Guest commentary by Carlton Johnson
If I live to be as old as my birthday, I know that I’ll never forget those words. Crystal (not her real name), the love of my undergrad life, had confirmed once and for all on that hot summer morning that being a part of the church was not for her.
I felt like a personal failure. I wanted to be with a church girl and Crystal wasn’t going to be one.
Unwittingly, I’d invited her to Building Fund Sunday. By the time the pastor was done with the biblical dictates on giving, Crystal had calculated that in order to be considered a “rightly saved person,” she would have to give one-third of her meager college student’s salary. As she exited the sanctuary, it was clear, for her, that heaven was not within reach.
To be honest, if I had focused on what was being preached, I would likely have drawn the same conclusion. But, at the time, I was more interested in Crystal than Christ. (At least I’m honest.)
Yet, as my own faith journey deepened, I pondered the hymn refrain, “What shall I render for all of God’s blessings?” Then, my path crashed violently with that of the prosperity gospel. Though never an adherent, I worked briefly in music ministry in such a church. My inner empath was deeply disturbed by the emphasis on expansion — and not just for space to classrooms and social work. No, the new building would be suitable for God!
I’m still horrified by memories of individuals on fixed incomes struggling to make $300-a-month “demonstrations of their faith” — at the cost of their health, the $13 million-dollar project would begin in three years. In less than a year, I walked away. Now, it was me who had found salvation unaffordable.
However, my struggle was not financial. How could the suffering of others be justified for the sake of Christ? How could the church take advantage of individuals’ and groups’ need to be loved and affirmed?
I’d discovered that the new project had no provisions for seniors. None. The only elevator went to the pastor’s garage. The wheelchair lift was clearly an afterthought. The shortest access to the front rows of the sanctuary was a 120 foot walk down a steep incline. The new audio system was more powerful than the one at the local amphitheater. Though only in my mid-30s at the time, not even I wanted to sit near such “pure awesomeness.”
In our grand scheme to build a house for God, did our fallen conscience secretly desire to build a place that limits the access of others? Did we create God’s dream house as a place where we ourselves could be seen as gods?
Perhaps God noted this failure of our humility in when reminding Nathan of the uselessness of temples “since leading the children of Israel out of Egypt” (2 Samuel). Paul challenged the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians) of the importance of maintenance and investment in the edifices of God’s true dwelling, their bodies.
Our investments should exceed physical fitness and certainly clothing and jewelry. I would argue for persistent checking of our hearts and our behaviors that we not create impenetrable barriers to those seeking and needing relationship with God.
I wonder how many people have turned away from the church based on rhetoric in the media? Has the thickness of the walls of your hearts made God inaccessible for a family member or co-worker? Has your church membership ever been used as a status symbol?
Maya Angelou said: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” Rather than require athletic feats of others in order to reach God, won’t youleap the wall to bring them closer?
I’ve tried it. They’re worth the investment of your time and resources.
CARLTON JOHNSON is the operations officer for Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta and associate minister at the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, Georgia.