Achievement of the Christian ethic spoken of so earnestly in the nation’s pulpits is postponed from Sunday to Sunday by the Monday–Saturday posture of many of its most devoted advocates, the ministers of our churches. However exhortative their Sunday precepts to prospective supporters of the substance of the Christian attitude toward one’s neighbor—tolerance, justice, mercy, humility, love—their week-day obeisance to the form of Christianity—the church building, the new-member campaign, the bowling team, the women’s society, the men’s club—deprives them of time required for the daily practice of brotherhood.

Any dedicated lay steward of the church knows that the establishment itself, the church with all its excrescences and trappings, is, in the mind of many a pastor, the thing to be preserved at all costs. Of course this is so; otherwise too many pastors would have little to do. It is indeed true that many are comforters of their fellow man, providing surcease from the anxieties of ill health, ministering to the distressed and downtrodden, counseling the emotionally troubled; yet a good many ministers of larger churches delegate visitation chores to an assistant, who must stand in line for a pulpit assignment. Many also reserve to themselves the prestigious administrative-management duties that assure continuity for the accouterments of their ecclesiastical property.

The payoff for the pastor is in the number of new members added to the church during his tenure. Often he can claim little credit for the success he enjoys. He simply had the good fortune of being called or assigned to a church in a neighborhood that was undergoing a population explosion. A new industry or business, a new government agency, a shopping center, grew up overnight in his parish, and increasing numbers of new residents sought a baby-sitting arrangement (sometimes called a church or Sunday school) for their children on Sunday mornings. Incidentally, they become dues-paying (average for the United States perhaps $2 per week) members of the Sunday-morning club and sometimes participate in its meetings—particularly when it rains and the golf course is too soggy to sustain a foursome.

The Establishment

Whatever their motivations, which are usually casual if not frivolous, they become members of the pastor’s cozy little establishment while he basks in the reflected glory of a successful recruitment program. Few if any questions are asked of these casual Christians about their personal relation to God through Jesus Christ or even about their responsibilities toward their fellow men—to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. They mouth a pious pledge to support the establishment with their attendance and their money—and they are in.

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It’s a comfortable feeling—and a bargain. For a reluctant two bucks a week a fellow buys what he thinks is a little insurance against the harsh confrontations of doomsday. He finds that most of his neighbors are in on it, too. In fact, the Smiths, next door, invite him and his wife in for drinks after the initiation ceremony. Shortly thereafter the new members are bowling on the establishment team, picnicking with the young married group, participating in the men’s club and the women’s society, and at church dinners in the social hall listening to a halfback from the nearby pro-football team, or to a saleswoman for dinnerware. The pastors is at the dinner, too. He calls down the invocation and offers up the benediction.

Soon the sanctuary is too small. It really isn’t, but the pastor observes that his own clubhouse is looking a bit grubby since two other denominations in the community have built new plants. He convenes a handful of his most trusted supporters, the real in-group, and blueprints quickly emerge for the construction of a huge new brick-and-mortar edifice to cost a quarter of a million dollars. At no point, did anyone raise any question about how the new church might serve residents in an adjacent Negro community; or whether new members might be prevented from dumping their children on the church school unless as parents they agreed to go on a regular mission during the year—teaching underprivileged children to read and write, reading to old folks in the nursing home, volunteering for work at the hospital—doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God. No, those questions remain unanswered, and the new church begins to rise. Form stretches its brick-faced steeple heavenward, while substance, the needs of the community for mercy and love, stands outside in the shadow, tin cup in hand.

Most communicants who pass through the massive Gothic doors of the new shrine differ not at all from those who, the previous evening, passed through the wide swinging doors of the country club’s taproom. Many, in fact, are those same patrons. Christians in the United States must be only a small minority—if the Christian is defined as a regenerate person who seeks to do the will of God in his life and who acts toward the other fellow the way he wants the other fellow to act toward him. Many church members are not even Sunday Christians. They are simply citizens who attend church on Sunday. They go to the country club on weekdays and to the church club on Sundays.

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Meanwhile, back in the sanctuary the pastor sonorously admonishes his flock to live more Christlike lives, disdain sin, appeal to the Holy Spirit for comfort and guidance. He turns in a fine job. For half an hour his parishioners examine their souls and find them wanting. However, the church bulletin in their hands suggests that they forget their consciences throughout the week and participate in the extra-curricular activities of the “church”—men’s club Wednesday night when J. B. MacTravelleur will show slides of his recent trip to Scotland; the ten-pin team in its engagement with bowlers from the neighboring church; the women’s society’s Thursday night program when the ladies will hear the fashion editor of the Courier prescribe the de rigueur styles for the coming season; choir rehearsal on Tuesday—perhaps the event closest to any of their responsibilities as Christians, and even that of doubtful authority under any New Testament prescription.

As church members sit listening to the pastor’s call to Christian duty, there might come to their minds certain pressing problems of the parish: (1) the several teen-age kids whose father ran out on them, leaving them with their mother while he pursues another woman; (2) the several Negro families scattered throughout the community, whose kids are not quite making it in scholastic competition with the white kids in the recently integrated school but probably could make it if they could get some tutoring in the evenings or on weekends; (3) the man, close to retirement, whose company laid him off and who, as a result, is going through a frightful emotional wilderness trying to find a way to carry out his responsibilities to his family; (4) the seventeen-year-old, from the nice family around the corner, who lost control of his passion so that now the “little” Smith girl (“You know, Mary, the one who headed up the church’s Teen Club last year”) is expecting a baby. Each of these cases (except that of the Negroes) involves communicants in the church. In the name of Jesus, why aren’t we more sensitive to plain human need?

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I know what you are thinking, but don’t look at me. I’ve looked at myself. You say that it’s a sin to criticize the pastor and do nothing yourself. But I have done just a little, along with three or four others in the church who helped teach the Negro kids, loved the Smith girl, and succored the retirement-aged neighbor. Three or four others? That seems to be all—in the 1,200-member church club. No, we are not holier-than-thou. How can we be, when our Lord said that the attitude of those who have done all that is commanded can only be, “We are unworthy servants: we have only done that which was our duty to do”? We are simply trying to do what we think is right. But we could use a little help!

Wanted: A Call To Arms

We wish we had in our new pulpit a man who might tell us how for him prayer became meaningful, not just in the chapel at evensong but in every-day engagement with his fellow man. We sometimes think we hear a faint reveille way off in the distance; but there is no clarion call from the bell tower on our new church, no uncompromising aux armes from its pulpit.

Why did our pastors not anticipate, rather than belatedly pontificate about, our days of inter-racial degradation and shame? Why don’t they recognize the longing for understanding in the eyes of the Smith kid? Why don’t they see the anguish in the face of the bereft mother? And when they do anticipate, recognize, and see, why don’t they exclude from the church’s fellowship anyone who does not pledge to respond immediately to their call for help?

We think we know why. They are too immersed in what Elton Trueblood calls the “edifice complex.” They were installing rheostats in the lighting system so that the overheads, dimmed before the service, come up during the processional, are lowered during the sermon, and are brightened again during the recessional. They were dedicating a new chapel, hung with brocaded tapestries bright in the reds and purples of a medieval monastery. They were busy adding new members to the club, neglecting those who have strayed off, who have defected, who are lost. In short, they were seeking desperately to respond agreeably to the sensitivities of the lay culture, which finds the cross easier to look at when, so to speak, its nail holes are invisible from the first row—even when the lights are up.

It’s good that the lights never get too bright. They might reveal, sitting there, the ghosts of Stephen, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley. Where now, O Lord, are their descendants?

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