Church leaders should, at least, question who benefits and who does not benefit from current church structures and bureaucracies (i.e., church life and function). The building-centered and business-centric models that most contemporary church-systems emulate can result in duplicitous habits, which can be suggestive of a protective posture for its leaders and for the cultural status quo. Our ways of doing church are not neutral.
The temple system into which the gospel is introduced in the New Testament, as well as its leadership, were antithetical to the arrival of the kingdom that had been inaugurated by Jesus’ arrival. Perhaps it is not the construction of temples or the development of religious bureaucracies per se, but the energy and resources used to maintain these systems that promote the status of their own authorities and stakeholders, which can distract (to put it blandly) from a church’s responsibility toward the poor. Rather than laboring to maintain current church systems and structures, contemporary church leaders need to promote the church’s responsibilities to the poor. Otherwise, they may replicate the social and cultural location described throughout the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
The cost of doing church business and maintaining church bureaucracies are not neutral to the church’s role as advocates for the poor. This includes the allocation of human, financial, and social capital available in and through a church or a consortium of churches for use in the public square. Such allocations of financial and human capital could be used for advocating and caring for the economically vulnerable and the poor. The resources and capacity of the local church need to be evaluated, not by our contemporary cultural expressions of church life, but in terms of the kingdom of God, which certainly includes addressing the causes of poverty and advocating for the poor.
Andrew Davey, in his book Urban Christianity and Global Order, insists that a church concerned about “its own sustainability must have strategies other than the growth paradigm” (p. 112). Contemporary church growth models are multimillion-dollar business ventures with huge marketing campaigns and an elite celebrity leadership of its own that promote costly expectations for a local church. There should be consideration whether such growth expectations divert resources and human capital away from a church’s responsibilities regarding the poor. While a church’s sustainability should be directed outward and toward the future, it should also have positive, redemptive consequences for the community, with special consideration for its vulnerable populations.
Adapted from chapter 1 of Wasted Evangelism, "Widows in Our Courts (Mark 12:38–44): The Public Advocacy Role of Local Congregations as Discipleship."
Too often involvement in the public square for the church is limited to issues that threaten its existence, comfort, and the status quo. The faith community is publically relevant, not when it acts as a critic of societal patterns, but when it engages in advancing positive and adequate alternatives to public issues. The question is, to borrow from Richard John Neuhaus, “no longer about relevance but about relevance to what and toward what end.” A church’s public voice must promote the interests of more than its own membership for it to actually be a public voice.
Adapted from "Widows in Our Courts," chapter One of Wasted Evangelism, an exegesis of the Widow story in Mark 12.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.