RNLI, essential services & the situation for the church

The RNLI have hit the headlines. The Guardian report:

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has enjoyed a surge in donations after the charity was criticised for its work helping to save people from drowning abroad.

Both the Times and MailOnline had highlighted that the RNLI was sending millions of pounds to projects overseas at a time when it was facing a funding crisis that forced it to cut posts in the UK. Coverage included comments from two Tory MPs attacking the policy and led some donors to say they would stop supporting the charity.

The RNLI reacted robustly, arguing that its mission had always been to save lives overseas as well as in UK and Irish waters. People began to donate money to show their support for the charity’s work in Africa and Asia.

Now I have no desire to comment on that particular policy here. What I did want to highlight is this: how nuts is it that RNLI is still a charity? More ridiculous still, that as an independent charity, MPs still feel they have a right to dictate how they ought to operate.

My family and I went for a day trip to Whitby not long back. We went into the local lifeboat museum. It is fairly obvious, in a seaside town like Whitby, why the RNLI might occupy more thought than they might in Oldham. But the idea that we do not see the lifeboats as essential services, akin to ambulance and police, is beyond me. If what we fund is a measure of what we value, what does it say about our view of this service – manned exclusively by volunteers and funded by charitable donations – that it is not a publicly funded endeavour? I can only imagine the reason is that taking taxes from people in land-locked parts of the country – which is, frankly, most of the country – for a service that they will never have to use is not exactly what you’d call a vote winner.

But I was set to thinking how we can end up doing something similar in the church. We can end up with services running on a shoestring, sometimes propped up by very few individuals, that others from outside cannot quite understand why it’s not deemed an essential service. Much like the RNLI in Oldham, it may not be an essential service in their church – contextually it might not be appropriate or the opportunity to do the thing may not exist there – but should they have the same context, they would make much more of it than we do.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we can make sure we have all the money we need to make sure the flowers are arranged properly every week. We can definitely find all the money we need to make sure our publicity and advertising looks top notch. We find the cash for our websites, recording of sermons, signage, and all sorts of things. And I’m not knocking any of that. They’re all valuable enough in their place. But having found all the money for that, we can sometime baulk at giving the pastor £100 for books, or we query every £20 spent on discipleship materials, or we scrimp on evangelistic materials that might serve our mission.

Is there anything wrong in those former things? No, of course not. But there is something wrong when we can find the money for things that – however beneficial they may be in certain ways – are not exactly essential to the mission of the church whilst the things that are central to what we ought to be about are somehow questioned more rigorously and scrimped upon. If we can find all the money we need to make much of our church but struggle to find the money for discipleship and evangelistic works, we have surely got a problem of strange priorities.

The same is true of the wider church as well. Why is it that it is much easier for us to find tens of thousands for building projects – and Christians have no problem giving to such things quite readily – but umm and ahh at length over sending £100 per month so that gospel workers can keep their ministry?

Why is it that we have no problem sending more and more people to theological college to train for ministry in existing churches that can support and sustain them whilst telling ministers in hard places and planters in deprived communities that they – like the RNLI – need to raise their own funds without much help? Do we perhaps have the same sort of calculation going on as the government? Among our churches, building projects and increasing the youth ministry to cater for the needs of our existing believing congregants is more likely to be a vote winner than sending all that money to support a fledgling plant in a tough community – even less sexy – to prop up and existing ministry that isn’t ever likely to be self-sustaining.

If ever there was an ‘essential service’ it is the need for gospel preaching churches in deprived communities. It is without doubt the greatest injustice that many of our deprived communities don’t have a gospel preaching church in their midst and those that do are typically small, struggling on with a shoestring budget, barely able to sustain themselves. Everyone applauds their efforts, of course. They’re very glad they’re there, much like the RNLI, even though – also like the RNLI – they know they’re never going to use it themselves. But as with the RNLI, glad as they are such churches exist, they’re happy to let them get their own funds, seeing it as none of their business to support them. The service isn’t deemed essential enough for us all to support, after all, we’ve got advertising and websites to pay for.