Monday, January 10, 2011

being the church

At the beginning of last month, the last month of 2010, our church lost its building. It was literally there one Sunday, gone the next. The owner of the land wanted it back in order to put up a personal residence. The church structure is now a heap of rubble, the personal house has not yet arisen. The church has moved on regardless. For a few weeks the church worshiped in a tent; during the time when we were away for our retreats, a new, large “shack” was erected from two-by-fours and sheets of tin. We worshiped in it for the first time, the church’s second Sunday, yesterday. The shack has lots of room for growth—a good thing since the old building had become too small.

The church got a R15,000 ($2,200) loan to secure the building materials and will have to pay it back in R1,150 monthly installments. That breaks down, averaging four Sundays per month, to about R300: that is what the people will need to give in offerings in order to pay it back. Although that seems like a manageable sum of money, typical Sunday offerings never even approach it. In an independent church of this nature, shortfalls typically become the pastor’s responsibility. So, if some here get into the ministry as a money-making enterprise—as it is often alleged—others enter it with much fear and trembling for its great pressures. Our pastor, for example, carefully balances the pressure of running a church with caring for a family of five. Dipping into his own pockets on behalf of the church is money not spent on his household. For that reason, many pastors’ wives are reluctant to embrace their husbands’ ministries. That, of course, is also a major strain on marriages; and some pastors have discarded their wives for others who will bear silently the pressures of ministry.

In light of such scenarios, our pastor has transferred the family’s bank account into his wife’s name, giving her final control of their income. That move should go a long way in keeping the precious unity of the marriage in a time of financial uncertainty in the church.

In the meantime, the church will need to pay back the loan. Yesterday might have been a start—if the offering had not gone, in total, to the member of the church who was widowed over the Christmas season, her husband found stabbed to death in town. Such a situation too, whether death by violent crime or disease, is one of the realities that churches “on the edge”, in the poor communities of South Africa, deal with on a regular basis, and which hold them back from their dreams of developing programs which would improve the quality of lives.

Even still, though the church struggles, it is precisely within the struggle that the church fulfills its mission. As it “bears one another’s burdens”, it “fulfills the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Would that all the programs of the Church did as much! In that sense, the church of the poor is less to be pitied than considered, a witness to the plan of God for the world from which all churches might hear anew their true calling.

-Joe

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