Sunday, July 19, 2009

"We are all beggars..."

These words are among the final written notes of Dr. Martin Luther. They are a theological commentary on our own spiritual impotence to save ourselves. They are another way of saying with St. Paul that salvation is a matter of God's grace alone.

But there seems to be a new kind of begging going on in the LCMS.

A few months ago, I received a beg letter from an LCMS congregation in another state. In 1998, at the height of the real-estate bubble, this congregation took an unwise risk. They sold their original church property and with the proceeds bought a "glorious 40-acre parcel of land" with the intention of selling off 27 acres to a developer and making a lot of money on the deal. Why a church needs even 13 acres of "glorious" land is beyond me. I can't help but think of the proverbial bone-bearing dog seeing own reflection in the river according to Aesop's fable. But these were the days when the profit spigot was spewing almost uncontrollably in a seemingly unlimited cash flow. Fortunes were being made all around.

Fast forward to bursting of the real estate bubble.

Bottom line: this congregation is now asking my congregation for help. We don't have a "glorious 40-acre parcel of land." Let's just say that money is tight around here, and leave it at that. I know this is just a form letter, and it probably went to everyone, but it strikes me as terribly insensitive to ask a congregation still struggling from Katrina losses augmented by the current economic downturn to subsidize their poor financial decision-making now that the bubble has burst. This is the ecclesiastical manifestation of "bailout fever."

I can't help but think of the movie poster for Arthur 2 of Dudley Moore holding the sign: "Hey brother, can you spare $750,000,000?"

I know of one congregation in another state that a few years ago spent a million dollars for a building project that essentially gave the pastor a bigger office and made a bigger narthex. The sanctuary was not improved at all. They still sport a roll-away altar with chairs. One has to have priorities, I suppose.

Another congregation that I was familiar with in former times got dollar signs in their eyes, sold their land to a big box store, and relocated up the road thinking they would make a killing. But instead, they underestimated their expenses, ran out of money before the new sanctuary could be built, went way into debt, and had to worship in the school's gym before an altar on wheels, surrounded by tape on the floor and folded up basketball hoops. Every now and then during school sports events, volleyballs would pelt the holy altar. But hey, at least they never asked me to write them a check.

But it seems that another recent beg letter is making the rounds.

This one is from one of these new trendy "churches" that won't use the name Lutheran, shuns the liturgy, and is essentially a pop-music entertainment center. Their beg letter says that they "were led by what [they] believe was the miraculous and Divine hand of the Lord to plant a mission" in one of their state's "fastest growing communities." Isn't it funny how "the Lord" seems to be at times a little too interested in evangelizing the "fastest growing communities"? I think it was Al Capone who said he robbed banks because "that's where the money is."

And so, this 75 year old LCMS congregation with a normal name took a chance. They sold everything and moved. They adopted a hip and happening "Community Church" mission format with a new and funky name. They rolled the dice in the bubble economy, borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars, spent over a million dollars of their own, and bought 26 acres of land (my goodness!). But when the reality kicked in, they could not afford the payments. It seems that the generation raised on entertainment resented the church talking about money. That's for "organized religion" chumps. The bottom line: they failed to pay their bills and their property was foreclosed. It seems that the Miraculous and Divine Hand of the Lord is no more reliable than Lady Luck at the roulette wheel.

Now they want other LCMS congregations to send them money so they can buy a new facility.

Interestingly, the website of this "mission" mocked the practices of many of the very churches they are now asking for money, with allusions to "stodgy" worship, "dead rituals," and "14th century classical music." The congregation (which describes itself as "exciting" and "passionate") is also saying that its relationship with the synod is "cloudy" at this point. Of course, none of this information is included in the beg letter - which unlike the church's website and sign, identify it as a Lutheran congregation.

This is the sad reality. For all of the promise of endlessly flipping houses and wheeling and dealing in real estate to achieve overnight millionaire status, it was all hot air inflating a bubble. The real estate boom was nothing more than a grand ponzi-scheme that could not sustain its own propaganda.

And this same kind of hot air is behind the bubble of the "relevant" gimmicky churches championed by some in the LCMS hierarchy - and even marketed to us as a kind-of successful turn-key franchise model, sometimes bearing the same names and formats as "churches" across many denominations. Amid all the promise and excitement of rock music, of the "come as you are" mindset where selfishness trumps sacrifice, of the shallowness and vapidity of chasing after ever-changing tastes in a fickle "religious marketplace" - the reality is that this growth-oriented model of "ministry" is unsustainable.

And when the church bubble merges with the real estate bubble, it becomes a "perfect bubble." I can only imagine that we will see more of these implosions, and a lot more begging. And what is pushed to the back seat in all of this desperate financial water-treading in the aftermath of the bubbles bursting is the genuine Gospel, the authentic proclamation of Christ in His Church. "Stodgy" stuff indeed.

We are all beggars to be sure.


Past Elder said...

Actually it was Willie Sutton who said it, although he said he never said it, a reporter made it up to sell copy.

Which makes it fit all the better with this nonsense. When they hit the real estate bubble, they have somewhere to go begging -- those who didn't get into the bubble.

But when, or rather as, the church bubble hits, will they have somewhere to go begging, somewhere that didn't get into the church bubble?

George said...

Perhaps this a reason some of these churches that eschew Lutheranism continue to hang about a Lutheran church body. On their own, they would have to compete with all the other big players in the seeker sensitive, church growth, emergent movement & they wouldn't do too well.

But if they hang about the LCMS, they get tons of money & are lauded as so hip & cutting edge & held up as examples of true evangelism as opposed to those stodgy old traditional churches (who are the ones who give all the money anyway). But maybe I'm a pessimist & cynic.