Swiftocracy!: How Well Has the Church Provided?
For the next two weeks each of my posts will be based off requests. For more information about how that happened, look here.
“Where is the church with respect to the balance between feeding people emotionally, mentally, and physically–and what should be done about it?”
I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t think I’m qualified to answer this question. I’m not a pastor, minister, deacon, elder, priest, etc. I’m a layman, and I can only give a layman’s perspective on this question.
This question is a thorny one because it depends on what definition of “church” we are using. There are two general meanings involved in the word church. On the one hand is the Church, capital c (if you like), that represents all Christians everywhere. The bridegroom of Christ, his kingdom on this earth, the body of which Christ is the head, etc. The other general meaning is your local church or faith community, ie where you go to worship. This might be expanded to include an entire denomination or section of Christianity. Some of these denominations, or individuals within them, have different ideas about what the capital c Church looks like. Some extremely fundamentalist churches might hold that only members of their denomination are “true Christians.” Some extremely unorthodox churches might teach that all humans are part of the Church. Most denominations fall somewhere in the middle. I myself (and I don’t think I’m far from what traditional Christian orthodoxy teaches) believe that all who hold their hope in Christ are members of the church, whether they’re Baptists, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Episcopalian, non-denominational, or come from a Stone-Campbell church like myself. I’ll leave it to God to decide which individuals are true Christians and which are not. It’s not up for me to judge a man’s heart (and thank goodness for that!).
This leaves me with a sticky problem in attempting to answer the question above. It would be foolish to talk about how my own church (the one I go to on Sundays, or even the broader denomination) feeds people emotionally, mentally, and physically. The focus there is very narrow, and only helpful to people who go to the same church I do. On the other hand, if I try to talk about how the Church performs in these respects I’m faced with the fact that not all parts of the Church do the same things in the same ways with the same effectiveness. There are good churches and bad churches but they’re all part of the Church, if you get what I’m saying. I’m forced to answer with either extreme narrowness (my own church) or extreme generalities (all churches everywhere).
Still, I can make a stab at it.
I’ve never found an atheist or even an anti-theist who didn’t concede that the Church provides emotional fulfillment and meets emotional needs. The emotional relevance of Christianity is so obvious and potent that it often takes the form of a criticism: that is, people only believe in God because the concept makes people feel better. My own church tradition is heavy with the power of personal testimonies. As such I grew up hearing over and over how people had come from places of deep depression, confusion, and self-absorption and professed to be saved by Christ. Though not all churches put such emphasis on personal experiences or testimonies I’d argue it’s hard to find churches that don’t feed people’s emotional needs. Perhaps some very harsh fundamentalist churches, or some particularly tired and dusty liturgical traditions. The Holy Spirit speaks to the heart.
Mentally is a different matter. I find that the Church has a long and storied tradition of scholarship, philosophy, and contemplation. The Church has much intellectual meat for a hungry mind to chew on. You need look no further than C.S. Lewis to see that, though I would encourage you to look much further and wider than that. G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, Francis Shaeffer, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many others make up a grand tradition of Christian intellectualism. However much of their work does seem closed off to the average churchgoer, though not by any policy or particular anti-intellectual movement. The simple fact is that these people must be sought out. Most churches do not ask that their members read much more than the Bible. I would like to see more individual churches introducing people to Christian philosophers and theologians. Few things make me sadder when I hear stories of people who left the Church because they had questions that others couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer when there are answers to be had. Or, if not answers, then a long history of discussion and debate. Complicating all of this is the fact that people have very different temperaments and needs. Some people find their mental needs are fulfilled by the average church service. Others are hungry for more. If one of the latter seeks out answers from one of the former it can lead to trouble. Sometimes I imagine that it would be useful if every church had a member who specialized in such matters. A person who anyone could go to with hard mental questions who could either answer them or give them the names of the authors who can. In most churches this is expected of the pastor (or priest, or minister, etc), but most pastors have a lot on their plate already, and not all are as intellectual as some might like. Really what needs to happen is that the Church (capital c) needs more intellectuals within it. We need more people everywhere who seek out answers and learn to use their minds, so that everyone may be benefitted by their knowledge. The Church has great storehouses of mental meat, but first we must choose to open up the pantry.
Finally there is the matter of the physical. In this theatre I believe that the Church has simultaneously done extraordinarily well and not nearly enough. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics the top international relief organizations in the United States is World Vision, followed by Food for the Poor, both Christian nonprofits. Out of the top 5 international relief charities 3 are Christian. All over the world the Church has opened soup kitchens for the hungry, has sent food to those who are starving, has clothed those who are freezing, and has generally tried to help those in need. The Church has built thousands of hospitals, orphanages, schools, and asylums. Members of the Church have devoted their lives to helping those in need. I would argue that the Church has done more to help those in need than any other group on Earth.
On the other hand so much money is wasted and hoarded that is desperately needed elsewhere. Some megachurches spend millions on new buildings while sending mere thousands to starving refugees. Followers of the prosperity gospel believe that God would rather have them spend their excess cash on a luxury car then to help people who are dying of curable diseases because they can’t afford medicine. I will speak to American Christians in particular here. American Christians have access to an incredible amount of money. We have access to more wealth than any Christian group in the history of the world. Yet most American Christians give less than 10% of their income to help those in need. Some estimate that if American Christians who report that religion is very important to their lives gave 10% of their after tax income an additional $46 billion per year would be raised. Do you know how much good can be done with $46 billion? According to Richard Stearns, CEO of World Vision (who would be a position to know, considering the extent of their work) estimated that it would take about $70 billion to raise the lowest third of humanity out of extreme poverty. American Christians could bring two billion people who live on less than $2 a day into financial security in only two years if we wanted to. But American Christians don’t give that much. And when they do give much of it goes to better buildings, fancier programs, and the newest A/V equipment for the local church. The Church has done immense good in this world: but we have been, and still are, capable of doing so much more.
In the end the only recommendation I can make is on the individual level. The Church is made up of individual Christians trying to live out their faith. If the Church is to become better it must start with ourselves. We must learn to feed our brothers and sisters emotionally. We must educate ourselves and those around us in the great intellectual tradition of Christianity. We must use our own resources, our money, time, and effort, to meet the physical needs of all humanity. The change must begin and end with yourself.