This past year, I read about a ministry initiative that a suburban church employed to bless their community. On the day when the cost of postage was scheduled to go up, members of the church stood outside the post office handing out free sheets of 2 cent stamps to make up the difference in people’s postage. The effort was a part of a national campaign where churches were selected through an application process to receive $1,000 to use in some way to bless their community.
The pastor involved described it like this: “They asked that we do one event in May and one in June and that they be either a giveaway or community service project. They offered some ideas like paying for everyone’s’ donuts or coffee or doing some improvements at a local school in need of help. Other than that, they left it up to us.”
Last week I had the opportunity to sit in on a lecture given by William Willimon to a class of doctoral students at Fuller Seminary. Something that he said has lingered in my mind and spirit, and it had to do with the role of the church, and the pastor in particular, in responding to the needs of a congregation. Willimon contends that what masquerades as needs in our culture (North American) today are really a bunch of inflated desires that have somehow been elevated to the status of entitlements. And seeking to meet these needs, according to Willimon, will therefore always be a losing battle for ministers and churches because, as he self-described: "I am a bottomless pit of desires."
He pointed to the things we pray for as an indicator of this: in his opinion, because we simply do not need to pray for things like daily bread, our prayer life has been hijacked by issues of personal fulfillment. And so we busy ourselves with prayers for things like mutual orgasms (his words!) instead of petitioning for the things of Jesus' kingdom.
As a church-planter, I am struck by this challenge. My context is one where prayers for food are actually still at the forefront of people's minds. But there are certainly enough other things that fall under the category of "inflated desires" that we regularly encounter, and I wonder how it is that we are called to authentically witness to the kingdom in that context? As we seek to love God and neighbor here, we take seriously the call to make our neighbors needs our own. But in a culture that so elevates personal fulfillment, when and how do we as a church offer kingdom critique? Too often what I see are churches that cater to a bunch of felt needs in a given community to get people "in the door". It is no wonder, then, that churches and their leaders feel quickly overrun with an impossible list of expectations and unmet needs.
It made me think about some of the postage stamp/free donut witness, and wonder how the landscape of the church would change if such initiatives were redirected toward the daily bread sorts of needs we hear Jesus address? What if we were as committed to making sure that there were no hungry among us as we are to serving high-end coffee at our gatherings? Would we see a very different demographic at the center of the church’s witness?