Thursday, September 8, 2016

“Getting Paid to Go to Church” - August 28, 2016

Texts: Galatians 3:26-28, 1 Corinthians 12:4-14
(Worship Under The Trees service)

There was an interesting news item a few years ago out of Shreveport, Louisiana.  Bishop Fred Caldwell is pastor of the Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Baptist Church, a large African-American congregation with a membership of about 5000.  The church had about six active white members.

In Caldwell’s eyes, Shreveport is one of those Southern cities where the Civil Rights movement never quite took hold and the power structure was never forced to change.  “Shreveport is one of the last strongholds of the Confederacy,” he said.  “Racial prejudice here runs deep.”

He also said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.  He certainly isn’t the first to make that observation –Martin Luther King may have been the one to popularize that phrase - but it is true, and not only in Shreveport but in America generally.

All of this had weighed on Caldwell’s mind for a long time, and finally he had an idea – an idea, he says, that came from God.  To bring more diversity to his church, he offered to pay white people to attend services: five dollars for Sunday mornings, and $10 for Thursday night services.  (He reasoned that people were busier on weeknights and so he ought to pay a little extra for the Thursday services.)

Of course, there was reaction.  Some people were shocked.  Some members were afraid that it might bring in the wrong kind of people who were coming for the wrong reasons.  But then, Caldwell said, one could make the case that Jesus majored in the wrong kind of people.  Others said it was wrong to pay people to come to church when there were poor people who could use the money.  Caldwell responded that Judas said the same thing to Jesus, and he wondered if the people asking that were giving their money to the poor.  Some expected that longtime members would have a problem with paying newcomers to come to church -- but a number of members in fact offered to help pay people to come.

Well, it is an interesting concept, the kind of thing that most of us instantly have an opinion about.  But I think the bigger issue is what this pastor was hoping to accomplish.  He certainly raised the issue of segregation.  More white people – not a lot, but more – have attended his church since, and most didn’t want the $5.  His offer made it clear that they really were welcome.  And his offer made the news, raising the issue for a lot of folks - not to mention giving his church a lot of free publicity, more than you could buy with a few $5 bills.

It is no secret, and it is not surprising, that people like to go to church with folks who are like them.  And so churches tend to be made up largely of one socioeconomic group, or ethnic group, or racial group, or tilt toward a certain age.  Many churches will target a particular niche—maybe the 20-30 age group, or seekers, or the classical music crowd.  There are cowboy churches in Texas.  There are new churches in places like Arizona and Florida, in areas with lots of retirees, intentionally formed as churches for senior adults. 

The appeal of a particular church to particular grouping of people isn’t all bad.  And it can’t be avoided; it’s just the way the world works.  It’s hard to be all things to all people.  It’s hard to do both country music and Bach at the same time.  There is a certain sense in which members of any group, whether it be a church or Rotary or Little League or the crowd at the Monster Truck Rally, will be at least somewhat alike.

Several years ago, church growth experts were talking about what they called the “homogeneous unit principle.”  Congregations that grew, they said, were made up of a fairly homogeneous group, and attracted those same kinds of people.  They went a step further by proposing this as a strategy—kind of the opposite of Bishop Caldwell’s strategy. Churches should aim for folks who were just like they were. 
They proposed it because, they said, it worked. 

The question is, in the church, should it be that way?  If we only want people just like us, can it really be called the church of Jesus Christ?

To me, there are a lot of reasons why it is good for a church to have a broad mix of people.  There are practical reasons.  We live in a diverse community, and so it only makes sense that we reflect our community.  If we are serious about ministering where we are, we need to be diverse.

And then, there is a power and excitement that comes with a widely varied group.  There is something energizing about a church with all kinds of people, where everyone is not just like me.  There is something energizing about new ideas, fresh perspectives, and having a little variety in our life together as a church family.

There are practical reasons for wanting diversity.  But to me, the practical arguments are far outweighed by the theological argument for diversity.  If we are claiming to follow Jesus, we might want to look at Jesus’ first followers.

The 12 disciples were a motley bunch.  There were hard-working fishermen.  There was also Matthew, a tax collector – hated by most of the population as a Roman lackey – and Simon the Zealot, a member of a political party dedicated to the violent overthrow of Rome.  Folks from opposite ends of the political spectrum were in Jesus’ inner circle – it is like he had Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz both on his team, and it is hard to see them hitting it off all that well.  There were also women who were prominent among Jesus’ followers, which was absolutely scandalous in that day.  In fact, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ primary financial supporters were a small group of women.

Jesus did not shy away from relating to Samaritans, who were hated by the Jews.  He hung out with people who were not exactly the upstanding citizens of the day, and because of that accused of being a “glutton and a winebibber.”  (Which might raise the question, “When was the last time you heard someone called a “winebibber”?)  To be just real honest, Jesus didn’t seem to care a bit about anything like a “homogeneous unit principle.”

When we look at the early church, the diversity among believers broadened to include both Jews and Gentiles.  Paul worked with churches made up of all kinds of folks – rich, poor, of different races and different religious backgrounds and different nationalities and different occupations.  It got messy – at times it was extremely messy - but in the middle of all the messiness, there was Christ, and there was hope, and there was a witness to the world of love and care and peace.
As Paul puts it, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”   The culture took note of the church because of the love members had for one another, and because the church cared for the poor and needy around them, whomever they were.

Welcomefest was Wednesday night at ISU, and we gave away around 400 plastic cups with info about our church as well as some pens and some Hershey’s kisses to students.  It is always fun and very interesting to see all the students at Welcomefest.  One guy came up and I handed him a cup and we talked a bit and then he asked me, “Is this a white church?”

I was a little bit taken aback.  The two of us working at our table happened to be white, so obviously we had white members, but he was asking if this was a white church.  I had never thought of that as our identity.  The student who asked was a black guy, and I’m not sure, but I supposed that what he was really asking was whether he would be welcome and feel comfortable here.

I said that we weren’t all white and we had some racial diversity and we would like to have more, but yeah, the majority of members were white.  He didn’t stick around to talk, and I have to say that I really didn’t feel good about my answer.

If I were asked that question again, I would say, no, we are not a white church.  We are not a white church or a black church or an Asian church.  We are a people church.  And it doesn’t really belong to us, anyway.  It’s God’s church, not ours, and all God’s children are welcome here. 

When we gather as a group of diverse individuals and together become a family, when together we become the church, we are reflecting what God’s kingdom is like. 

In the Church, we need all kinds of people.  Our reading from 1 Corinthians uses the analogy of the body: we need each part working well in order to function and be healthy.  Ninety-nine percent of your body can be working just fine, but if your back goes out, or your kidneys stop cooperating, or you’ve got a toothache, or an eye decides to take the day off, you can be in real trouble.  We need all of the parts working together.

I’m thankful for all of the gifts in the Body of Christ.  I’m thankful for all the gifts that are offered by members of this community.

I’m thankful for musicians who lead us in worship with their instruments and voices. 

I’m thankful for Sunday School teachers who care for children and who lead adults and who help us as we study the scriptures and apply our faith in our daily lives.

I’m thankful for people who quietly work behind the scenes, baking cookies and visiting people who are sick and working in the nursery and giving people rides and bringing flowers for the sanctuary and maintaining the library and painting stripes in the parking lot.

I’m thankful for those with artistic gifts and those with organizational skills and those who are mechanically inclined and those who can operate a miter saw or paintbrush or pipe wrench.

I’m thankful for all of the great cooks.  In a few minutes, I’ll be even more thankful!

I’m thankful for those who with their faithful presence lift the spirit of others.  I’m thankful for the laughers and the smilers and the gigglers and the huggers.  I’m thankful for those who persevere even when life is difficult.  And I’m thankful for those who help others to persevere.

I’m thankful for those who are people of deep prayer.  I’m thankful for long-time members, for those who offer experience and wisdom.  I’m thankful for newcomers who bring new ideas and fresh energy.  I’m thankful for students who bring excitement and ask questions, and jump right in sharing their gifts.  And I’m thankful for children who teach us so much about trust and joy.  I’m thankful for those who come from faraway places and from other countries, bringing their unique gifts and perspectives.

I’m thankful for all of the gifts I am too obtuse even to recognize but which nevertheless bless me.

We need all of these gifts.  We need each person, with all of our differences.  Maybe we need each other because of our differences.

God, for some reason, chooses to work through us.  We are the Body of Christ.  And we need the gifts of every person.

Bishop Caldwell paid people $5 to go to church.  It may not be in cash, but we also get a payoff – we all must get something out of coming to church - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.  What is the payoff for us?

Today that question may be easier to answer.  There is going to be a good meal.  We are outside, it’s fun, it’s different.  You don’t have to get dressed up. 

But week in, week out – what is the payoff?  For me, the payoff is this.  We come from different places; we have different hopes and dreams, different gifts, different experiences.  Even our ideas about faith and our theological understandings may be different.  And all of this – all of this - is good.  All of this is wonderful.

Because while we are all different, we come together to become a family—a family where we are welcomed and we are accepted.  We become part of a community where we can be stretched and challenged and grow, and where we are nurtured and loved and cared for, and where under God’s grace we are discovering together what it is to follow Jesus - and in the process, what it is truly be ourselves. 

That is the payoff.  And friends, that is worth far more than $5.  Amen.

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