Several weeks ago, I enjoyed a long visit with a friend of mine from Germany. He is, like me, a pastor, so we naturally had all sorts of conversations – er, debates – about our different church systems, which one was better, etc. In Germany, church members pay an 8% tax to the government, which then issues money back to pastors and congregations. This is obviously different from the American system where members support their individual congregation through offerings. Our system carries a lot of uncertainty, and it can be exploited by a less than honorable pastor. Hence, the prosperity gospel movement, sleazy televangelists, etc. But it does connect, in very tangible way, the mission of the Church/congregation with the stewardship of the individual.
The German system, meanwhile, is probably an efficient system, but I would argue it facilitates a separation of the member from an intimate involvement in the life of the congregation. My argument is supported by low attendance by church members in Germany, possibly as low as 1% in some areas and perhaps as high as 10% in other areas. American church attendance is somewhere between 30-40%.
But as the consequences of the church tax system began to dawn on me, and as the size and scope of their government became more apparent, I began to wonder if it was only the tax system that has an impact on low attendance. At one point, I asked this: “What can the Church do for the poor, the needy, and the homeless, that the State doesn’t already do?” His answer was pretty clear: “Nothing.”
So while I spent a lot of time arguing against their church tax system, assuming that was the reason for low attendance, I came to think that the problem was probably much larger: there was not much for the Church to do! There is a disconnect between the words of scripture compelling us to care for our neighbor and the need of the Church to do so. After all, much of what the Church would surely do is already being done by the State.
Indeed, much of the ministry of the historic Church had been co-opted by the so-called “welfare state” all over Europe, and the Church has been a willing participant in this. That should not surprise us, as taking care of the poor and needy is hard work, and the Church would often prefer to focus on the niceties of preaching, worship, and fellowship. The attitude can quickly become, “We’ll do all the pretty stuff, and we’ll let the State take care of the safety net.”
Now, I am not arguing against our transcendent tasks (what we call Word and Sacrament) for mere social improvement. The Church still has vital tasks only it can fulfill, found in Word and Sacrament ministry. It should go without saying that the value of Word and Sacrament ministry is priceless. But if opportunities to show love for neighbor cannot become an outgrowth of Word and Sacrament ministry, congregations will almost certainly become places where faith becomes a mere concept and where theology in the mind replaces fire in the belly.
Without trying to sound cynical, it seems obvious to me that the welfare state is at least an unaware competitor to the Church. The further the welfare state gets along the socialist state road, the less "unaware" the state becomes. That is to say, the State is, in many places, doing “ministry” that not only should be done by the Church, but would actually empower the Church. This kind of ministry would connect the words heard in the “mouth house” of the nave to the deeds we are called to perform. The Church should actually be hungry for doing this kind of work.
More to the point, it should demand it! Because love for neighbor as the motivation for serving the poor, the homeless, and the lost is the best motivation of all. And this motivation is finally and truly found only in the Church of Jesus Christ.
Am I suggesting that we should not have a social net? Of course not. There are things only the State can do, and should do. Government is ordained by God, just as the Church is. But if the answer to my question above really is “Nothing,” then the State is simply doing too much, and the Church is being deprived of a portion of its mission. In America the State certainly has a role as does the Church. But if our society begins to march towards the German model, I hope Christians will join me in saying to the State, “Give me my mission back!”