A Christian without a Church

The other day our nine year old came home from school with a coin collection box for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. "Do you have any coins, Mommy?" she asked, and I sent her upstairs to raid the plastic jug on our dresser. The cardboard bank is now sitting on our kitchen table. What's not on our table? One of these:

OGHS_Fish_Bank_2007

For you non-Presbyterians, that's one of the infamous "fish banks" handed out to children in church during Lent. These are turned in as part of the One Great Hour of Sharing, collected on Palm Sunday or Easter and benefiting disaster assistance, hunger relief, and self-development of people.

In terms of church attendance, our family is nomadic at the moment. That, plus some crazy Sunday morning weather recently that impacted church attendance, means we didn't receive a bank.

It feels strange not to have a bank, but not for the reason I might have thought. Yes, a fish bank is a connection to a particular Presbyterian community, and sustained action is important, and we can do more together than separately. This I believe. But it also feels strange because it's not strange at all. In fact, there are abundant opportunities to share my resources, all around me, all the time. And whenever I give, whether it's to the church or the American Cancer Society, I do so out of my Christian values. (Others share their resources out of their own values as well, which may not be Christian or even religious at all. So much the better.)

I'm glimpsing some of what Barbara Brown Taylor talks about in Altar in the World when she talks about people seeing God show up in places they never expected to. I always knew this. Now I'm experiencing it first-hand. To be clear: once we land in a local congregation, we will support that congregation financially. But this nomadic period is reminding me that even though I am a Christian, I don't need the church in order to give to organizations who do mission, charity and justice.

My running group takes up collections for food pantries and Toys for Tots. My email box is full of appeals from organizations I believe in and support when I can. My children's schools have clothing drives. Friends are running and walking various events and I am supporting them. I can give $10 simply by sending a text message, not unlike throwing some extra cash in the offering plate when the Spirit moves. Opportunities to give are folded into every facet of my life.

Some church folk might balk and say that this leads to a scattershot approach, that there's no substitute for sustained collective action. Yes. But a lot of crowd-funding and peer-to-peer fundraising is communal--it's friends asking friends to learn about a cause and join in with the contribution of funds. Maybe the church does the sustained part better than some. But even that can be present without the church.

I was at a workshop on financial stewardship in the church a few years ago. The speaker is one of the respected names in this field and is helping all kinds of people think more creatively about giving and yes, fundraising, in a way that gets beyond outdated ideas of duty and institutional maintenance. During a break, a colleague told him she was thinking about editing her church's pledge cards to include a place to (voluntarily) share of the giving people do beyond the church. The idea is, when we collect those cards in worship we should be lifting up prayers for all of our giving, not just the giving we offer to the congregation.

My ears perked up because this is something I've thought about too. (As another friend says, "The congregation ends up becoming a money-laundering organization for other charities. Let the people give directly to them!") To my surprise, the stewardship guru rejected the idea: "You want to encourage church giving. Bringing in these other organizations just muddies the waters."

Lots of us are thinking missionally these days. The church is not a location but a people--a sent people. Wherever we are, that's where the church is. If that's true--if we really believe that--should we not encourage a lifestyle of giving to all kinds of organizations, not just the church? And what is at stake if we don't? If we feel that giving to a local congregation is paramount, is that a sign that we're only intent on our own survival? Or are there larger theological issues at play?

Grants? Genius!

Today is the day the MacArthur Foundation announces its 2010 "genius grant" recipients. In honor of these folks, here's an "encore" article I wrote for our presbytery newsletter a few years back (edited only slightly): ------------

Originally published in the NCP Monthly in October 2007:

This week the MacArthur Foundation named 24 new MacArthur Fellows as recipients of their so-called “genius grants.” These fellowships were awarded to a medieval historian, an education strategist, an opera singer, a poet, a water quality engineer, a spider-silk biologist, and a blues musician, among others.

The award is $500,000 over the next five years and comes with no strings attached. According to the MacArthur website, fellows are chosen based on three criteria: “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.” The award is not a reward for past accomplishments, but an “investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential… for the benefit of human society.”

Why is the church not doing this?

Surely we have people of exceptional creativity in our churches… people who, with a bit of seed money and no strings attached, could be free to experiment, dream, and explore. Every year we hemorrhage more and more members. We've tried the conventional remedies. Is it not time for some unconventional ones? Who knows what kind of creative ideas for ministry could be hatched as a result of a Presbyterian Genius Grant?

Of course we have grant-making entities in our churches that fund deeply important work. Our own presbytery funds new church developments and other projects. The assumption, however, is that people are expected to produce something pre-determined and measurable—all the grant applications I’ve been a part of ask the program to provide clear goals, objectives, and a timeline.

What if we added to the mix a series of grants that were grounded not in a theology of predictable results, but in a theology of God’s abundant and unpredictable grace? Cindy Rigby of Austin Seminary spoke to us at the most recent presbytery meeting about the Christian imagination and its relationship to hope. A Presbyterian Genius Grant would be a powerful affirmation of the need to imagine ministry differently for the 21st century. One of our seminaries had a tagline years ago: “We are equipping pastors for a church we cannot yet envision.”

But how do we find the time and space to envision such a church? As one MacArthur recipient put it in the Chicago Tribune, “[The award] means the freedom to explore. It’s a long time since I’ve been allowed to be purely an explorer in my life. I’ve had to do other things in order to be an artist. I have a family, and I have to put food on the table. I have had to take lots of jobs just to eke out a living.” Can I get an Amen from those pastors who have creative gifts for ministry but who feel like the everyday tasks of preaching, pastoral care, and administration (while important) don’t provide much space for dreaming?

The closest thing we have to a genius grant is a sabbatical grant, but it’s not quite the same thing. Sabbaticals are short-term, and they center around rest and renewal, not necessarily striking out in new directions with intentional creative work. And they are only granted to pastors. A Presbyterian Genius Grant could go to laypeople in even greater numbers than pastors, and probably should… What if the poets, blues musicians, and yes, water quality engineers in our pews were empowered to imagine Christian ministry and mission through a program that prizes experimentation and risk?

What’s the biggest obstacle? Money, of course. Budgets are tight. More and more churches and governing bodies are hunkering down in protecting mode. Good stewardship is always important, but has hunkering down stemmed the tide of membership decline? Maybe it’s time for something bold.

I for one think it’s genius.

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That was 2007. Here's a question for 2010: to whom would you award a genius grant? I'll share some thoughts in the next day or so.