Redecorating Chapels

March 21st, 2012

Here’s a question that I almost never hear asked: Can a church be prophetic (by which I mean witnessing to the reality of God’s Kingdom justice and love in the world) if we spend vast amounts of money and time on things and in ways that do not reflect God’s Kingdom, but rather, reflect the values of a world bent on materialism, self-indulgence, war, violence, and madness? Most folks I think would join with me and say no. What we spend money on reflects who we are and what we value. And that is a scary thought for the church.

In a 2001 article I just discovered recently from Christianity Today, the writer sent out questionnaires about how churches spend their money. (The writer had a 23% response rate and there was nothing scientific in who responded or why; but I still find it to be a decent snapshot of how churches spent their money in 2001.) The survey showed that budgets were significantly weighed down by expenditures on facility upkeep. One in five dollars was spent on building upkeep—or as I prefer to call it, redecoration. Whether it comes in the form of fixing broken doors or broken air conditioners, re-carpeting the sanctuary, repainting the youth room, adding a Family Life Center, or redecorating a chapel, this all comes down to maintaining buildings that are built in our image for the glory of ourselves. Scripture bears this out.

Our church buildings are for our own vanity, our own indulgence, our own pleasure. God simply takes no delight in them and he never has. In 2 Samuel 7, King David said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” (7:2) King David wanted to build a great temple for God’s presence, symbolized by the ark, but God wanted none of it. God spoke to David through Nathan (and this wasn’t the last time either) saying, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” (7:4-6)

Some interesting things to point out here include the fact that David only wants to build a house for God when he looks around at his own wealth. His motivation is to ensure that he does not feel the piercing guilt of a God housed in a tent while he lives in a spacious palace. Like David, we tend to build or redecorate our chapels and sanctuaries that reflect our own insecurity and embarrassment of our own wealth. We need our God to reflect our values, even if that means building God something that God declares he does not need and has never asked for. It doesn’t matter what God needs or requires. This is more about us. We need God to be housed in a palace to make sure our personal palaces do not seem out of place. We need God to be comfortable for the sole reason of ensuring our comfort. Damn the call on our lives to incarnate ourselves among the uncomfortable and the suffering. Our building maintenance—our redecoration—demands that we shut down that calling and focus on what we want. And that, my friends, is the essence of idolatry.

Another interesting note in this passage is that God specifically links his dynamic movement—his freedom from the captivity of a confining house he once lived in—with the liberation of an oppressed people from the hand of their oppressor. God repeatedly, throughout the Old Testament, warns his people to remember their liberation from oppression. Only by remembering that they were delivered by God from oppression were they able to live in faithfulness into the future. And now, while David wants to build him a house because he wants to feel more secure about his wealth and self-indulgence, God reminds David that “tabernacling” with the people of Israel best reflects God’s character and mission, rather than being housed in a great temple. Being free to move about, to be fluid and not static, to be dynamic and not sedate, to be organic and not stagnant—that best describes who God is and how God acts. Our wealth weighs us down, our buildings weigh us down and prevent our missional engagement. We build massive structures more for our protection than for God’s mission.

But yet David wants God to be made more in his image than to be made or remade into God’s image. Again, this is essentially idolatry; to place oneself, one’s security, one’s luxury, ahead of the interests and will of God. Think about it, our Savior was born in a barn—a barn stinking with wet hay and manure—while we are spending one in five of our dollars on making sure we never worship in anything resembling a stinking barn. One in five. We make sure we worship in only the finest, the best and we blame it on “honoring God”—the same God who was born in manure and hay. We worship in buildings that resemble our values, not God’s.

So, to answer the beginning question: can a church be prophetic—witness to the reality of God’s Kingdom justice and love in the world—if we spend money and time on things (such as building maintenance or redecoration) that do not reflect God’s Kingdom, but rather, reflect the values of a world bent on materialism, self-indulgence, war, violence and madness? The answer is emphatically no.

This is not a liberal or a conservative problem. This is a sin problem. Both liberals and conservatives spend far too much of our money redecorating our chapels and our churches. While we could spend money on providing shelter to the homeless, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, we spend it on buildings that say far more about who we are than about who God is. We could spend money on projects to end mass incarceration, to welcome immigrants to our communities and to advocate for just immigration reform, to promote peace with justice ministries, and to defend the vulnerable. But we don’t. We want new carpeting, we want new paint, we want new stained glass windows. We want more stuff for our palaces—I mean, our chapels and churches. But if we asked God if he needed all the stuff we spend all this wasted money on, something tells me he would look around and wonder why we didn’t use all that money, all that time to care for the things he really cares about: people, especially people who are hurting.

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