A few days ago Dr. R. Scott Clark wrote a thoughtful piece about the nature of the church and what it ought to be doing. He wrote about a congregation that funds itself by running a BBQ restaurant. You can read about it here: On the Distinction Between BBQ and the Kingdom of God
Clark rightly raises the question of whether or not this is appropriate and answers it with a resounding, 'No.' When the minister spends his entire Saturday running 'the business' (and probably a lot of additional time during the week) when does he study? Beyond that practical issue, one must ask, 'What should the church be doing in this period between Christ's first and second advents?' According to Matthew 28:18-20 the church is to make disciples. How is that to be done? The Belgic Confession, Article 29 summarizes it nicely, "The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults."
This article got me thinking about what is going on many churches of my own denomination, The Presbyterian Church in America. We have many churches that talk about 'transforming culture.' Our college and seminary are filled with professors who teach the same. So is it any wonder that we have churches doing all sorts of things that impinge on or crowd out Word and Sacrament ministry?
In the last few days our denominational magazine featured an article on PCA churches in Atlanta banding together to fight human trafficking: byFaith Magazine - In the Church - Bringing Hope to Exploited Children. Human trafficking is a deplorable practice and Christians are right to fight against it. But should it be a stated ministry of a given church and garnering attention among churches in the presbytery? A far better approach would be to have concerned people form their own 503.c non-profit corporation and then petition individual churches to be added to their missions budget.
Similarly, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the US Gulf Coast in August 2005, our denomination saw fit to plant a church admidst the destruction to minister to those who lost it all: Lagniappe Presbyterian Church. Their goal is admirable but a project like this is fraught with danger because of the mixing of purposes. In a nutshell this is their formula: Church planting + and ministering to the needy = a transformational church that plants other transformational churches which together will transform more lives and lead to transformation in that devastated region (You think I'm kidding? Go to the website and read).
This raises a lot of practical questions. How does Word and Sacrament ministry fit with putting on a roof? It seems that latter conflicts with the former. If the church planter is busy ministering those who lost everything when does he have time to study? If he and his team are busy organizing short-term mission projects for the denomination when do they ever get around to Word and Sacrament? Moreover, how do you plant a church amidst a population more transient than the suburbs (many people on the Gulf Coast moved away to start a new life elsewhere)? Furthermore, a work like this is dependent on massive insfusions of outside cash. I've seen the slick brochures, the DVDs, and the fund-raising letters -- easily, tens of thousands of dollars have been spent just to raise funds. And to date the church is neither self-sufficient nor self-governing.
I admire the desire to minister in this context -- when Katrina hit I was working in the chemical industry and we suffered a direct hit on several key facilities that crippled our business for the better part of a year. In hindsight I can safely say that we (the PCA) should've done things differently. Already I can hear the complaints, "There's been a lot of conversions and a lot of valid mercy ministry." Yes, I'm sure that there were conversions, and a lot of lives have been touched, but are these the only criteria to measure success?
Circling back, here is where Clark is very helpful:
The point here is not that congregations should not break out of their shell and engage the community. They should. Rather the question is this: with what should we be engaging the community? What do we have to offer? To paraphrase the old saying, “If we don’t sell BBQ, someone else will. If, however, we don’t preach Christ and administer his sacraments and discipline, who will do that?” As much as I enjoyed reading about Annie Mae Ward’s famous BBQ place and as charming as the story was it was also a little heartbreaking.
Applying that logic to hurricane relief, there are hundreds and thousands of people and organizations that exist to put a roof over someone's head. The church cannot compete in that environment. But what is the one thing the church posseses that will not be offered by those organizations? The Gospel. I think that the Kingdom would've been better served had the PCA leadership decided to relieve the suffering of its existing congregations on the Gulf Coast so that they, in turn, could minister to their neighbors. Had we put the funds into those works instead of Lagniappe we would've been much farther ahead.
Oh well, four years after Katrina the Gulf coast still awaits transformation as does Atlanta, St. Louis, Chattanooga (and many other places where we have a plethora of PCA churches). The same can be said about the western side of Michigan where our Dutch brethren continue their labors to transform their communities. So how come no one is lining up to transform Detroit?