A Christian without a Church

The other day our nine year old came home from school with a coin collection box for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. “Do you have any coins, Mommy?” she asked, and I sent her upstairs to raid the plastic jug on our dresser. The cardboard bank is now sitting on our kitchen table.

What’s not on our table? One of these:


For you non-Presbyterians, that’s one of the infamous “fish banks” handed out to children in church during Lent. These are turned in as part of the One Great Hour of Sharing, collected on Palm Sunday or Easter and benefiting disaster assistance, hunger relief, and self-development of people.

In terms of church attendance, our family is nomadic at the moment. That, plus some crazy Sunday morning weather recently that impacted church attendance, means we didn’t receive a bank.

It feels strange not to have a bank, but not for the reason I might have thought. Yes, a fish bank is a connection to a particular Presbyterian community, and sustained action is important, and we can do more together than separately. This I believe. But it also feels strange because it’s not strange at all. In fact, there are abundant opportunities to share my resources, all around me, all the time. And whenever I give, whether it’s to the church or the American Cancer Society, I do so out of my Christian values. (Others share their resources out of their own values as well, which may not be Christian or even religious at all. So much the better.)

I’m glimpsing some of what Barbara Brown Taylor talks about in Altar in the World when she talks about people seeing God show up in places they never expected to. I always knew this. Now I’m experiencing it first-hand. To be clear: once we land in a local congregation, we will support that congregation financially. But this nomadic period is reminding me that even though I am a Christian, I don’t need the church in order to give to organizations who do mission, charity and justice.

My running group takes up collections for food pantries and Toys for Tots. My email box is full of appeals from organizations I believe in and support when I can. My children’s schools have clothing drives. Friends are running and walking various events and I am supporting them. I can give $10 simply by sending a text message, not unlike throwing some extra cash in the offering plate when the Spirit moves. Opportunities to give are folded into every facet of my life.

Some church folk might balk and say that this leads to a scattershot approach, that there’s no substitute for sustained collective action. Yes. But a lot of crowd-funding and peer-to-peer fundraising is communal–it’s friends asking friends to learn about a cause and join in with the contribution of funds. Maybe the church does the sustained part better than some. But even that can be present without the church.

I was at a workshop on financial stewardship in the church a few years ago. The speaker is one of the respected names in this field and is helping all kinds of people think more creatively about giving and yes, fundraising, in a way that gets beyond outdated ideas of duty and institutional maintenance. During a break, a colleague told him she was thinking about editing her church’s pledge cards to include a place to (voluntarily) share of the giving people do beyond the church. The idea is, when we collect those cards in worship we should be lifting up prayers for all of our giving, not just the giving we offer to the congregation.

My ears perked up because this is something I’ve thought about too. (As another friend says, “The congregation ends up becoming a money-laundering organization for other charities. Let the people give directly to them!”) To my surprise, the stewardship guru rejected the idea: “You want to encourage church giving. Bringing in these other organizations just muddies the waters.”

Lots of us are thinking missionally these days. The church is not a location but a people–a sent people. Wherever we are, that’s where the church is. If that’s true–if we really believe that–should we not encourage a lifestyle of giving to all kinds of organizations, not just the church? And what is at stake if we don’t? If we feel that giving to a local congregation is paramount, is that a sign that we’re only intent on our own survival? Or are there larger theological issues at play?

7 thoughts on “A Christian without a Church

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  2. Paul Carlson

    I am the pastor of a community that sees supporting local non-profits as part of its mission. We have our own ministries as well, but we cannot possibly meet all the needs in our urban community. By supporting local struggling non-profits, we are extending our commitment to the community and its needs. We partner as we can and offer reasonable rent to new non-profits. Historically, these have gone on to become large and successful non-profit ministries. Our building is always busy with activity from the community. At the same time, money is tight. We also need to continue as a viable community; otherwise, our community support and presence will end. The idea that we are in competition with other agencies that serve the community is, to me, an isolationist attitude in conflict with the public nature of the gospel. it’s not just about us.

  3. Robert H. Fernandez

    Your blog has raised two fundamental theological issues of extreme importance: what it means to be the people of God (church) and stewardship. Entire treatises can be written about each one, but I will respond as succinctly as possible from my perspective.

    It is a basic theological principle that the church is a people called by God for a special purpose—to be the body of Christ in the world; to continue Christ’s work of peace, love and justice. Notice I did not say anything about it being “organized religion” or even an organization. The church is a living being. I fully understand the disillusionment of many today with organized religion because in some cases it has become a bureaucratic organization intent on control and power for itself. However, that is not true of countless congregations and denominations. As a minister myself, I have striven to keep the congregations’ “feet to the fire” on this issue in the places I have served. When a person becomes a part of the church (notice I did not say “join,” again because it is not an organization), she/he becomes part of the body of Christ at work in the world. As the body of Christ we equip ourselves by discerning the ways and message of Christ. Then we bring together our whole selves so that in a concentrated way, we can be more effective in bringing about the peace, love, and justice Christ called for in his ministry. Therefore, rather than diluting or minimizing the importance of being the church, we should strive to clarify and make real the purpose of the church.

    Of course, there are many other ways in which people, even church “members” can come together, informally and formally, with or without Christian values, to bring about the peace, love and justice Christ proclaimed and lived, whether they attribute these to Christ or not—that is immaterial. In the case of church members, it is definitely a vital part of being the church in the world. This brings me to the second issue: Christian stewardship.

    Christian stewardship is not a fundraising gimmick to keep the church doors open. It is an entire way of living. The underlying principle is that all we are and have comes from God; we are merely managers of these things. This is a very difficult principle for the individualistic society in which we live. The focal point of this individualism is the self, and we know all too well that the ego is a formidable entity. This is what makes Christianity and our roots in Judaism so counter-cultural. Too often Christians have accommodated Christian principles to cultural norms.

    Christian stewardship involves how we conduct and care for our lives and relate to others; how we care for the created world; what we do with our resources (including money); how we use our influence and power. This is serious business—so serious, we are afraid to tackle it forthrightly in the church for fear of offending people. But, as I said earlier, it is counter-cultural. Unfortunately too much Christianity has been accommodated so that it is not offensive. Jesus Christ was offensive. That is why he was killed!

    Being a part of a church involves investing ourselves and our resources as a community to do the work of Christ. The last five years of the stewardship observance I have conducted has indeed included an extensive card in which people have the opportunity to pledge themselves to ways in which they can continue to be the church beyond its walls in all sphere of their lives.

    I am very passionate about both these issues. They are vital to my understanding of the core of being a Christian.

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