I was re-reading a rather infamous Biblical text:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”
(Matthew 6:19-21 NRS).
Jesus speaks those words as part of his sermon on the mount, which also contains the Beatitudes. By in large, the United Methodist Church does not store up treasures on earth. The most valuable things we own as a Church are the plots of land upon which our church buildings sit. In most cases, the land is worth more than the building. We do not have a treasury of gold and precious gems. We do not have original artworks by Renaissance artists that are practically priceless, insured for millions of dollars. But after a conversation with another clergy person yesterday afternoon, I was drawn to reflect on what our local church budgets say about where we have invested our hearts.
Most of the Methodist churches I know struggle financially. It is a huge financial burden to keep a church running, and many of us find the largest budgetary sectors to be that of the Building/Grounds, and Staffing/Salaries. So many United Methodist churches are in buildings decades if not over a century old. They have stood the test of time, but not without incurring great cost in maintenance and renovation to remain viable. They often become impediments to ministry being designed and built at a time long before the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA), the advent of the digital age, and with energy efficiency a goal. We sink money into them often because we feel we have no other choice. To rebuild, to go somewhere else and start all over seem to be insurmountable trials. So we pay high utility bills, clean long winding hallways, and struggle to re-wire for the internet and modern electricity requirements.
The same can be said of our church staff. Church staff is not a bad thing, and can be a great asset for ministry. It is a hard and heart-wrenching thing for a church to struggle with maintaining salaries for staff who are not only doing work for the church, but loved as persons in their own right. Yet churches must take the initiative to ask if they are employing persons to advance the mission and ministries of the Church, or simply paying people to do it for them. If there are ministries that are done solely by paid staff in a church, then that is an indication that there is a problem with how that church orients itself to service. Staff members should support the efforts of the congregation to work for the Kingdom of God, not do them apart from the members of the church. Church members should step up to work side by side, and shoulder to shoulder with staff who may lead and coordinate, but not work as lone rangers. Clergy may have exceptions to this rule for church staff, but with every clergy ministry, there are places and means by which laity can be supportive and work with clergy to accomplish the task of loving others in Jesus’ name.
So where should we store up our treasure and invest our hearts in the Church? My personal answer tinged with professional experience is that it should be maxed out in two areas: mission and worship. We are called to mission work explicitly by Christ in the Gospel of Matthew:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me'” (Matthew 25:31-40 NRS).
We open up ourselves to relationship, the greatest avenue for evangelism, when we engage in mission work, loving and caring for another person in Jesus’ name. We meet the real needs of people who suffer and go without, often the side effects of institutionalized sin. We reveal the same grace and compassion we have been shown by God Almighty, and testify to the possibility of redemption for all people everywhere. We should be funding mission as our greatest ministry. We should use our financial resources to shower the communities in which our local churches sit with love and caring for those around us. Our desire to be part of the service of love should be evidenced in our church calendar and our budgets. Worship flows from the same point. We worship to give honor and glory to God. We sing and speak the praise of the One who saved us from ourselves, our sin, and eternal death with love, the same love that led us out into the world in mission over the course of the past week. Our worship budget shows how much a priority we place on what happens in worship. I am not talking about throwing money into light shows and leather back padded chairs with cup holders, but be willing to spend the money to have great music being composed by every generation to extol our Lord. Are we willing to pay for liturgical supplies that enhance our God encounters in worship? Do we invest in the latest technology so that the hard of hearing can hear the prayers and sermons? Do we offer new and innovative ways for people to physically participate in worship? The Emergent elements of the worship service I lead on Sunday mornings are not cheap, but a vital part of connecting people with God and one another in new and impactful ways. Those are things worth investing in and setting upon our hearts.
When was the last time you looked at where your church spends money? When was the last time you worked to help make those crucial decisions in your church? We are all accountable to God for our own individual actions, but all those who pledge their support of and participation in the local church are accountable for what they do and do not do as well. We are all in this Body of Christ, this Church Universal together. Where we choose to store up the treasures of the local church can change lives, bring people to better know Christ, and transform our communities, or it can be another sign that we are sinful people in need of prophetic insight. Let us strive for the former.