Thesis 6: The Trickle-Down Gospel
This post is part of a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in the series here.
6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God's remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.A friend of mine recently told me about a conversation she was having with someone who had recently started attending a different church. This someone was much more at ease and comfortable at the new church because the staff "does everything for us."
This statement is a couple of degrees separate from the original speaker, so I don't mention this in order to judge the speaker. Nonetheless, the kernel of truth here is clear:
Because we've structured our churches like businesses, we expect the employees of these companies to be continually improving the Jesus product we consume.
Even down to the language we use when we talk about finding a suitable church community ("church shopping"), our churchgoing lives are transactional in so many ways. Though it's become unkosher to criticize our capitalist economic systems in the West, we must examine how our churches have fallen victim to the same failed economic theories that brought us our recent recession.
Our annual conferences in the United Methodist Church will openly admit that their current mode is one of survival, wherein they must create more growing, prosperous churches every year in order to make a profit, which in turn goes to pay its employees. I am in no way saying that our annual conferences are not an important support mechanism for our local churches. There is a noticeably wonderful shift at the annual conference level and at the boards and agencies level towards responding to needs at the grassroots level, rather than a top-down dictation approach.
However, the idea that we must create profitable churches in order to support the "real work" at the margins seems to smack of trickle-down economic theory.
Put in even plainer terms, we are putting pressure on our middle- and upper middle-class churches to continue to tithe at high rates in order to give more generously to ministries who work with the poor and to churches made up of the poor. These wealthier churches also generate more money in apportionments, thereby funding the operations of our annual conferences, who in turn support the growth of larger attractional churches. And the cycle continues...
What if we focused our efforts on growing the churches and ministries at the margins first? The "healthier" churches would likely continue to prosper without the help of our connectional superstructures, no? And if we really believe what we say about the Kingdom, shouldn't the margins be our starting point, rather than the recipient of our afterthoughts, after we've paid the pastor, logo designer, and fundraising consultant?
All of the popes we've constructed for ourselves only have the authority that we give them. If that authority is not in line with upside-down Kingdom dynamics, it's time we start seeking remission from God instead of them.