At my church, a Brethren denomination that has German Baptist roots, we hold an annual council meeting every October. These are mostly business meetings for the election of committee chairs and such, as well as for the approval of the next year’s budget. Each of us pastors is expected to give a brief summary of our particular ministry. I’ll never forget the meeting in 2010.
It had been a difficult year financially for our church as an organization and as individuals, just as it was for many across America (and the world). So I could understand her objection. I was about halfway through my short presentation when a congregant interrupted with a financial question pertaining to the worship arts portion of the budget. She said we shouldn’t have spent nearly what we had.
Just a year into my position at this church, I probably looked like a deer in her headlights. A small one. A baby one like Bambi. I looked to the elders, to my pastor. “Uh, Papa.” (No, that’s probably more like Fieval Mousekewitz.)
I was reminded of this in reading John 12.
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. –John 12:1-6 (ESV)
(Let’s look past the part about Judas’ being a thief. I don’t think that woman at the council meeting was a thief, though she was just as vocally opinionated as one Mr. Iscariot. Was that his last name? Did any other disciple have a surname?)
The Love Feast?
You can look throughout Church history and see the different approaches to corporate worship, whether it’s done in humble simplicity or extravagant display. My church’s denomination has traditionally emphasized simplicity. Look no further than our Maundy Thursday gathering we call the Love Feast, a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one. It’s hardly a feast. A simple slice of roast in broth and some bread. Perhaps the feast refers to the love. (I’m not sure how “Love Feast” survived the ’60s.)
Interestingly, however, in recent years (before I arrived) Eaton Church of the Brethren hosted many large-scale productions. It’s why when they built a new campus it had to include a worship space with a theatrical stage.
We have some friends who serve as missionaries. When they return to Preble County for their summer hiatus, they always help out with worship, her on piano and him on banjo and as vocalist. We’ve talked about the financial disparity between the U.S. and our neighbor in Haiti. They are not judgmental towards affluent believers here.
Could the money we allocate in our church budget be sent to Haiti to help many people? Certainly, and we do help. But I get the impression from them (and Jesus) that worship and the spaces we use for corporate worship should look and sound and smell beautiful.
7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” –John 12:7-8 (ESV)
As the overseer of the worship arts budget, I have to weigh each purchase: How will this contribute to an atmosphere of worship? Yes, I need to be careful with how the budget is spent–and I do have accountability in this regard–but this passage shows here that Jesus welcomes lavish worship, what some might think is excessive. This kind of worship arises from the depths of our hearts and also hits our wallets. Candles, linens, technical upgrades — these cost money that, yes, could be given to the poor, as Judas pointed out.
As in many things, we must find a balance. It’s why one evening in my home we eat a simple meal of beans and rice, and then for our Sabbath meal we might have steak. Of course, my favorite Sabbath meal is tostadas, which are pretty cheap to make. Now, there’s a feast. With an emphasis on the food.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness. –Psalm 29:2 (ESV)