Do you accept the challenge?

Last spring our community was swept by the cold water challenge. The idea was to fire up your video camera to record you as you jumped into a body of cold water, committed to give money to a local charity, and challenged four of your friends to do the same. If you were challenged, but didn’t have the heart to jump into the cold water, you were asked to give a larger sum of money to the challenger’s charity. And, there was a time-line of completing the challenge within 24 hours to provide the needed incentive. It was a great way to raise funds for charity, have fun and build community, right?

Well, maybe. I was challenged at least four times. The first time made me smile and give thought to what charity I would support and who I would challenge. Then the next three challenges came in and all of a sudden it wasn’t so fun anymore. It was a novel idea, but the novelty wore off quickly. And, I’m going to be honest, I didn’t end up giving anything extra to any of the charities. I continued to fulfill my giving commitments that I made at the beginning of the year, and I have even given above and beyond that a few times. But, not because of the challenge.

Recently I read an article that suggested that I am not alone. But, what is more, is even those who have participated in challenges like this may not have done as much good as we have thought. A remarkably similar challenge has been going on to raise funds to support a cure for ALS. The “ice bucket challenge” has raised over 3 million additional dollars of support to fight Lou Gerhig’s disease. If your first reaction is like mine, I started to think of a way to capitalize on this kind of support to fund churches and Christian ministries around the world. But, research has shown that for every dollar people give to this kind of crowd-raising activity (as it has been called), they would have given 50-cents to a charity anyway. So, 1.5 million dollars were diverted from other charitable organizations to fund this organization.

That strikes me as simply taking money from one pocket and placing it in another. A similar phenomenon has been studied in the lab by psychologists. It’s called moral licensing: the idea that doing one good action leads one to compensate by doing fewer good actions in the future. In a recent experiment, participants either selected a product from a selection of mostly “green” items (like an energy-efficient light bulb) or from a selection of mostly conventional items (like a regular light bulb). They were then told to perform a supposedly unrelated task. However, in this second task, the results were self-reported, so the participants had a financial incentive to lie; and they were invited to pay themselves out of an envelope, so they had an opportunity to steal as well.

What happened? People who had previously purchased a green product were significantly more likely to both lie and steal than those who had purchased the conventional product. Their demonstration of ethical behavior subconsciously gave them license to act unethically when the chance arose. The explanation behind moral licensing is that people are often more concerned about looking good or feeling good rather than doing good.

But this is nothing new. Jesus said, “When you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” (Matthew 6:5-6, The Message)

Maybe it’s time for me to make good on those challenges. But, you can rest assured that you won’t see any posts about it on Facebook. And, I won’t be telling anyone about it either. I pray you’ll join me. Together, quietly, behind the scenes, and each in our own way; we will transform this world to be a little more like the kingdom of God.

Why Church Matters

Recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about the importance of church, both at the local, congregational level, at the Area/Regional level and at the denominational level. As I have been trying to gather my thoughts and reflections, I ran across a post that spoke to me. So, I am going to share a bit of it with you today. At the end you will find a link to the original article if you would like to read it in its entirety. I hope it is as thought-provoking for you as it was (and continues to be) for me. David Odom writes:

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I see congregations struggling for relevance as institutions in their local communities. Local governments, health care providers and social service agencies have an instrumental view of congregations. If these agencies look to congregations at all, it is to supply things like meals at Thanksgiving or toys for Christmas. Few congregations have a vision to influence policy. Most are more concerned about the number of people attending than the impact of their witness in the community.

A couple of years ago, I was working with a ministry with young people on parole in Harris County, Texas. A probation officer told me she had spent 25 years watching church people visit the young people in jail and shun those same young people when they were on the streets. She was intrigued by our ministry’s offer to befriend the young people while they were still in jail and continue the relationship when they were back in the neighborhood. The ministry’s vision was to create community that included church members and young people. She did not believe we would do it.

Equally troubling is that young people raised in church often don’t see their involvement in a congregation as a way to make a difference. They volunteer to teach in schools, work with the poor through an NGO or start a business that does social good, but many in the younger generations don’t see the relevance of congregations. Even those who go to seminary often have to be persuaded by professors that working in a congregation is the best opportunity to serve God.

Through the generations, congregations have been the kitchens where Christians are “cooked” into the sort of people God intends us to be. We worship, study, pray, and share meals, knitting us closer to God and each other. Congregations matter because Christians would not be Christians if we did not have people with whom to practice loving God and loving neighbor.

Christine Pohl’s “Living in Community” features four practices that are critical to the life of community: embracing gratitude; making and keeping promises; living truthfully; and practicing hospitality. Life in congregations both requires and molds us into these practices.

Because we have fallen into the pattern of understanding congregations as self-supporting organizations with a staff of ministers and support personnel, a building, parking lot and grounds, we spend a lot of time worrying about budgets, depreciation, nursery volunteers and all the rest. This self-supporting, 501(c)3 form of congregation is under stress.

The really small ones can do their “kitchen work” without a full-time pastor, but they are not regarded as a real church unless they sacrifice everything else to pay that salary. The big ones are able to do the work because they have the scale to take care of all the administrative problems and provide lots of places for people to serve inside and outside the organization. The middle-sized ones are having the most trouble at the moment.

Recently a lawyer insisted that I define “congregation” for a contract; I boiled it down to “a group of people who gather to engage in religious activities.” The definition satisfied the lawyer, but was missing the purpose of the gathering. As we see in the stories about Jesus’ disciples after the crucifixion, we need each other to be prepared to experience Christ and participate in the coming of the kingdom of God. That is why congregations matter.

Original Post — Why Congregations Matter