As pastor of an urban church that just initiated–without government money–a free tutoring program for neighborhood kids, I have listened to the national debate on funding “faith-based” programs. A few ideas and questions are missing from the discussion.
First, how will we ensure government money goes primarily to impoverished areas? Many have argued government money should not be used to proselytize people, and I agree. But I don’t hear much about ensuring the money won’t go to churches that don’t need it.
Our Daytona Beach church sits between the Salvation Army and the center of prostitution. I’m not sure it’s a good idea for the government to offer us money to minister to our neighborhood. I’m quite sure it’s a bad idea for the government to offer money to a church already wealthy.
Second, how healthy are the faith-based entities with whom the government wants to partner? People seem to see urban churches as islands of hope in an ocean of decay.
I view urban churches as ships tossed about on rough seas. While a few are strong, many are rickety and taking on water. Others have either sunk or set sail for calmer suburban seas.
The problem goes beyond individual congregations. Many urban ministries rely heavily on national funding from declining mainline denominations. What will happen if Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists have less money to fund these ministries?
Dynamics change when the government pays half the bill instead of a small fraction. If more of these churches close their doors downtown, faith-based programs will themselves be homeless.
Third, this debate actually points to the church’s weakness as a social force.
Many in this debate have questioned how government money might influence the practice of religion. No one has mentioned churches and synagogues exerting too much influence on the government.
Houses of faith aren’t dominant players in the culture anymore. Fifty years ago this idea would have led to warnings about the danger of a church-state alliance. Now churches are just one more voice in our multicultural society.
Lastly, the government will not give faith organizations enough money to fix society’s problems. Rather, the result will be yet another bandage on massive urban and rural wounds.
Holistic approaches that include faith can effectively help a person in crisis. But religious leaders err by waving a magic wand with one hand and taking money with the other.
Ten years from now, society will still hurt. And the politicians who smile today and fund churches tomorrow may well say, “Don’t blame the government. We gave money to the churches because they said they could fix it.”
Chris Caldwell is pastor of Central Baptist Church, Daytona Beach, Florida.