Friday, 29 March 2013

A new vision for the church - money

 Some of this post draws on ideas explored in "Unintended Consequences" by Andrew Brims. Worth a read if you are serious about challenging church structures, or seeking to justify them.

The thing is, we all know the teaching and material on tithing, that we should give 10% of our incomes to the church. The truth is that this doesn't happen, but as a starting principle of giving a proportion of our money to the church, it works. The proportion is not important, what is important is the principles.

The problem I have with this is that 95% of this giving goes to the church systems and structures. Even those churches which give away a proportion of their income tend to give it to systems and structures, where a good proportion of it will go to the system and supporting it - maybe including fund-raising activities.

The real question is how much money churchgoers give to other organisations. I know that this varies greatly, but I would suggest that for many, this church giving represents a significant portion of their total giving to Christian work and ministry.

There are a lot of variables involved, but I would like to suggest that something like 90% of the financial giving of churchgoers is used for the support and maintenance of the church systems and structures. That is a vary large proportion of the money, and a lot of money.

It makes me wonder what could be done if that money wasn't given to the church systems, but used for other purposes instead.

If instead of giving money to the church, 3 or 4 people were to put their money into supporting a small local business, as seed money, I wonder what difference that would make.

Or running a craft session for all who are interested, bringing in people from outside, making a real event.

Or getting a mini music festival for local bands, or for a musical style that is not often heard.

Or, or, or. That is the point. The possibilities are limitless, because a few people - even one person - can invest in their local community.

Ah, but how is this part of Christian Mission, I hear you say? A good question, which I will answer further in another post. However, if you find engagement with God works for you through embroidery, for example, then a craft fair might be an idea opportunity to share with others what you do, why you do it, what it means to you.

If you meet God through music, then working with others to bring music will help you to explore why you like music.

Supporting a local youth worker can say more to the local youth than any amount of church services. The question is, how much does supporting the local church structures contribute to Christian Mission? The money stays within the organisation, and to those outside - who might engage with these others forms of "mission" see very little of the impact often.

It has been said that, if you want to know what is important to a person, look at their cheque stubs. That might not literally work these days, but their money says a lot. It says, far too often, that the Church is important. Not people, not community, not others, but their own little club.

Maybe it is time to leave.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Is Green the best option for Christians?

I should make it clear at the start of this that I am a paid up member of the Green party, and have stood for local elections a number of times. Having said this, I am not here going to push the party line, or play silly political games. I am a member because I believe politics is important, and I support the Greens because of everything else I explore here.

I think there is an important starting point in any discussion of political support that we accept that any party we give our support to will hold policies and ideas that we do not agree with and accept. Despite the waffle so often coming from MPs and other party members seeking to progress in the party, any member of any party has parts of their manifesto that they don’t wholeheartedly support. The same applies to me and the Greens. I am not going to outline them, because that is divisive. I am still a member, and I still support them, despite the disagreements. I would have disagreements with ANY party I supported, so they do not matter, if I believe that the core party aims are good.

Politically, I am left-wing, meaning that I believe the state should take care of the people. I am a believer in big government, to the extent that the state should provide certain benefits for the people, and these should be run as services, not as profit-driven business. But I would not call myself a socialist, largely because a) I don’t know any more what this means and b) I do not believe that the age-old party division of left/right, driven fundamentally on economic policy, is any longer valid.

The problem we have in the UK these days is that we no longer have a politically left party. The Tories are firmly right-wing, and are taking the Lib-Dems with them. The Labour party has moved towards the middle ground, and is now more right-wing than the Liberals used to be. We have a political gap in the social-concern area – and it is this that I believe the Greens can satisfy.

And, in case you want to argue that the parties are not, in fact, all far too right wing, they are ALL supporting the appalling retroactive legislation to make the illegal and abusive workfare schemes legal.

But are the Greens any better? Well the core drive for Green politics is towards care for the environment, care for the world, providing sustainability in our resource use. In truth, this can only be achieved nationally by government-driven service provision. That means providing transport systems that do not use our precious oil reserves – and therefore public transport has to be a better option. It means supporting the NHS, because it is health for all, and people are important to Greens. It means support for those in need, because they are important, and paying for it through tax on the wealthier and those who are damaging the environment – these classes tend to be very much the same. It means providing a fair society for us all to live and prosper in, and for our children. It means not being selfish, but being prepared to share with others, now and in the future.

This is not an official outline of Green policies, for which you can look at the party web site. But compassion, care, an sustainability are the core principles.

These seem like good socialist ideas.

They also seem like good Christian principles.

Of course, there are some issues with the Green party for Middle-Class Christians. Firstly, it will mean we will be more tightly squeezed, because so much of the middle-class lifestyle is wasteful. So it may mean higher driving costs, a push towards recycling our waste, not just chucking it, less fancy out-of-season food in our supermarkets. But these are good things if you take a wider perspective on the world. These are things we should be pushed to change, because we clearly haven’t done it without the pressure.

The other issue is the whole new-age mother-earth thing about the Greens. Oddly enough, the spiritual beliefs of other parties do not enter into the discussion very often. Is rampant, selfish greed a more Christ-like attitude? Or personal political ambition? These are the driving principles behind so many politicians, and yet we support them. In fact, I believe that an understanding of the world as a living being, as a part of a wonderful creation, as something more than a rock to be lived on is very much in line with Celtic Christian understanding. The care and concern for the environment is part of our Christian heritage and responsibility. There will be those in the movement who come there from a different point, but so what? We are all working towards a better stewardship of the earth. Glad to welcome you. What is more, most Green Party members are hard-headed political realists - people who believe the Green Party ideals, but who are also serious politicians.

Is Green the new Red? It is hard to say, but the recent successes do indicate that the green message is starting to get through. There is a lot of good socialism in the green agenda, and there is more. If you are fed up with the current politics – and to be honest, whatever your position, you should be – then the Green direction may be a breath of fresh air.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Are we too nice?

I was reading the other day in a Christian magazine article a critique of Christians being perceived as “nice” – in particular, that we have far too often replaced the work “love” with “nice”. I think there is some truth in this.

So many churches seem to insist on being nice, being acceptable, being lovely people, that they forget the challenge that is a significant part of Christianity. Jesus was always challenging people – telling them to give up their wealth, or to pay back extortion charges. Jesus didn’t seem to take the “being nice” gospel to heart, so why should we?

Of course, there is a problem that we have Jesus' – and Paul's – words through 2000 years, different cultures, different languages. This means that we so often miss how rude they were to others. Calling someone a “whitewashed tomb” may not seem particularly bad, but it would have been extremely offensive. More like a polished turd in today’s language – this was not the sort of thing to call respected members of the temple.

I know there are some who would argue the opposite to this – that churches are not “nice” to them, because they have suffered so much at the hands of church members and leaders. Actually, this is, I think, another aspect of this “niceness” culture. If you don’t “fit in”, then you are “not nice”, and so must be driven away, because church is all about being “nice”. And you end up with the Stepford Wives church, where fitting in, behaving, conforming is what you do.

Christianity is radical. Christianity says that people of all sorts of divergent positions and views are all part of the same family. Christianity says that challenging the world, the systems, the structures, the wrong in the world is important. Christianity says that being offensive – calling people polished turds or foetid piles of excrement – is appropriate if that is how people are behaving.

It means that discussing the truth about priests who abuse young children should not be kept behind closed doors, for fear of having to discuss things that were not nice. Christianity is about facing up to the truth, declaring Gods truth and challenging the wrong, and doing this in strong terms. At the same time, it does not mean taking our own pathetic foibles, claiming divine approval for them, and abusing people who do not fit in. Lets be honest, nobody “fits in”. We need to accept that, not try to squeeze people into a mould.

So stop being “nice”. Or rather, stop claiming your “niceness” is Christian. Christianity isn’t nice.

Monday, 18 March 2013

New vision for the church - questions

Asking question is an interesting topic, not just for the church, but for other areas in life too. I find Prime Ministers Questions an interesting example, where the process is more about scoring political points than actually asking important questions. On the other side, it is about putting the right spin on things, not providing information and answers.

In other areas of life, the focus is in getting answers, not exploring the questions. If you want to know something, the easiest answer is to Google it, and get an acceptable answer, rather than understand the question fully and work with it to find a solution. The important thing in the answer, not the question, and in this, we lose something important.

Even in spiritual exploration, the same approach is so often taken. there is a focus on "quick fix" spiritual solutions. Do a weekend course and find enlightenment. In church courses where questions are, theoretically, welcome, the focus is really on providing set answers to any question that are raised. I know this because I have run such courses, and there are manuals providing the answers to all expected questions.

The problem is that these do not give proper respect to the importance of questions for real spiritual development. It trivialises the question process, and so the spiritual search that is encompassed by these questions. I think real, deep proper questions deserve to be answered, and deserve to be asked.

The thing is, the real questions require time to explore and find what they mean. I like to compare it to my PhD studies, where I start with a question that I want to explore. I then do the exploration of this question, or rather, I start from the general area of the question, and explore around this to see what others have done on this question, to learn as much as I can on the topic, to discover more, to find the areas I can work further on.

After this, I see what I have explored and discovered, and revisit my original question, to reassess it, and redefine my original question based on what I have learned in the process. The exploration has changed the question I was originally asking, because I cannot know the questions I need to ask until I have done some of the research - it is cyclic, because I cannot research an area without a question to focus on, but I cannot know what the questions are until I do some research.

For all serious questions, this is the process. Serious questions of spiritual truth - for example, What should I do? - need to be explored and researched, need to have some serious time spent on them before you return to your original question and realise that it might not be the right question to ask.

Questions are so important. The best question take a long time to work on, and the very best ones result in you understanding that you are asking the wrong question. This doesn't mean that the questions are wrong, just that the only way to progress them is to understand why they are not the question you should be asking - there are more important ones.

If we stop asking questions, we stop being real and honest Christians, because we stop seeking the truth.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

More clergy, or less?

Someone on twitter (who will remain nameless) recently asked "what would it take to have a vicar in every parish?".

It was an interesting question, but I had - have - some serious problems with the question. The core question is that we need more "paid" people make church happen for us. I think that the opposite is in fact the truth.

Putting the question another way round, what would be the effect of having a full-time (and so, almost certainly paid in some form) minister in every church in the UK (just to stretch it beyond the CofE)? The effect would be, I think, to kill off lay work in local churches. There are two reasons for this:

1. Having someone paid as a full time minister would make it easy to leave all of the local ministry work to the minister - especially as a lot of this needs to happen during the day, and many church members are working during the day (in particular to pay for these ministers), and so the minsiter is liable to be driving these and making them happen. This is not to say that others will not be involved, but it makes it likely that the minister will have a significant role.

2. If we were to populate every church with a minister, all of the people in the churches who have any leadership sense, any ideas, any drive, would be needed to stock these churches. This would also tend to empty the churches of natural leaders, remove any sense of lay leadership for the simple reason that the lay leaders would not be there.

I should point out that the issue is not about them being paid - the same issues apply even if they are not paid to fulfill their role, although this has a new set of issues. If you don't pay your ministers, then you will only attract people who can do this without recompense.

At core, I think the problem is that we do still too often rely on "clergy", in the sense of professionals to do the ministry work.

As I will expound more in another post, there are plenty of people and organisations providing support to people who need it, and it might do better to support them, become involved with them, than try to set up new systems, or try to maintain unsupportable systems.

Of course, as always, I might be wrong.