“We must learn to travel light if we hope to keep pace with Christ,” remarked Neville Ward, and who could argue the point? When times are good, it seems the church can afford “reasonable” debt and a growing staff, but when the economy turns sour, then what?
In the best of all worlds the church and her mission should not be hampered in any way by a smoldering economy. In fact, the reverse is true. It is precisely the tough times that test our claim to be the loving people of Christ. For example, the early church’s robust economic courage in face of growing religious opposition was directed squarely at the poor, precisely where it should have been (Acts 2:45; 4:32; cf. Galatians 2:10). Such action evidences an alternative economic reality, one that too often seems foreign to the contemporary Western church, whose mounting bills preoccupy the time, energy, and attention of its leaders, and whose large debts sometimes leave little money for the poor or missions.
A Better Way
Is there a better way to navigate difficult times? Let me suggest just one. You might recall that, according to Luke, Jesus instructed some of the earliest missionaries not to take anything with them (Luke 9:3; 10:4). Nothing. The mission was urgent and focused. The evangelist tells us Jesus conferred “power and authority” to these disciples only to cast out demons, heal the sick, and preach good news (Luke 9:1, 2). “Take nothing,” he said, but (in effect) “offer much.”
Here we observe a “new kingdom economics,” as it were, one where gospel gifts are not hampered by the need for extensive financial planning. The disciples were to reside exclusively in the homes of generous, willing hosts and move on when not accepted (Luke 9:4, 5). To be sure, Luke indicates that Jesus’ larger mission was funded (Luke 8:1-3). But during the great preaching campaigns of chapters 9 and 10, in a season of great urgency and need, the disciples were to take nothing. What these early evangelists were offering up was (in a word) hope—hope for salvation—and hope doesn’t have to cost a lot. I believe this way of being and doing church, or something very much like it, is an exciting and important possibility and opportunity for our times.
Flexible and Portable
Similarly, ours is a time ripe for tabernacles, a time for portable, flexible places of worship. The church in Acts was, after all, called the “Way,” hardly a destination. Jesus is said to have “tabernacled” among us (John 1:14), and Paul clearly teaches that our bodies (along with their legs and feet) are themselves temples (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Perhaps this new temple theology, or something like it, drove Paul to use the synagogue, a lecture hall, marketplaces, private homes, and the temple courts as primary venues for being, doing, and building the church. Again, the human temple was, like the tabernacle before it, on the move.
Perhaps too, this new temple theology lies at the heart of Stephen’s complaint with the Sanhedrin, whose religious, political, and economic identities and stability were apparently tied more to the lavish Herodian temple complex than to the God of it (Acts 7:48-50).
The penetrating question for us, then, is this: what would happen if our great cathedrals, worship centers, and church campuses were destroyed or lost to impossible mortgages? Our immediate response likely would be to ask, “Where will we worship.” But this question misses the point—entirely. It is neither in Jerusalem nor Mount Gerizim that we erect our spiritual architecture (John 4:21-24). Just as modern churches ravaged by storms and burnt by racists have found new strength to rebuild their congregations, not primarily with bricks and mortar but “in spirit and in truth,” so should the contemporary church in the new kingdom economy learn to rebuild for God’s glory.
Simple churches, house churches, churches meeting in grade schools and junior high buildings, backyard churches, office churches, warehouse churches, storefront churches—maybe even abandoned Wal-Marts—all are suitable. Likely, none is subject to economic forces beyond our collective means. And many, maybe all, are at work in the kingdom as I write.
Wisdom and Restraint
The times call for godly wisdom and compassionate restraint. I have seen some of the world’s great cathedrals—St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Michael’s in Vienna, and others. I have worshiped in influential churches, large and small, coast-to-coast and have nearly always come away enriched, enthused, and grateful. God is clearly at work in these places. I offer heartfelt thanks for them.
But today I am thinking rather of a dear friend who told me about two churches she visited in South Korea. One was fairly large, even by South Korean standards, roughly 50,000, the other (clearly her favorite of the two) only 50. One was well off, the other meeting in squalor. One in the city, the other in a dump—literally. Its goal was to relocate as all of its members eventually found work. It was, in other words, a tabernacle. Its pastor had moved his family from Seoul and built a shack out of available debris, living in complete material and spiritual solidarity with other members of the broken little community.
Can you imagine singing, praying, preaching, and sharing the Lord’s Supper in the stench of a dump? Probably not on your life. Not on mine either!
Still, I wonder, what would it be like to worship in a setting that cost nothing, absolutely nothing, especially when so many of our churches and parachurch ministries and genuinely poor people and young missionaries are barely scraping by, and when so many other promising ministries never get a chance to launch due to a lack of funding?
I know of a growing, vibrant church of 350 with a beautiful and efficient campus, thriving ministry, and virtually no full-time staff. The elders take turns preaching, leaders shepherd with little or no remuneration, and the church gives roughly 50 percent of its income to missionaries. The church has also, by the way, built apartments to house missionaries while on furlough. They treat them like royalty. These disciples have learned to travel light. They have adapted to the times.
At the same time, I know of an inner-city ministry, one of whose residents recently gave me a tour of its housing unit, where I came upon two 12-by-14-foot rooms, each of which housed a single mother and her six children. As I drove home that day in the shadow of great museums, businesses, hotels, banks, medical complexes, government buildings, and churches, I grieved for these mothers and their children. I grieved over the shortsightedness of the church in our day. In truth, I became livid, not least with my own silly spending habits.
There is so much more we could be doing and should be doing, I thought, but so often what I hear is, “We just can’t pay the bills.”
The new kingdom economy—take nothing with you; give all you can—is forming in my heart. My head is still trying to catch up. This is not a time for complaint or blame. It is a time for brainstorming, synergy, and creativity—a time for better solutions. A time for letting go. A time for “downward mobility,” as Henri Nouwen used to say.
A time to travel light.
Neal Windham is professor of New Testament and Christian spiritual formation at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.