Apr 19, 2017

When I was in seminary in Wilmore, Ky., I served as a part-time missions pastor at a United Methodist church in town. The church was going through some transitions and was trying to figure out a vision for the coming months and years. The church had long been focused on caring for its own members through discipleship and preaching, but the members wanted to be more connected with the community, particularly with those who had yet to venture inside our doors.

So a small group of us began to find opportunities to serve the community of Wilmore and nearby Lexington. We served meals in the homeless shelter and built friendships with the men who lived on the streets. We raised support for refugees who were being welcomed from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and we shared meals and necessary resources for them to begin their lives anew. And we poured ourselves into the emergency relief ministry that helped poor folks who lived day-to-day and were in need of basic services. Our yearlong service culminated with a Thanksgiving celebration with the community, cooking enough turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole and apple pie for over 250 people. It was an amazing night of shared food, shared conversations and shared laughter. The people in our church were so moved by this experience – something they had never done before – that missions became one of the largest line items in our budget.

Thousands of houses of worship in America serve their communities without getting one dime from the taxpayers.

I share this with you to make this point: Serving our community required a tremendous amount of time, energy and, yes, money – but not one of us ever thought of going to taxpayers for any of the funding. If we had, we would have missed out on the passionate journey of pouring ourselves out in service to our friends and neighbors. All of the work that all of these ministry actions necessitated were steps towards finding our vision, our calling and our joy. We did not want to lose any of that simply for the ease of gaining outside resourcing. We are mutually transformed as we seek to improve the welfare of those around us.

This is why I am a little stunned that Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., is going to such lengths to ensure that it can apply for government funding for the playground of its religious pre-school. The church is pursuing this case, Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it is being argued today. The church’s demands are in opposition with Missouri’s Constitution, which forbids taxpayer money from going to houses of worship. I have to say, I am with the state on this one.

It’s great that Trinity Lutheran wants to provide services for the community. I believe the facilities of houses of worship should be more utilized by our communities. But I would encourage my sisters and brothers at Trinity Lutheran to remember that service to the community is not something we should demand of others to provide. Serving the community is a joy that should be incumbent on people of faith to do without any need for outside compensation.

It reminds me of the kind of worship God desires from God’s people in Isaiah 58. First, God describes the kind of worship that is not pleasing: worship done while there is quarreling, or in the midst of oppression of the poor or to make ourselves feel better. Instead, God says:

Is this not the fast that I choose:

To loose the bonds of injustice,

To undo the thongs of the yoke,

To let the oppressed go free,

And to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

And bring the homeless poor into your house,

When you see the naked, to cover them,

And not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

Following the kind of worship God desires is the promise God gives:   

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

And your healing shall spring up quickly. (Isaiah 58:8)

I do want to emphasize that I am not advocating for, nor do I believe, that Scripture is promising a transactional form of missional engagement. For serious believers, there is nothing formulaic about our interaction with the Almighty. I believe that regardless of verse 8, our worship and missional engagement must be centered around redemptively utilizing our resources to meet the needs of others, through actions of justice and mercy. We do this simply and solely because this is what God desires. But I must also say, that like the church I served in Wilmore, the benefits of loving others will so far outweigh any sacrifices we make in our service.

And this is why I wish Trinity Lutheran Church would drop its lawsuit. In the end, its members are the ones who are missing out.

To learn more about Americans United’s involvement in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, click here.