I have not been blogging much recently for one big reason: Eileen and I bought a house. For two weeks all our spare energy has gone into packing, moving, and working on the new house. It’s a wonderful house, and we’re truly blessed to have it. And in only a few days of living there I’m noticing a number of differences between renting and taking ownership.
This feeling probably wears off for homeowners after a while, but everything in the house comes with a greater feeling of responsibility. When a doorknob is loose, I know I’m responsible for fixing it. Weeds in the yard, squeaks in the floor, and spots of peeling paint can’t be as easily overlooked anymore. There is no other landlord who will fix things that break. No one else is going to pay for the water-heater to be replaced. No one else is going to water the plants or cut the grass or fill the bird feeders. We were always responsible renters, but I know there were things that I’ve overlooked in other places we’ve lived thinking, “That’s not my problem,” or “Someone else will take care of that.” Not anymore. Eileen and I have ownership, and that means one big thing: responsibility.
And of course I think there are parallels between these feelings and life in the church. Normally members of newer churches have a higher feeling of ownership over the ministry than in existing churches, but like home-ownership it doesn’t take long for the joy of responsibility to turn into tiredness and burnout. Friends who have been homeowners for years sometimes lament to me the amount of time, energy, and money they put into home maintenance. Sometimes they even said, “Don’t buy a house.” Responsibility and ownership sound nice, but renting is clearly easier sometimes. I think church “renters” are a perennial presence in all congregations. They stay in one place for a short period of time, not putting down the roots that it takes to build deep community. And they give less time, energy, and money to the maintenance of the community because they’re not rooted there. But no church community will survive without people taking ownership. Someone has to claim responsibility for the maintenance, especially with the less glorious and more painstaking tasks of ownership. I love the windows in our new house, but I do not look forward to scraping and repainting every window frame.
So this raises questions for me: How can churches cultivate attitudes of church-ownership rather than “renting”? How can we help people find joy in the responsibility of belonging to a church community? Well, to extend the analogy, why do people by houses? I think rootedness plays a role. Eileen and I decided to buy a house because it became apparent that we were becoming rooted in and committed to Pittsburgh for the next several years. Perhaps people take ownership in a church when they see the benefits of being rooted in one community over the long-haul. The opportunity to take control was also a factor in our decision to buy a house. We wanted the freedom to garden as we chose and to have a dog. But we couldn’t have those freedoms and privileges without increased responsibility. Likewise, if people want to help shape a church culture, they have to take on the extra work that it takes to do so. One more reason a lot of real estate is purchased for the sake of investment. Generally speaking, it’s good stewardship to buy rather than rent. Owners have something tangible to show for the money they pay toward their housing, while renters give that money away. And, if the conditions are right, in time the value of the property increases and there is a return on the initial investment. For a church member to invest a church community means taking on more responsibility, but it also means a greater return on what’s given. Relationships that last over years and years provide more return that short-lived and shallow ones. Seeing hearts turned toward Christ and signs of his Kingdom coming in a changed neighborhood is the return investment in a new faith community.
Eileen and I don’t know all our neighbors yet, we don’t know what the coming years will bring on our block, and we don’t know what other curve-balls God may throw at us in the meantime. But we’re committed, so we chose to buy rather than rent. And I have hope that in the end it will be worth it. I pray God will grant our church community the same graces of ownership.