The below “demotivational poster,” though a bit tongue in cheek, raises an important question: precisely how much is enough?
I posted a copy of this picture on my Facebook wall a couple of months ago and received some pretty predictable – and, in my opinion, theologically unsound – comments about such buildings being to the glory of God (more on this to follow) and how this or that particular megachurch gave one million dollars or more last year. There was no mention of whether that amount represented the same standard of a “biblical tithe” such churches require of their own members. I can assure you that I have some knowledge of how much the gross income of an operation of this size is, and that one million dollars isn’t even close to ten percent of the operating budget.
As to the glory of God argument, it quite simply fails. If by “to the glory of God” you mean that such structures are pleasing to God then you are positing a God who has an ego – and such a being would be no god at all. If by “to the glory of God” you mean than materialism on methamphetamine somehow shows others that God is a pretty attractive character to be around, I believe it’s fair enough to say your finger has slipped off the pulse of the 99%.
I don’t mean for a moment to suggest that this kind of excess is a new problem. In fact, I believe the argument can be made that such structures are no more than modern equivalents of the great cathedrals, minus the classic architecture, craftsmanship and art that adorned those cathedrals. In my mind, and perhaps I am showing my age, there is something about a craftsman atop a scaffold doing intricate carvings in the wood near the ceiling of a cathedral that just can’t be matched by a stark steel beam welded into place and painted grey – call me a hedonist!
I will say that such excesses in the past were more understandable given the predominant theology of the day. People who believe they are sinners in the hands of an angry God will indeed go to any lengths necessary to appease that God, and so it should be! However, as our theology and understanding of God has evolved and we are coming to understand that such images of God were little more than projections of the worst human behavior onto God, who or what are we seeking to appease with such monstrosities? The answer, I am afraid, is our own egos.
Mind you, I am not advocating the construction of unheated log cabins in the woods that lacks running water to serve as our houses of worship. I do believe that a certain amount of comfort is a good idea, including the basic sanitation necessary to conform with contemporary health codes and standards. I also believe it’s a good thing to have more than enough seats for everybody and that those seats should be comfortable and sturdy. Fellowship halls with kitchens, classrooms that are well equipped, and adequate office space are all good ideas in our houses of worship. We have a responsibility to ensure everyone’s comfort and safety as well as adequate facilities to do the work we have come together to do. I do not believe, however, that our church buildings should resemble the basketball arena in the nearest large city – not because there is anything wrong with a basketball arena, but rather because the New York Knicks aren’t likely to be playing tonight’s game in your church. More to the point, the church building is supposed to equip us to go out into the world to actually do ministry, no make us so comfortable we never want to leave the arena!
This isn’t just an issue for churches, however, it’s an issue for you and me. How much is enough? How big a house or apartment do you need? How much do you really need to spend on your next car – for that matter, do you need it at all? In a world economy in transition and in a world where we are (too slowly, I am afraid) coming to realize that natural resources and potential markets are not unlimited, how much is enough? If maintaining your current lifestyle means that one of the members of your household never sees their children because they need to work sixty to eighty hours a week to pay the bills, I want to say quite clearly that you are in over your head and will die without ever having lived. That, my friends, may be the ultimate definition of too much.
The institutional church jumps up and down and worries nearly exclusively about what people do with their genitals when far better questions would be “what do you do with your time?” and “how much is enough?” Imagine how we might change the world if we stopped measuring success by the size of our bling and started measuring it by the size of our hearts. What might be the result if we elected to develop our compassion rather than our portfolio? I am not advocating fiscal irresponsibility, in fact quite the opposite. I am advocating regaining some perspective on the difference between what we need and what (we think) we want.
You do realize that while you might think you need a five bedroom home, the day will come when the kids have moved out and you can no longer maintain it, don’t you? That won’t mean the house has changed, it will mean your perspective and abilities have changed, and so what you once believed you just had to have will be meaningless to you as you move into a condo where someone else maintains the space. Can we see that property is not an absolute value? Neither is our bank account, because if we work constantly to accumulate wealth and never see our spouse or our children, we may find ourselves with children who won’t speak to us and a spouse who has divorced us and taken half of our wealth! In that event, we could have worked half as much and still ended up with the same amount of wealth with the added bonus of an intact family and children with whom we actually have relationships! Imagine that! I feel compelled to ask again, how much is enough?
It may be among the most compelling spiritual questions of the next fifty years. The time to start asking it is now.