Monday, February 27, 2006

Extreme Home Takeover

Before I went to Seminary I worked here, first as the church's "urban intern" in Chester, PA; a city whose poverty is suggested by the fact that its school system ranked dead last in the State's 501 districts. Rather than show up on the scene Kipling style, we did it right by partnering with a Chester church. The joint ministry involved purchasing abandoned homes, fixing them up with volunteer labor from both churches, and then selling the homes at a rock bottom rates to members of the Chester church. The process, which culminated in joint worship services, was so effective that at one point the city of Chester asked us to completely take over their urban renewal program.

Since then ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has taken up a similar housing ministry of their own. Americans of my generation generally develop a deep cynicism about T.V. culture due to having watched so much of it when we were young, and it takes a lot to overcome our suspicion... But Extreme Home Makeover does a pretty good job. They tackle serious, sometimes desperate problems with an army of skilled labor and virtually unlimited resources - leaving the problems always spectacularly solved.

Contrasting these two "ministries" leads me to ask: If you were a poor family in Chester, who would you rather have come to fix up a home? The scraggly band of volunteers from two churches slowly learning how to get along - or the omni-competent ABC funded platoon with a Hollywood level dose of teary compassion and yee haw enthusiasm, not to mention the sex appeal of Ty the handy guy and self-declared tuff chix Paige Hemmis? If you're on the fence, the fact that only one "ministry" would give your family the chance to be on national TV might put you over the edge.

Granted poverty is such that any and all efforts at its alleviation are to be welcomed, but another hypothetical question: If Extreme Home Makeover continued to multiply its projects, would it have the power to put church ministries like the one I worked at out of business? The answer I think is Yes. If, that is, social ministry is all churches were interested in doing. It wouldn't however put Media Presbyterian's ministry out of business, because our pastor Bill Borror (whose sermons are well worth a listen) frequently remarked that the one thing we can do that just any home building service can't do is preach the Gospel. And important as home-building is, the Gospel, which is the reason we do it, takes priority.

In contrast, if all a church is interested in is social ministry, then Extreme Home Makeover can and should takeover. I admire the moral fiber of the church that only cares about building low income housing - but given the choice I'd rather volunteer for and write a check to ABC. To put it an admittedly playful and un-nuanced way, Walter Rauschenbusch is Ty Pennington.

Should the Lord tarry, the Church will be around long after ABC has been replaced by whatever communications media render it irrelevant. The church will so endure not because of her humanitarian labors, but because of the life-giving message that has and will continue to inspire them. Meanwhile the parts of the church that have forgotten the Gospel (or are unsuccessfully attempting its reinvention) enjoy ABC's future irrelevance today!