On passing an empty store front on Euclid with a labyrinth sitting alone in the middle of the floor

The other day I was walking along Euclid Avenue on the way to the Bancroft Library when I passed an empty storefront. It had been, for a short time, a shop with religious articles, not a Christian store, but a multi-religious store for spiritual seekers of all kinds. Now all the books and candles were gone; no more advertisements in the windows for spiritual guidance for a fee. All that was left in the center of the empty store, woven into the carpet on the floor, was a labyrinth in blue, big enough to walk into. I suddenly had an idea about Mary Tolbert’s idea of a lab church for PSR, where PSR students would practice their ministry skills and offer a community, online and in person, to those in the neighborhood adventurous enough to try it out. We thought of the Ecumenical Center at the time, but why not this storefront.

It made me think of something I had just been reading in the GTU library, Gil Soo Han’s Social Sources of Church Growth1. Han borrowed an insight from Bill McKinney who pointed out back in the 1980s that successful religious leaders understand the importance of paying attention to supply and demand for religious services. The little storefront on Euclid, I suppose, failed to understand this. No matter how old and well established they are, theological schools such as PSR can also lose track of the religious services people seek and churches or other religious institutions provide.

Every church I know, in searching for a pastor, hopes for someone who can create demand for their particular kind of religious services. Demand is something, Han argues, that religious entrepreneurs can create (both for good or ill) even as supply and demand realities shape them in ways they cannot completely control. Everyone is looking for the sure way to church growth. Fear of failure runs pretty high. Here is where I would distinguish between the church and the Christian faith. My study of history indicates that the church can be timid. It demands an ideal but is so afraid to fail that it often does. Faithful Christian religious leaders on the other hand can take an empty storefront with the complexity of life’s labyrinth etched into its floor and use it to forge a new and dynamic community of grace.

Church growth, Han argues, depends on what he calls religio-economic entrepreneurs. PSR could be more deliberate in forming entrepreneurs who know the importance of the economic realities of offering religious and social services. Maybe such a trained PSR graduate with faithful enthusiasm could make creative use of a storefront space with a labyrinth in the middle of the floor. I commend Han’s book. I found a copy on the internet for $9. Or for free in the GTU library.

More thoughts about religio-economic entrepreneurship in the Pacific world

While I think it is good for seminary students to be aware that they are purveyors of religious services in a world where people do not always feel the need of such services, Gil Soo Han’s book also notes the overwhelming temptation among such entrepreneurs to ignore the tensions between their religious values and teachings and the business of forming a church organization, raising money, attracting people. Counting wealth and membership numbers as the measure of success for such a business enterprise can lead a religious leader to forgetfulness about the teachings of the faith. Han even tells stories of pastors who buy and sell churches for a profit, as if they were businesses. I know of progressive denominational leaders who think small financially unsuccessful churches should close forever.

One of the great attractions of Christianity in the Pacific World is its attention to the poor and those oppressed by political or economic macro-organizations, those caught in systems that work (usually intentionally) to keep them poor and powerless. The teachings of Christianity, based in older Jewish wisdom, contain a liberating word and a means of healing and empowerment based in justice and love rather than the bottom line. The trick for a Christian entrepreneur (here at PSR we tend to think of a “progressive” or “liberal” entrepreneur) who takes the task of fostering social justice seriously is to find a way to form a sustainable Christian community without requiring its leaders or its members to ignore the poor for the sake of the church’s thriving. It means every such entrepreneur tries new things to attract more people to the cause of Christianity. It also means that the measure of success has to emphasize the church’s effect on the lives of those Jesus invited to the table. What are the religious needs of all of us living in this region at this time? How close did we come to the Heavenly Banquet? Who did we leave out by mistake or because we actually desired to exclude? And how aware were we that we are still caught up in the unjust systems of this world?

PSR does not generally serve the poor and oppressed directly. You have to have money, or friends with money to come to our school2. Christianity teaches that an invitation comes from Jesus Christ to join in a banquet, a community, made up of all of humanity regardless. I don’t mean this in an exclusive way, nor do I want to suggest that this Christian invitation is the only religious option worth considering. I am Christian myself and I find the invitation compelling. Jesus made the invitation to all, but seems to have had an expansive view of the possibilities for salvation despite a few proprietary verses in Christian scripture. The Jesus I know would say “whoever is not against us is for us.” [Consider Mark 9] In terms of a religious service though, this radically inclusive invitation is compelling to the excluded or marginalized people.

If we concentrate our religious entrepreneurs on the same privileged people who have supported PSR all these years, we will miss the opportunity to grow religious community among the millions in the Pacific world who are oppressed and excluded from the fullness of life in this world and risk missing out ourselves on the Banquet in that Realm that is already possible but not yet.

1 Gil Soo Han’s Social Sources of Church Growth: Korean Churches in the Homeland and Overseas, (University Press of America). He concludes that the church is a multidimensional social entity and its growth or decline we cannot understand in simple terms. Churches grow or decline from both internal (congregational and denominational) and external contextual factors such as ethnicity, religious beliefs and practices, economic and political changes, demography, industrialization, secularization. And external factors beyond the control of the congregation or their religious leaders often have the strongest long term effect.

2 Much of our funding comes from investment in the very macro-organizations that work effectively to keep the poor oppressed. We try not to invest in the ones that do that intentionally, but the whole system does it. Original sin is something PSR students find an uncomfortable idea. We tend to think it has to do with sex. But it is really more complicated. It is this entanglement with greed that keeps the poor and oppressed from the banquet table.

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