdom? To quote Philip Yancey, “history shows that when the church uses the tools of the world’s kingdom, it becomes as ineffectual, or as tyrannical, as any other power structure.” Only time will tell if the American church will follow this fate.