Whenever we think of “church,” the semantics of the word get caught in our brain and trigger a reaction. It’s really rather predictable: church pairs with faith, worship, religion, spirituality, and the like. And while the connotations of these words are not always good, they are more or less universal.
But whoever says church and thinks of business?
Given the current situation in my home congregation, I am obliged to seriously consider both understandings of “church.” Because, while we might like to think of church as unadulterated by the monetary drives of the rest of our society, money keeps things afloat. A church must always be a combination of community and corporation. [Note: When I use the word “corporation,” I use it in the American business sense of the word.]
The question is not extracting oneself enough from human society to exist in a vacuum outside material needs; being a human institution, every church will have human needs. Rather, the question should be: what balance do we find and maintain between church as community and church as corporation?
I think the answer to that question is found first in asking ourselves why “church” exists to begin with. If we are truthful, then we recognize it functions primarily to bring people of faith together for worship. Therefore, the church is first and foremost a community of faith. This is necessarily devoid of any material significance or implication, as that is the very essence of transcendent belief—a cutting free from the bonds of human society, of which one part is material necessity.
But we are also obliged to recognize our humanness—not as fault or weakness, but as fact, and in many ways, potential. If we are again truthful with ourselves, we see church as a community of faith which naturally expresses faith through good works. But on some level, good works require monetary support. And so, provided we remain a community that worships as its primary focus, we may begin to solicit funds solely to support the good works that extend forth from faith. As part and parcel of both the good works and worship, we may also solicit funds to maintain that place of worship and pay a minister or leader who can guide the community in its worship and works.
An argument continues to rise up in my congregation: Are we a community or a corporation? But the question is not so simple. We cannot be either/or, simply because of who and what we are. We must examine very closely what we are called to be and, in so doing, acknowledge that worship and faith as the foundation for community must be paramount, second are works, and third are ancillary activities which benefit other parts of the church body or the community at large.
I mean to say, most basically, that we should not turn a blind eye to material needs and assume that God will provide what is needed out of thin air. If the theology of the church community is such that works proceed naturally from the faith, and that, as part of the faith journey for oneself and others, they are indispensable, then gifts of the members of the church body should be used to legally, morally, and honestly secure funding to support good works. But if securing those funds becomes problematic, the solution need not be the dissolution of the church entire, but a return to what the primary function of the community must always be: worship. Faith does not extend from good works, therefore, faith in worship must be our primary attention. That is, first allot monies to maintain the salary of the minister and maintenance of the building. Then, if there is more funding, proceed to good works that require monetary support. But we must never think that good works proceed only at the whim of the almighty dollar. Good works come in many forms, and though formal efforts of social justice may not, in “corporate” form, be possible, personal acts of social justice should always proceed without hindrance or hesitation.
On the other end of the spectrum, a church must never become so driven by money that money dictates the existence or non-existence of worship, or, for that matter, shapes a theology which prefers profit over community. This seems like a given, but the obsession with money and materialism in our society makes this tendency far more prevalent than we would like to admit.
For these reasons, it is important for a community of faith to discuss money not as its own end-all, be-all—or as the dictator of what will continue and what will fall away. If money is ever part of the equation, then the first conversation must be: Why are we here? What keeps us together? From there, proceed to the luxuries that money affords. A community of faith should never forget the words of Jesus Christ: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” Worship need be no more than this.