Not long ago I sat in a worship service listening to another pastor exhort his congregation to service and carrying out the radical call of Christ to love our neighbors. I was sitting there silently cheering him on when all of the sudden he made the following comment:
Now before anyone panics, understand that I’m not suggesting that we’re going to let the local homeless take residence in our church. I am sure that our Trustees would say that the liability issues are too great for that….
Now, while I know how this sounds to many, I understood what he was doing. Certainly he believed that the call of Jesus asks us to offer love unconditionally and sacrificially. I would dare say that he truly believed that we follow Christ wherever he leads us. However, this was a man who had sat in too many meetings with the Trustees of the church who said that this or that ministry was too great a risk for the church; that the potential liability issues were so great that the church couldn’t possibly consider taking this on. These are conversations about insurance rates and fiduciary responsibilities and protecting the church building so that folks can enjoy it in the future. After hearing this again and again, it’s easy for any pastor (including myself) to fall into the trap of disclaimers in the midst of prophetic proclamation. “We have to be careful,” we think, “for if we push this too far we’ll find ourselves in another of those meetings.”
Of course, Jesus experienced this too. His disciples were scandalized at all this talk about the cross and his death. “That line of thinking isn’t very helpful in the long term Jesus,” they seemed to say. “How are you to build a megachurch . . . uh . . . a kingdom with those kinds of risks and liabilities?” But Jesus, as we all know, wasn’t about avoiding liabilities. He was about taking up crosses, and did so freely so that the world might be changed.
When will we begin to recognize that the life of faith is not about security but about intentional risk taking? When will we understand that the call to take up our crosses was not a pie in the sky image but rather a command to throw liability to the wind in pursuit of something far greater — God’s kingdom.
In every church that I’ve served I’ve been a part of conversations about liability that seriously hindered the work of Christ in the world. I’ve heard stories of churches which sold off church vans, closed church daycares, and forbade certain groups from using their facilities out of a fear that somehow the exposure to legal action was more dangerous to the life of the church than the inability to connect with others in radical ways. In every case, the churches found their ministries in decline because they cast off important ministry tools that had great potential for growing their ministry rather than hindering it. They failed to recognize that the ministry of the church — the call to love sacrificially — is what holds us together rather than maintenance of a building or institution.
Look I understand concerns about issues of liability (especially in terms of sexual misconduct and the abuse of children) and believe that we need to be prudent in maintaining churches that are safe for folks who come through our doors. And yet, I see church after church who have been able to find the balance between safe sanctuaries and ministering to the homeless through programs like Room in the Inn; churches who have policies and procedures to minimize risk when they can, but who also understand that meaningful ministry is a risky business and that’s okay.
We have got to move out of the mindset that we can’t take on a particular ministry because of liability issues. While the church I mentioned above may not want to turn the church building over to the homeless, they absolutely need to be talking about how to care for those homeless folks who walk the streets around their church, open to the guidance of the Spirit on the best way to offer love and care to the least of these.
To do otherwise is to find ourselves standing behind Judas, cheering him on as he scolds the Master for his irresponsibility.
The cross is a liability issue. But Jesus calls us to take it up and follow him.
Will we really do so?