The Church Eternal?: Old First E-pistle 07.04.14

The Church Eternal?: Old First E-pistle 07.04.14

It was one of those calls. Annoying calls to the church office come in a variety of different categories, examples of which are:

The sales calls:
“We’re calling today about your energy supplier.”
“I need to talk to the pastor about our new youth group curriculum that is sure to attract, hold and grow your teens and ministry.”
“We need to set up an appointment; it’s time to have your fire extinguishers serviced.” (You can bet it’s not the company with our service contract, and the caller has absolutely no idea when our extinguishers were last checked.)

The genealogists:
“I’m doing family research. I’m looking for a relative who might have come into Philadelphia from somewhere in Germany in the late 18th century. We think he was named Schmidt (with our without a “d”), and that he joined a German congregation. He could have either been baptized or married or buried by your church. Can you check your records?” (They are often flumoxed that we don’t keep our record by the phone, and we can’t give them an answer right away!)

The charitable cases, usually as much strangers to us as they are sincere and hopeful:
“Hi, does your church have a fund for people in need? I have a bill for $114. that I can’t pay.”

The potential worshipers:
They call out of the blue and want to know all – or sometimes just very specific, arcane details– about the church because “I’m going to come to worship this Sunday.” And then never, ever show up.

This time the call was of the “I am interested in your space for my wedding” category.

Most often Mindy fields these, explaining what having your wedding at Old First involves. And, inevitably, the inquirer – usually a bride or a wedding planner — interrupts to explain. “I don’t need all that. I’m not interested in a Christian ceremony. I don’t need a musician. Or the pastor. Or the other staff people you are talking about. How much is it just to rent the sanctuary?”

Don’t get me wrong. With wedding couples, I am a very pliant. I tell them that though worship services are about God, wedding ceremonies also need to reflect who they are and what they believe… sound like them and their lives as they exchange vows to initiate their marriage. We’ll go a second mile to develop a service that is real and relevant for the couple.

But we don’t just rent out the sanctuary. And we have an interest… no, a responsibility for what goes on in that space. It’s not just ours. Rather, God has entrusted it to us for sacred purposes… to do ministry.

People often seem to struggle with this. That a church could be more than an empty events space for them to rent. Or that we believe certain things should and should not happen there.

I believe their attitude comes in part from how often sanctuaries lie fallow. And perhaps from a general knowledge of what a narrow financial margin most religious congregations live by, particularly these days.

But, I admit to my annoyance: people’s somewhat shaming suggestion that the church “ought” to always be there for anybody for any old purpose they suddenly believe they need it for.

Ok, I like that people expect welcome and benevolence. Seeing us like the Father in parable– whose prodigal love leaves him always ready to welcome back his wayward son.

But folks come off disrespectfully naive about how much it costs the church to “just be there for them.” And selfishly-insistent that we should welcome any response they dream up to their need as the unquestionably redemptive ministry we’ve been waiting on. Or, if we can help them out, that we should not expect them to contribute to our expenses. I had one person ask, “Well, if you expect me to pay something, is it still ministry? And are you really being the church?”

Sometimes even within the Christian community, there is this disconnect between “the church needs to be there for people” and “it takes real support and a lot of work to keep it going, so we are going to ask you to help us out.”

Just this week, a pastor called me looking for overnight space for his group coming to Philly. They needed sleeping space, bathing facilities, use of the kitchen. I explained, “We have those capacities and welcome groups throughout the year. Let me check with the person in charge of that ministry to see if that time is available, and then we can talk about costs.” “You are going to charge us?” Click.

Even within our own congregation — where we are the primary financial supporters and volunteers who keep it all going — we sometimes get caught up in such contradictions between expectations and reality.

We want the church to be there for us. And for generations to come. We know the difference it makes in our lives. And in our world.

But we’re not always so clear about the costs. Perhaps because we see the church as an eternal institution, we sometimes forget that cold hard cash and hours of work, volunteer and staff time, are needed to keep it going.

This could become a stewardship message. And it’s always good to know how much Old First’s operation costs and then consider it prayerfully — that is in consultation with God — in light of how much you contribute. Only a few of us couldn’t become better stewards!

But overall, Old Firsters are strong and generous givers. And, thank God, our financial support is steadily growing, following behind the size of our community.

And when we have more, we can do more, make more of a difference in people’s lives and in our world. Amen.

But, I want to close in a different direction. Considering the plight of the contemporary church, the drop-off of participation of North Americans in church life — which I’d explain as finding ourselves in the church somehow out of step with the people we would like to serve… In light of our desire as church folks that the church continues to be “there” for people, do we realize often enough or radically enough what needs to be done in order to guarantee a church for future generations?

Are we willing to pay the costs in our own comfort (with the way things are and how we like them to be!) in order to insure that there will be a church many years from now?

See you in church,

Michael