Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Church as Marketplace

'Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!' [1] I remember once quoting Jesus' words to a friend while we were looking round Exeter Cathedral. One of the aisles had been entirely taken over by a makeshift shop selling postcards, key rings, mugs, books – the usual mixture of spiritual resources and tourist paraphernalia. I only intended it lightheartedly, as a kind of ironic comment rather than a criticism. I wasn't a minister then, but I understood well enough how much it must cost to run a cathedral. However, one of the volunteers running the shop overheard me and was stung by the implied rebuke. 'We do have some free leaflets!' she insisted, stuffing them into my hand.
Unfortunately, of course, it's the impression we make which matters most, not the good intentions behind what we do. People seldom find out about our good intentions, so all they are left with is their own impression. That's the problem with all the thermometers outside decaying churches, showing how much money has been raised towards the roof fund. Saving an architectural gem by putting a new and waterproof roof on it may be a very worthy intention, but the impression given to passers-by is that we are always grubbing around for money. Is that the message which the Church wants to give out, I wonder?
Was this the kind of question which was in Jesus' mind when he accused the Jewish leaders of turning the Temple into a marketplace? Pilgrims went there for a spiritual encounter - to meet God. What they got was a chance to spend money. And that risked devaluing the whole experience by making it seem just like the rest of life – the life they had come to get away from.
The world is run by accountants now, and we have had to come to terms with concepts like 'full cost recovery' and 'value added'. In learning the language of the market, have we ourselves turned the Church into a marketplace, a social enterprise?
I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with our motives. We want to help people. We want to provide a space where they can come to worship and reflect on Sundays, and where they can find practical help during the week. And someone has got to pay for it. In the old days it might have been paid for by grants and donations, or by money in the collection plate. Now we have to charge fees or raise income. It's all in a good cause. But, can the Church's mission be turned into a commodity, something people buy like any other goods or services? To quote a catchphrase, 'What would Jesus say?' Would he think that we have turned the Church into a marketplace?
'Full cost recovery' is about making sure that we are not subsidising things which somebody else – the Local Authority, the Health Service or some other arm of Government – ought to be paying for. So we reluctantly turned away the Police, who wanted to hold surgeries for local people, because they said they didn't have a budget for room hire. And we have had to tell other agencies, who are doing good work for the local community, that we can no longer give them free accommodation. If the work is important, and if they want to continue it, they will have to meet the true cost of doing it. Perhaps we never should have subsidised them in the first place. Perhaps they needed to know what the true cost was. I don't think that 'full cost recovery' is an unchristian idea when it is applied to organisations which have ample funding, and which have – in effect – been sponging off the Church and relying on the good nature and gullibility, even, of local Christians.
It's a different matter when we apply the principle of 'full cost recovery' to individuals. We can't charge people for coming to church, or even put pressure on them to pay their share of our running costs. Personal giving has to be an act of generosity, an open-handed response to God's goodness and love. God does not attempt to recover the full cost of salvation from us. The price would be too high! In response to God's great generosity, we can only feel challenged to give what we are able and seek to imitate the example of Jesus. His disciples were to remember – when they read the words of Psalm 69 verse 9 – that zeal for God's house had consumed Jesus. We can only hope and pray that zeal for God's house will consume those who are inspired to come to worship or meet with us.
And what about those who come to us as individuals in desperate need, with nowhere else to turn? It is surely part of the Church's mission – in imitation of Jesus – to give to them without expecting anything in return, so long as we can be sure, once again, that in helping them we are not subsidising, unbeknown to ourselves, some agency or department which has already been given the funds to support them. And that, of course, is one of the ways in which the term 'value added' comes into play. It is not just good accounting, it is also sound stewardship, to make sure that we use the scarce resources at our disposal to add value to our communities. If, by helping others, we duplicate services that another organisation is providing, we are not adding value to our community. In fact, that other organisation might end up under-performing, failing to help as many people as they should, and perhaps even having to return some of their own funding to the source from whence it came. That would mean we were subtracting from the common good instead of adding to it.
But 'added value' has another meaning. Part of the value which we add to people's lives when we help them may be something intangible which other organisations cannot replicate. If we are in touch with the Spirit of Jesus, the work that we do will not just be another form of social enterprise or service delivery, it will be a sign of God's love and compassion which may cause the people who receive it to believe in Jesus' name, just as many people in the crowds who witnessed Jesus' signs believed in him. If we allow God to infuse all that we do with that kind of added value, not only will our mission be more effective, but it may then be worth offering our help and support to people even when we cannot recover our full costs. And that's why we keep a small 'Samaritan Fund', available to use at our discretion, to provide help to those in greatest need or whom we believe will especially benefit from the kind of support which the Church can offer.
Are we turning God's house into a marketplace? That's a question which we must constantly return to as the financial squeeze on churches and charities gets steadily worse. The prevailing culture says that the marketplace is a good place to be, and that social enterprise represents a viable and better alternative to charity. The marketplace can be highly efficient, but it can also be a cold and forbidding place which excludes some of those who need help most of all. If we are to be the Body of Christ, the Church can learn from the marketplace and benefit from the marketplace, but we cannot become the marketplace.

[1] John 2.13-25

No comments: