The Tyranny of Stuff

A few weeks ago I was able to revisit the inner-city church in St. Louis where I served as a field worker for three years during seminary.  We could walk to the church from our house – less than two blocks away!   I had the opportunity to work at a larger congregation a little farther away, as I knew the pastor and his family through my wife’s family.  It is a thriving and successful congregation, and I would have learned much there I’m sure.  But I was committed to the idea of serving a congregation in my own neighborhood and learning the challenges of urban ministry.

I was not disappointed, but not all of the challenges are what you might expect.photo (32)

This is the sanctuary we worshiped in.  They don’t worship in it any more.  There may be structural problems as the building as a whole isn’t in good repair and this is on the second floor of the three-story building.  But I suspect that just as much as structural issues (and the issues of folks unable to climb the stairs any longer), is the issue of stuff, as evidenced in the back rows.

photo (33)

This is the view through a locked classroom door on the same level as the sanctuary.  More stuff.

photo (34)

Another classroom full of stuff.

None of those rooms were used a decade ago when I was finishing up there.  They hadn’t been used in some time, mostly I suspect, because of the stuff in there.  I don’t think the stuff has moved at all in over a decade.  Maybe some newer stuff has been added, but even that is doubtful.  These rooms are not so much storage areas as shrines of sorts.  Shrines to stuff and the people who made that stuff possible.

Stuff accumulates over years and years and becomes a tyrant pretty quickly.   I think churches are particularly prone to the tyranny of stuff.  Most churches I’ve been in have items throughout the sanctuary and offices with people’s names on them – In memory of.  Someone gave money that was used to buy that new telephone or that piece of artwork . Or stuff used to belong to someone.  It used to be used by someone.  It was donated by someone.  And that’s where the tyranny begins, through loyalty to those people that we associate the stuff with.  We can’t possibly get rid of that stuff, because it reminds us of so-and-so.  We can’t possibly get rid of that stuff, so-and-so donated it to the Church and we shouldn’t/can’t disrespect their wishes by getting rid of it.  

Even when the stuff is no longer useful.  In the back of the sanctuary were several rows of old computers and monitors – old CRT monitors and tower computers that were old and outdated a dozen years ago and are worth even less now.  But somebody gave them to the church, somebody had a dream of a computer lab and so the computers remain, exerting their tyranny without anyone to put them to use. The moment and the opportunity passed decades ago, and now all that remains is stuff and memories.

Like any tyrant stuff is notoriously hard to displace from power.  Anyone who speaks against stuff is castigated as cruel, unChristian, heartless, or any other number of painful titles.  They might be told that they are un-evangelistic, since that stuff was used in evangelism once upon a time.  Getting rid of stuff can quickly be equated with being unScriptural, contrary to the Gospel – despite repeated Biblical warnings about the tyranny of stuff.

A dozen years ago we showed up at that church with a few other young couples eager to help, eager to jump in and revitalize a dilapidated congregation.  But we couldn’t stand up to the tyranny of stuff.  We were outsiders.  How could we possibly understand how valuable all that stuff really was?  How could we be expected to appreciate the hard work and effort of those now in glory to acquire and donate that stuff?  Our energy and enthusiasm were welcome, so long as they ultimately never threatened the tyranny of stuff.  Eventually we all moved away – either within the city or across the country.  The stuff was safe again.   It remains safe.

And as long as it remains safe, those dozen members will continue to do the same things they’ve done every week for decades.  When they die others might take their place, or maybe not.  These are beloved children of God and I don’t believe that the stuff has displaced Christ in their hearts.  But it has throttled the work of the Holy Spirit in that place to a great degree.  The Word is still preached and the Sacraments are still given, but very little else will happen there if it threatens to dislodge stuff.

Eventually someone will come in with trash bins and shovels and do what nobody was willing to do before.   To clear the building to be gutted and rehabbed by some investors for office space or a restaurant, or perhaps for a new mission church effort.  Either way, others will do and see what these people might have been blessed to do and see if they had been willing to overthrow the tyranny of stuff.

 

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