Giving Up Church for Lent

In America, a church is (usually) both a body and a corporation, and this brings with it certain tensions. The body and the corporation need many of the same resources, but use those resources in very different ways.

I was once a Pastor of Discipleship and Ministry Logistics (yes, all of those words were literally in my job title). This meant — on paper — that I was responsible to serve the body by helping people grow more like Jesus, and also responsible to serve the corporation by making sure bulletins got made on time, we didn’t run out of copy paper, and so on. It put me in a nearly perfect position to observe the tug-of-war between the body and the corporation.

In the two years I held that position, I got plenty of feedback and support around my duties to the corporation. If I needed a piece of information by Thursday to get it into the bulletin, someone would work hard to get it to me by Thursday. (And if the bulletin was late, boy, I’d hear about it.) There was an appropriate level of concern over whether I got the copier paper order in on time. I would get support (and accountability) in executing big events that advertised us to the community, and so on.

In that same span of time, nobody — not my boss, not a single deacon or elder, literally nobody — ever checked to see if I was discipling anyone, how it was going, if I needed support. Not once. The part of my job description that had to do with the needs of the body was simply not a priority. Obviously, this is a particularly egregious example. I wish I could say that it was unusual, but as I look at the American church, I don’t think it is.

I suspect that part of the reason we slip into this pitfall is that the life of the body is hard to quantify in ways you can talk about at board meetings, while the work of the corporation lends itself to metrics. Given the choice between chasing down local business sponsors for the community super bowl party and engaging in a messy conversation with a young mom who’s struggling with her calling as a Christ-follower, which use of your time will give you something concrete to report at the end of the day? Which one gives the organization a bigger boost?

And so we give the young mom the brush-off; after all, she’ll still be around tomorrow, and the super bowl party is coming up fast. We make 37 calls to get 3 corporate sponsors, and report our progress. Oh yeah, and we ordered copier paper too — we’re running a little low.

The young mom doesn’t make it to the super bowl party; hit hard by postpartum depression and with no support, she barely leaves the house to get groceries. Her husband does the best he can, but he’s working long hours and he doesn’t know who to ask for help. Lost sheep don’t report themselves missing, so it’s weeks before anyone even realizes that we haven’t seen them around for a while….

In many times and places, there is no corporation. When we are persecuted, they burn the church buildings, confiscate the bank accounts, and dissolve the corporations, but the church continues. We pray, baptize, preach, encourage one another, love one another, care for widows and orphans, the sick and the poor. This is the body; this is what the church actually is.

Despite how this post may sound, I am not anti-corporation. The corporation is a machine designed to extend the body’s reach and help it operate more efficiently, and at its best, it succeeds admirably. For too many, though, the corporation assumes a status at least equal to the body — and no man can serve two masters.

When the corporation has become the master, then the needs of the body take a back seat to the necessary maintenance and appurtenances of the corporation. To sustain those things requires a lot of time and attention from a slick corps of religious professionals, along with a big budget and a ton of well-organized volunteer hours. With all that going on, we are greatly tempted to cluelessness, to a feckless assumption that of course the needs of the body are being cared for — that’s what all this is (supposedly) for, after all.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
-“The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden

The reality is rather uglier. Relationships don’t build themselves. Sheep don’t shepherd themselves, or freeze in time when neglected. Lost sheep don’t report themselves lost. The work of the body is time-consuming, labor-intensive, messy. It can’t really be mass-produced. Jesus made disciples in small batches, and that’s just the best way to do it.

If we let Jesus show us the way, He will tell us what to do:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

We serve Christ; Christ commanded us to care for and build up the Body. The corporation must be our slave — a theologically obvious fact which we are constantly tempted to forget. Why is it so hard to remember this? Because we have created a system where we are constantly catechized to treat the slave as our master. If you say “I work for Boeing,” you are naming your master. If you say, “I work for First Baptist Church,” what are you doing? We have put the slave’s name everywhere that (in our culture) we put the master’s name: the branding, the building, the paychecks.

Christ cares first for the Body. We can’t serve both Christ and the corporation. Because we cannot elevate both, we can only allow the corporation to exist in our lives if we are willing to make a serious spiritual discipline out of despising it. If we are not consciously and constantly re-catechizing ourselves to despise the corporation, we will find ourselves making it our master.

And so — and this is a first for me — I’m going to propose giving up something for Lent.  Give up some bit of service to the corporation — church bulletins, say — and devote that effort and time to serving the Body.

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