The Edifice Complex – Things that don’t bother religious people…but should

churchiantiy-2My cell phone buzzed in my pocket. Answering it, I heard the voice of a friend and business associate.

“You’re going to get a call in a few minutes,” he began. “It will be a new customer of mine and I’ve told him some things that aren’t exactly true and I need you to back me up on that or I’m going to lose this contract.”

Before I answered, I recalled a conversation I had with that same man the day before. He is a devout Christian, a lay preacher in his denomination, and a good-as-the next-guy building contractor. He and I had been discussing habits some people have. I had asked him if a person could go to heaven if they smoked cigarettes. He vigorously shook his head and proclaimed unequivocally that they most certainly could not.

Yet here he was on the phone asking me to advance an untruth about him to protect his income. So, I responded, “I guess it’s okay to lie but not okay to smoke. Is that what you’re saying.”

“But this is different,” he explained.

Trouble was, he couldn’t explain and there is no defense to his argument. It isn’t different. But his willingness to bend the truth for the sake of money is unfortunately, not all that uncommon. Actually he was more than bending it, he was mangling it.

And yes, this actually did happen, has happened more than once in oh so many situations.

In my last post I wrote about 9 things that bother religious people but shouldn’t. Today I am coming at this from the other direction. Here is my list, in no particular order, of Things that don’t bother religious people…but should.

The Edifice Complex

I had hoped this was a peculiarly American condition but unfortunately my travels to many other countries seems to indicate it is universal. There is a fixation on churches getting buildings and that size matters. That the poor and the homeless sleep in the shadow of church buildings and on the steps of great cathedrals should provoke the pious congregants of those buildings to at least rethink priorities, but it seems easy enough to walk past or around the poor to get into church to listen to someone talk to us about Jesus example of caring for the poor. There are exceptions, of course, wonderful ones, but not nearly enough of them. The focus is simply wrong, the reasoning skewed, and the objective temporal and material.

There are two ministries I found refreshing. One was a ministry to the truly needy in the inner city. It was called the First Church of the Last Chance and its pastor promised “Soup, Soap, and Hope.” The other thrived during the street days of the counter-culture movement in the 70’s and 80’s in Hollywood, California. It was called The Holy Ghost Repair Service. They had no church building at all, worked out of a small office on Sunset Boulevard, and hit the streets at sundown every night. They also ran a home for ex-prostitutes called the House of Magdalene. Those of you somewhat familiar with the Gospels will know why it was called that.

But for most religious institutions, it is not the case. The building is paramount. Getting one, keeping one, filling one on service days, paying for one, maintaining one, and measuring success by how many come to that building and how often they come there has taken over as the focus of religion.

One pastor recounted the struggle to get his church’s building completed, of the long hours and weekends filled with work. Once the building was done, his son remarked, “Now maybe we can spend some time together.” The pastor reported with regret that his answer was “I’d like to, son, but now I’ve got to work to fill it up.”

Spirituality has nothing at all to do with a building. Nothing. Religion demands a location, a place from which evaluations can be made and expectations can be focused to entice and coerce the “faithful” to be.

A building is a device. Any and all devices are utensils in the message and nothing more…or at least they shouldn’t be. But it doesn’t seem to bother most religious people that the edifice has become the focus, the center of the universe for them. Jesus, in the meantime, can be found hanging out somewhere else. The inevitable result is an us versus them mentality. The edifice becomes the visible representation of faith and that doesn’t seem to bother religious people…but it should.

On Friday, the second installment – Why is it so important to be important?

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