Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Give Me My Mission Back

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!”

Monday, April 04, 2011

200,000: Celebrating a Milestone

One Saturday morning in the summer of 2005, I began this blog thinking that I had something to important to say. All I knew was that I would name it after an early-eighties pop music album from an influential synth band, just because it sounded profound yet cool. It took a while to find my voice, writing about a variety of topics, before finding a niche exploring the intersection between politics, economics and architecture. I soon recruited fellow writer Relievedebtor on this little endeavor, who provided his valuable philosophical and theological insights and in the process invited readers to learn more about all things related to the built environment. In time the content grew and started to inadvertently fulfill the implied meanings of the blog's name.

Today (April 4th, 2011) Architecture + Morality will have welcomed its 200,000th visitor. While other more popular architecture an religion blogs have attracted far more, it's no small accomplishment either.  This blog started during what I call blogging's "heyday", when everyone believed they were the next great online journalist by writing a popular blog.  With a variety of free online software (e.g. Blogger, Wordpress, etc.) they could bypass the established online magazines and potentially draw far more readers than even the old established newspapers. Soon enough, it became obvious to most people that this was hard work and pretty time consuming, and many naturally gave up not long after their blog's debut. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter would later offer many of the same benefits of blogging, but without the need to consistently deliver quality content on a timely basis. Since neither Relievedebtor nor I know how to make clever pithy statements nor do we like talking about ourselves, the traditional blog format still remains our preferred outlet in sharing what we're thinking about when we don't find ourselves consumed by the non-stop demands of daily life. We are proud that this blog continues to be updated, albeit less frequently, and that many people come to read old posts and find them still relevant. We are also humbled that our blog has become a kind of resource for students, newspapers, magazines, and online encyclopedias.

To mark this milestone, I've updated the look of the site, changing the graphics while adopting an updated blogger template. The most important change to take note of is the Twitter feed on the top right portion of the window. I am constantly browsing articles that interest me and that I feel are worth sharing to our readers. While waiting for the next big post on the blog, I recommend following @archmorality on Twitter in the meantime and checking regularly. Twitter allows me to catalogue articles and websites that I might later use to help me write for the blog, and it's really the best way to track what I'm thinking at the moment. We also encourage you to share our articles to your friends by clicking on the buttons below each post.

As you may have noticed, Relievedebtor and I have found it more difficult to find the time to write pieces for this blog, even though it's still one of the more enjoyable things we do. We are consumed by our growing households, our professions and our ommunities. We will continue to post when we have the chance, so long as the topics and ideas we come up with are worth the time and patience of our wonderful readers.  Many times we express views that run counter to the orthodoxies of our profession (architecture and religious pastorship). Even so, we appreciate the countless number of readers who disagree with much of what we believe but still read our articles.

It's been an interesting little side project, and we look forward to sharing more with our readers in the years to come.  Six years ago I would have never envisioned the breadth and attention Architecture + Morality now enjoys, especially considering how little we have promoted it and how infrequently we contribute to it.  We are grateful for your comments, and we look forward to fostering a meaningful dialogue with our readers on topics regarding architecture, morality and everything in between.