This blog represents the thoughts of the author. While they may reflect the theological position of The Renewal Fellowship, they should not be seen as an official statement.
As statues come down and teams change their names during this summer of unrest, I wonder about the monuments and memorials in our own churches.
It’s good that people are noticing the names and histories behind all those centrepieces in our public squares. Until now, it was only history buffs who paid any attention.
The church should be no different. We are fond of naming our halls after church builders and major donors. Inside, you will see benefactors’ names attached to stained glass, crosses and baptismal fonts. Pew Bibles and hymn books are placed in someone’s memory. I’ve even seen plaques over dimmer switches.
We might also question the names of our congregations. Should we name anything after a sinful human soul?
Genealogists and history buffs love names because they’re part of our historical record. Local history is about people – pioneers and bush whackers who survived and thrived. It’s possible that all these names inscribed on church plaques testify to the faith of the departed and a witness by family and friends. And it’s true that we need to encourage philanthropy and be thankful to God and each other.
But what does all of this communicate?
To the congregation, it’s the fact that it was built and maintained by people just like them. Generous people. It’s unspoken incentive to do likewise.
But it’s a different message to the unchurched, those searching souls who happen to find themselves in our midst. I’m reaching back a decade or so, prior to my own conversion, but if memory serves, the takeaway for me was a congregation which glorified themselves more than God. Rightly or wrongly, that’s the image.
When I was a journalist, stories we did about benefactors and cheque donors used to rankle. I understood the desire for personal recognition and self glorification. Human nature. Perhaps I looked at the shiny, happy donors with a tinge of envy. Their wealth and all. It didn’t sit well.
When I became a believer, I was hit by the Biblical truth of our Lord’s warning:
Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4 NLT)
I love how The Message puts it:
Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. … When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.
Memorials in churches are a subtle form of idolatry, taking our attention away from the true object of our faith.
I don’t mean to villainize church donors and their families. But we need to ask why we recognize and immortalize ourselves and each other. We are invited to examine our hearts.
Let’s give careful consideration of what all those plaques in our churches communicate and what they stand for. What a wonderful opportunity to explore scripture. It might be painful, especially for those congregants whose ancestors are named. But communicated the right way, it would be a tremendous teaching opportunity.
The church is called to give glory to God, whose love for us is so deep, wide and complete that He chose to come down from heaven and live among us. We need to marvel and meditate over that a lot more than we do. Churches need to be focused on the glory of God, not ourselves.
Renewal is about rediscovering what’s most important, peeling back the skin, biting into the fruit, examining the core, and using those precious seeds to plant anew.