If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
“If the church burned down tomorrow, would you give $10,000 to replace it?" Asking the question was a professional fundraiser, speaking to a senior citizen.
The woman thought for a moment about the church that had meant so much to her over the years. It had been the site of numerous life-changing events: her wedding, a Bible study for young couples, the baptisms of her children, vacation Bible schools, potluck dinners, candlelight Christmas Eve services, youth group events, Easter sunrise services, senior citizen gatherings and finally, the funeral of her husband.
"$10,000 to replace the church?" she said. "Of course I'd give it."
"Well, the church will probably not burn down tomorrow," admitted the fundraiser. "But still, it needs your $10,000 if it is going to remain vital and strong."
She wrote the check.
How much is the church worth? What is the dollar value of a class for young couples in which they establish lifelong friendship? Summer church camp that introduces a child to Jesus? A counseling session that helps a relationship? A youth group meeting that prevents a suicide? A senior citizen gathering that reduces isolation and loneliness? An AA meeting that conquers an addiction? A Sunday school class that teaches self-worth and compassion for others? Add them up, and what do you get?
In the summer of 2010, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania and a secular research group based in Center City Philadelphia searched for a dollars-and-cents answer to that specific question. With calculators in hand, they attempted to calculate the worth of the church to the community—what they called the economic "halo effect" of a religious congregation. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer (February 1, 2011), they investigated a dozen congregations in Philly—10 Protestant churches, a Catholic parish and a synagogue.
Looking at the overall mission, ministry and day-to-day activity of the church, they added up the money generated by weddings, funerals, festivals, counseling programs, preschools and elder care. They included the salaries of church staff members and the wages of others who work around the church—roofers, plumbers, snow shovelers. A dollar value was attached to intangibles, such as the work of helping people find jobs and teaching children to be socially responsible. Looking around the church campuses, they even measured the diameter of trees.
And what was the grand total for the dozen congregations? Over $50 million in annual economic benefits. That's a lot of value.
A 300-member Episcopal church was calculated to be worth $1.65 million to the community, an amount that is impressive but not extraordinary. A 7,000 member Roman Catholic parish with a parochial school and community center was given a valuation of $22.44 million. The numbers "just blew us away," said Robert Jaeger, executive director of the research group Partners for Sacred Places.
So how much is St. John United Church of Christ worth?
The apostle Paul says, "I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them". He sees the people around him as potential recipients of the gospel, and he pledges to do anything he can to win them over. He believes Jesus can change lives, mostly because it changed his life. Before Paul was a follower of Jesus, he set out to stop people from following Jesus. His name was Saul, a Roman citizen and a Jew. Paul only knew this Jesus as the man who threatened the usual way of doing business in the ancient world. Then Paul is brought to his knees by a blinding light on his way to Damascus. He has a “come to Jesus” experience that leaves him forever changed. If you don’t know his story, read it in Acts 9 this week.
Paul understood his own changed life to mean an obligation to help others experience a changed life. Today we are invited to be a part of something that changes lives—a story of a God who came to be one of us in Jesus, so we might know without a doubt that God loves us—every one of us. When we are changed as Paul was changed by his encounter with Jesus, we become part of something bigger than any one of us. The obligation to help others becomes ours.
For a long time now, Christianity has claimed Jesus changes lives, but as time passed, the message has become skewed to be more about an evacuation plan for heaven than about changing the reality of someone’s life here on earth. Paul knew he was changed and now he was telling others about this Jesus who gave him a new identity. Neither Jesus nor Paul imagined that there would be anything like we know today of Christianity—a sometimes dogmatic, absolute belief system that does not allow for the movement of God in our day. That is why it means something to say “God is still speaking.” And God is saying life can be changed in the here and now, not just in heaven some day.
So what’s the worth of the UCC in Kankakee? No church can be all things to all people. A 300 member congregation cannot do the ministry of a 7,000 member congregation, but every congregation can do something well.
* Riverchase United Methodist Church in Alabama has a program to teach English as a second language.
* At Vienna Presbyterian Church in Virginia, a "Friendship Class" includes the intellectually disabled and mentally challenged. Created for a handful of children with Down syndrome, the class has grown to include 28 students with a variety of disabilities. Students bring their friends, and do their own outreach to the community by participating in walks to fight world hunger.
* In Northern Virginia, an outreach program of the United Methodist Church called "Grace Ministries" distributes clothing, children's books, toys, baby items, food and diapers. One recipient said, "Grace Ministries meant a lot to me because there have been many times when I had nothing." She is now a volunteer in the program.
What is the worth of this congregation and our ministry is one way to ask this question, but the better question may be, what is the worth of a life changed because we, the United Church of Christ, are here?
I believe this is a place where lives are changed. Not because we’re special, but because this is a place where people hear and see a message of acceptance, a message that we are enough and a message that we have enough to change other lives. We are invited to be a part of something that changes lives—we are entrusted with a commission. The work needs all of us—our talents, our time and our treasure. We are so close to fully funding our expenses. Are we willing to each give just a little bit more so we can meet those expenses? A life may be changed in the process—it may be yours and mine. Jesus looks into our eyes, gently smiling and calls us by name—come, follow me and together we can change lives.