Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Cost of Being Jewish (or Christian)

Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! . . . .
Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.
Malachi 3:8, 10

In the July 19 issue of Newsweek, Lisa Miller has an article titled, “The Cost of Being Jewish.” You might think it would be about the cultural pressure not to keep the Sabbath or the difficulty of following the prophets on issues of social justice, about how faithfulness to God may put one at odds with the surrounding culture, but you would be wrong. She is not speaking metaphorically. She means dollars.

According to a 2005 study, the average yearly cost for membership in a Synagogue is $1,100. And it is often much higher in big cities.

Part of the problem is the way that Synagogues approach the cost of membership. The money comes first. You pay before you become part of the community. It is an entry fee.

Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, acknowledges that Christian churches also ask for money, but they begin with an invitation to worship; they ask for money later. “The Jewish community’s first instinct is ‘give us money.’ Instead of ‘come in.’”

It is never easy for religious organizations to talk about money. And yet without adequate funding nothing else can happen. Ms. Miller speaks of the membership fees at Synagogues as “onerous.” But our church could not operate on an average contribution of $1,100, and I think we are fairly typical in that regard. Of course, for us, contributions are voluntary. No one has to give anything in order to attend worship, or even to be a member of the church. But the average annual contribution is about $2,500 per family.

Our $2,500 average should probably have an asterisk next to it. The average is based on families that contribute. Some give nothing. And among those who contribute, some give at minimal levels.

Jesus talked repeatedly about the “cost of discipleship.” Often he was talking specifically about “the cross.” But he also talked about money, about giving all that we have to do God’s work in the world. How curious it is that in spite of his emphasis many modern Christians are astonished to find that the church cannot exist without financial support.

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