Some people have approached us about the idea of spinning off some of our more successful ministries as separate 501C3s. They argue that it would be easier for us to raise money for these ministries if they weren’t associated directly with a church.
I understand the point. It’s just that we believe our call to ministry in this city is supposed to be associated with the church. Our church, your church, and all the other churches that make up the Body of Christ in our community. Our ministry, the Spirit has told us, is a witness that gives glory to Jesus Christ. We don’t want to diminish that glory by forming a non-church corporation, even if doing so would make it easier to raise money and our lives that much less complicated.
Personally, I struggle with the idea that any aspect of our ministry is somehow diminished because it is funded by, housed in, or inspired by Zion Lutheran Church. But the conversations keep happening.
The foundational objections to supporting ministries that are identified with individual congregations seem to fall into the following categories:
1.) “If I’m going to give to a church, I’m going to give to my own church.” Christians don’t want to support a church’s ministry that isn’t their own church. Pick your denomination, Baptist, Catholic, Free, it doesn’t seem to matter. Christians, from what I’m told, don’t want to support the ministry of our congregation because we don’t belong to their particular denomination or congregation. Really? Seriously? I makes me sad. Are we really that competitive? Do Christians subscribe to a some zero-sum idea about ministry and money that says, “If you have a successful ministry, it must somehow diminish the ministry of my group”? Or, worse, “If I give to the good you’re doing, it means I have less to give to the good my own church is doing.” Ouch! Does our Lord not have cattle on a thousand hills and are we not One Body? Apparently not.
There must be other reasons, too. Perhaps other theological traditions think we’re not really Christians because we bear the name Lutheran. Ouch! But that has historically been the case.
I think that other churches worry that if they support ministry in other churches, somehow they might loose people to those churches. At Zion we have a lot of volunteers who come from other churches. They help us, some of them decide to worship with us regularly, but not many. In fact, very, very few. We are a peculiar church. But it makes me sad that we can’t work together because of fear.
There is a great deal of irony in this situation. As congregations we’re happy to partner with congregations on the other side of the globe but we’re hesitant to do so on the other side of town. This is a bizarre and inconsistent behavior.
So I ask myself the question: what ministries through other churches do we support? The answer turns out to be very, very few. So perhaps before I critique others, I better get my house in order. We need to find a way to support others in what they’re doing. We need to find a way to bless what God is doing in other congregations. We have very few ideas about how to do this, but it will take some doing to implement them. Why? Because we’re guilty of the same mindset as everybody else.
2.) “I can’t give to the good ministry your church is doing because you might ask them to become Christians.” This excuse isn’t limited to just non-believers. Even some Christians are nervous about the idea of sharing the faith. We are not shy to present the gospel to people we serve when we believe the Holy Spirit presents the opportunity. We are not ashamed of the gospel.
Our primary mission is that we serve people who can’t serve us back and thereby serve our Master, Jesus Christ. We serve to honor him first and foremost. If people want to become his followers because of that service, that’s an act of God and His work through His Holy Spirit. We don’t do what we do for people so that we can grow our church. That would mean we were serving people who could give us something, their membership, in return. We serve according to the paradigm of Luke 14: when you give a banquet, don’t invite your friends and rich neighbors because they can pay you back. Rather, invite the poor, the lame, the blind, the widows, the orphans, the forgotten. Those who cannot pay you back.
The irony with this excuse is extreme. Consider this: You support the good we are doing, which we are doing because we are Christians. But you don’t want to make any more Christians who might, in turn, help us do even more good things?
It reminds me of a family that left our church more than a year ago. They left because they wanted a church that was less structured around service and more structured around youth. So I simply asked, “You plan to leave this church, which you admit is doing beautiful things for Jesus, in order to go to a church which will focus more on your child in the hopes that he will grow up to be the kind of man who does the things we’re doing here?” Yes. I got it right. Amazing. Why wouldn’t you want to support an organization that does good things and has the potential to teach more people to do good things? Ultimately, wouldn’t the world be a better place?
So, I’m still trying to figure out how people think we must present the gospel. “Convert or die?” Simply at a loss as to why you wouldn’t want to create more followers of a global movement that has self sacrifice and service and love and justice and charity at it’s core. We must really have a bad reputation out there.
3.) “I am willing to support any ministry you do, but I will not support the church itself or help to pay it’s bills.” We call this, “designated giving.” I think I understand the point here. It must be that people separate what we do for others, the service part, from what we do for ourselves, which must be the worship part. I suppose people think that church services are for insiders. But not in this church. The church service itself is supposed to be a service of proclamation. The gospel is supposed to be presented. This is the place you invite your unchurched, de-churched, unbelieving friends to come and hear the Good News. Worship is also mission.
The whole point of the gospel is that those who were outsiders are now insiders with God through Jesus Christ. Sunday School is a mission field. It’s where you bring all the kids in your neighborhood on Sunday morning who aren’t going someplace else.
I know that some folks believe it is more righteous to buy us the text books we need to teach English than to give money to “the church.” But where are the English classes held? In the church. Who organizes the volunteers who teach and help and work and serve? Church staff. I’m not sure you can separate what is “church” from what is “ministry.” Especially in our case, where the building is leveraged for mission as much as humanly possible. There isn’t much idle time here, we’re truly a community church. And we don’t charge for that normally. So if people want us to be able to do the things we’re doing, they need to support “the church,” because “the church” is essential to what’s happening.
I suppose there is no glamour in paying the mortgage. But there is glamour in supporting the program that get’s people jobs. But without the building, that program has nowhere to meet, no a/c or heat, no electric lights, no bathrooms, no kitchen for coffee, no internet access, no computers for applying for work. Supporting the church for the sake of the work of the church isn’t glamorous, but it’s essential.
We could not do any of the mission we do without our staff, building, etc. Our church has become a home for many people. A place to sit and have dinner, to worship, to fellowship, to work and to play.
Recently, we spent three weeks as a church studying about giving. The main point was simply this: The New Testament is emphatic that “the church” is the body of Christ. When you persecute “the church” you are persecuting Jesus Himself. When you bless “the church” you are blessing Jesus himself. Giving shouldn’t be about what makes you feel good or about what’s hip or glamorous. Giving should be about you giving abundantly and blissfully to the person of Jesus Himself. I’ve come to the conclusion that if we can’t do that, we probably shouldn’t give at all.
One final thought: people love to see fruit on the trees of the church. They love to see success. I’ve seen people only want to give to that success. But this is the funny thing about fruit: it doesn’t just appear. It has to grow. If a nice big juicy fruit is what success is, let’s not forget that it begins with fertilizing the tree, watering the tree, pruning the tree, etc. All these tedious things the gardeners have to do if we expect to see fruit. When you give only to the fruit, you forget what it really takes to have fruit, gardeners, trees, orchards, etc. It’s all part of the big picture that gives the fruit. So we need to give to the “whole” process. Not just to the end. Or there will be no fruit. And, let’s not forget that even with all the giving in the world, there is no fruit and no tree without the God who created seeds, sunshine, water, and all the other things that make the fruit grow.