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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Whoring for the Church

From perusing the headlines, I see that President Bush is once again pushing his faith-based initiatives. While I agree with him that churches should be involved in providing aid to the communities, I believe his effort to fund church programs directly from the government is, at best, misguided. Don’t get me wrong, I know that most churches are badly under-funded and there is a vital need to have more aid for those who are struggling. However, this could be a cure that kills everyone.
A church is a body of believers called into the service of their God – and their community. Churches are to minister to the sick, the homeless, the elderly, and the unloved. They are to reach loving arms into the aching community around them and offer them hope and faith. The only way to ensure that they are facing the needs of the community is for them to truly be part of the community.
Imagine a church that sits across the street from a park full of homeless people. They apply to the government for funds to shelter the homeless. Once approved, they must abide by the word of the grant or be held legally liable to pay back every penny – or even more. What happens if, after they receive the money, they find out that the people in the park aren’t really homeless. They have homes, but they prefer to spend their time in the park shooting heroin.
The church is now caught providing a service that the community doesn’t need. Worse, it has identified a need within the community that it has no resources to meet. When it applies for money from new sources, they are told that they have not shown a history of success in their existing work with the homeless. The church grows empty because no one wants to go to church across the street from a park full of junkies and the park grows empty as junkies overdose and die because the church didn’t have enough faith to turn to the community to support its mission.
I’ve been talking with my brother in Kansas City about how a couple of small struggling churches can best survive. My counsel is that they should throw themselves fully into the needs of the community. Rather than saying, “Okay, God, I’m now ready to open a daycare center for working moms,” we should say, “Okay, God, I’m ready to do whatever this neighborhood needs me to do. Build a home, take an elder to the doctor, open a clinic for teens to receive sexual education, start a neighborhood patrol to make it safe to walk the streets at night – whatever you want. I’m yours.”
The first step in doing this is a humble and compliant heart. The second is to reach out to the community – knock on some doors, invite people to share a holiday dinner, ask them what their neighbors need most. The third is to organize and focus efforts on doing one thing really, really well.
The danger of becoming dependent on government money is real. A church operates a program as a mission to provide a means of the congregation fulfilling its calling. They do this by contributing their gifts – sometimes talent and time, sometimes money. One of the signs that we are with God is that what we need will be provided (though sometimes only after we struggle). Taking money from the government alleviates the congregation of the need to support the mission of the church. It separates the church from the people within it.
The fact is that mixing politics and religion is almost always a bad idea. Once a local church begins a drug treatment center, and becomes dependent on the money from the government, it leaves itself open to being controlled by the government. A church may want to utilize a faith-based path towards sobriety, but the government may force them to use some other teaching. It may force them to use methods or teachings that are contrary to the basic teachings of the church.
It also makes the church a de facto means of mobilizing political support. If fifty percent of a churches funds come from the government, how likely is the church to stand and make noise when the government is wrong? How likely are they to ask parishioners to line up on voting day to support only those politicians that support their particular mission?
A church is supposed to serve the specific needs of the neediest in the community. The government is supposed to serve the aggregate needs of the entire community. Their goals are not the same. The church serves the soul through nurturing the body and the government serves the body with no concern for the soul. Attempting to alter this is fundamentally altering the Constitutional arrangement that guarantees us the right to worship as our soul dictates.
If George Bush wants to help churches help people, then he should fight for an expanded tax credit for those who contribute to their local churches. If he is seeking only to support his own power, then he is trying to turn the church into a whore. In that case, Mr. Bush, we don’t need your money.

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