Sunday, March 15, 2009


ER preaches a sermonette: 'The Soul Market'

I had the privilege of being the worship leader this morning at church. That means I led the Prayer of Confession and had a few minutes to present a Prayer of the People, just before the offering was collected.

First time I'd done anything in front of a church since I was a teenager. Biggest group I've ever spoken before, too, between 300 and 400, maybe a little more.

For what's it worth, here's what I said.


First, I have to say, I love y'all, and I thank God every day for you.

In the fall of 1911, famed conservative evangelist Billy Sunday calculated, with some fanfare, the cost of his own evangelistic crusades in America’s big cities. It came to $450 per soul saved.

Souls came cheaper than that in Boston, the city’s pastors boasted: $143 at the Congregational Church, $70 at a Baptist church, and a mere $3.12 each at a Methodist Episcopal church, which must have found a fire sale, so to speak. It was all in the New York Times.

Souls have gone way up since 1911. In 2001, the cost per baptism in the United States had skyrocketed to $1.5 million, according to missiometric specialists.

It turns out that the value of souls, like real estate, depends on “location, location, location.” Nowadays, the cheapest souls come in places like Mozambique, Ethiopia and Tanzania, where the price point ranges from about $1,500 to $2,500. Upscale souls, in places like Japan, Switzerland and Bermuda, range from $2.7 million to $2.5 million apiece. Actually, that says more about where the wealth is in the world than anything about the value of souls, or people.

The cost of souls rises and falls with inflation and recession, of course. And at times, around certain flimflamming preachers, irrational exuberance falsely inflates their value and a soul bubble forms. Then comes a bust, a market collapse, and when a snake-oil-peddling preacher falls the price of souls crashes because demand dries up. Such is the rhythm of the marketplace.

That’s the religion business. It’s market share. Very Western. There’s not much holy in it, in my book, which is still the Good Book, even with all its mysteries, not an Excel spreadsheet and generally accepted accounting practices.

On a more serious note, the cost of missions is real. Church budgeting is important, and has been at least since St. Paul handled collections for the poor saints in Jerusalem. My prayer is that we continue to let God and philosophers decide whether and how to separate the soul from the person, and that we keep ministering to people, especially, like Paul, to the poor, of pocket as well as spirit, in the name of Jesus. Would the ushers come forward to collect our gifts and offerings?


PRAYER OF CONFESSION today at church (BTW, the way my prayer and this prayer, written by the pastor complement one another wasn't planned):

Lord of Life, we often live by illusions whic need to be shattered. We walk as if in a dream, believing that what goes up will never come down, and that what is here today will not be gone tomorrow. We worship idols and we turn faith into a game of buying and selling God's favor. Teach us, we pray, what Jesus was doing when he entered the Temple and turned over rhe tables of the money changers. Let us not worship the marketplace, lest we turn our friends into consumers and our loved ones into assets. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth our Teacher and Lord we pray, Amen.


Thanks for the invite. I'm a bit confused on the "cost per baptism" skyrocketing to 1.5 mil. To what does this refer exactly?
It's how much money it takes to get someone converted on average, at least as of 2001, according to people who track such things. "World Christian Encyclopedia," I think it's called. Google "cost per baptism" and you'll hit several sites.
More than a sermon, this is a pretty powerfully condensed sermon.
Whoa. Thanks, Feodor.
You're ready to take on Hemmingway. Next Assignment: six word sermon.
Not. But thanks.

I'll ponder the six-word sermon thing! :-)
Six word sermon, like the six word biography?

It would seem that souls would be much cheaper if we just sold indulgences outright like they used to.

We could also learn from the LDS Church, the Mormans can gather in souls much less expensively than the other churces apparently.

Still spending to save a soul, still reeks slightly of hell fire and brimstone does it not.

I guess once again it comes down to what "saved" means. Saved from what or save to what or saved for whom or save to whom, or save by or from who or what?

If you beleived in universal reconsiliation, or that everybody is saved, or everybody goes to heaven, then are missions still required?
From what: sin and death.

Re, "If you beleived in universal reconsiliation, or that everybody is saved, or everybody goes to heaven, then are missions still required?"

"Go ... and teach" is what it says. And, I believe the kingdom of God advances through peeps. So, yeah, I think.
DrLoboJo: I hope yer watching "Kings" on NBC. It is kickin'. Google it if you haven't heard of it.
Indulgences are back, or hadn't you heard?
Six-word sermon? Can't improve on this:

Love God; love neighbor; love self.

Or this:

Act justly; love mercy; walk humbly.
I checked out a few links and one of them has quite the detailed list of negatives regarding what a church takes in versus how many converts per year. It includes things like money to pay people off to keep them off the church's back, embezzlement of church funds, and all sorts of things. The concept of "cost per baptism" never crossed my mind before.

Of course MY church isn't wasteful and I'm sure YOUR church isn't, either. Must be those other guys.

In any case, I always looked at things this way regarding church and money. We are encouraged to tithe. That ten percent, if we are able, goes to God, or to the church we attend. This money is for the pastor and upkeep of the church. Pretty much that's it. Of course most churches use the money for programs it chooses to run. But it seems to me, that if a church is trimmed with gold and the pastor is living large, that's between the pastor and God, and any other duty the church performs is based on money the congregants raise for that purpose. In other words, tithing is for God, not mission work. Mission work is extra. Otherwise, one is using that which is supposed to be given to God for other purposes.

Now that's my personal opinion on how the money thing should work in a church. And that's about as detailed as I've thought it out. For my part, I simply believe that whatever I put in the basket is God's and it ain't my concern what becomes of it. If there is a charitable need or benevolence, that requires another opening of the wallet.
It is interesting to see how different churches work their finances. For example, it just floors me that Ted Haggard's church can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money, and apparently no one in the congregation knew it.

Giving money is only one half of our responsibility, it seems to me. Making sure those that are spending it are being good stewards is the second half of that responsibility.
The biblical model of the church is to worship in house churches and give money to the widows and orphans.

Marshall, a claimed close reader of the Bible, articulates the exact opposite.
Well, I'm am totally sorry if I wind up being the one who got MA to thinking about "cost per soul." Egad. Oh, well. The ones I spoke to had ears to hear, judging from their reation -- which was amusement at the very idea of such accounting, and understanding of the contrast I meant to be pointing out between allegedly caring for the state of one's "soul" without giving a damn about the person.
DRLBJ said: "I guess once again it comes down to what "saved" means. Saved from what..."

ER said: "From what: sin and death." : says:
"In Christianity, the human problem is sin, which not only causes suffering in this life but could lead to eternal suffering in the next life. The solution, then, is salvation from sin, temporal suffering, and eternal suffering. According to Christian belief, salvation is made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which in the context of salvation is referred to as the "atonement."

Is this a more complete concept ER?

As I said it reeks of hellfire and brimstone still. Am I wrong? Sin is central to Christian Salvation?

So we pay to Sin up front most times. Then often we pay a tax on sin. Then we frequently pay a cost for the effect of sin. Under the Christian Doctrine we can get rid of it for free (?) but the church has to pay something for us to get rid of it.

So the church isn't really paying for the soul per se, it is paying for the delivery of the blood to wash the sin of the soul away? So after you have all these cleaned and now Christ/teflon coated souls what do you do with them? How much does that cost?

Is that really "Salvation"?
ER: "First time I'd done anything in front of a church since I was a teenager. Biggest group I've ever spoken before, too, between 300 and 400, maybe a little more."

How did it feel?
Well, my chest was so tight just after I sat down, i was afraid I'd pass out.

But I have to admit it was gratifying. Very cool. Audience response is self-affirming, and I got good audience response.
BTW, I've been pondering atonement for awhile now, and I've come to the conclusion that it's necesarry, however one conceives it.

Saved from sin and death, saved from self, saved from separation from God, saved from incompleteness, saved from fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-notion-means-apartness-from-God.

Makes perfect sense to me that Jews would interpret Jesus as the Lamb of God, with the blood attached thereto. I don't need that level of detail, myself.

Maybe it's moral-suasion atonement. Maybe it's whatever it takes to trigger the switch in the human bean to cause him-her to throw up the hands and say "Somebody else is gonna have to get me connected to God 'cause I can't do it myself." WhatEV.

It's at-one-ment we need since we're a-part-ed by definition, if God is, in any sense, the Creator and we are the Created.
Sin is our consciousness of alienation. From ourselves, from the ideal/cosmos/God. A sense of alienation we also see in the cosmos itself, in society, and in our activities of reasoning, knowing, and loving.

This alienation may be due to the nature of our inherent instinctual appetites, desires, or will. Or, our distinct natures may be innocent, but our nature as social beings is where the drama of our sinfulness inevitably plays out.

In this view, atonement (not a universally developed notion in christian history and preeminently a protestant one), is more from my side than God's.

In other words, there is no adolescently angry God, no fire and brimstone, no hell.

And from the pain of alienation, lessons are learned about paths of atonement, closing the gap, binding the wound, and, keeping the reality of it in mind, increasing our sympathy and love for all beings trying to live with it.

This, at least, is common agreement between atheistic, deistic, and deeply religious thinking folk.

But far from protestantism.
I don't think anything in there contradicts my loose concept of atonement. All I think for sure is that there is a link missing between myself and God's selt, and that I can't fix it, and that if God loves me, then God must fix it ... and if God doesn't love me, well, then, to hell with God, so to speak, 'cause I'm toast no matter what I do, or what God does.
One view could be that God's already fixed it; we just have to catch up.

In this view, that goes by a few names in the West, and simply is the state of things in the East, the category of time is a big problem.

If God's fixed it, why all the post-fixing suffering?

But for other views, the problem is, if Christ didn't fix it, then what the hell are we fixated on him for?

The willful sealing over of this question is what makes for all the internal tensions in conservative western christianity.

Hell is not the Christian problem. Suffering through time is.

And for that, I don't feel we have satisfactory answers. Not real ones. But neither do any other modes of thought and living. Not Buddhism, not evolution, etc.
The Eastern view, ER, does not begin or center in you or me as an individual. Sin is found primarily in the "solidarity of the human race." So, God so loved the world (not just you), God bridges the gap created by human sin (to which, yes, you and I contribute) by the Son, Jesus Christ.

Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way:

"Original sin is not to be interpreted in juridical or quasi-biological terms, as if it were some physical 'taint' of guild, transmitted through sexual intercourse [ie. individual]. This picture which normally passes for the Augustinian view, is unacceptable to Orthodoxy. The doctrine of original sin means rather that we are born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good; easy to hurt other, and hard to heal their wounds easy to arouse men's suspicions, and hard to win their trust. [The location of original sin is the environment - maybe our nature as social beings in the context of social existence, or simply the domain of the social apart from our ontology as individual beings.] It means that we are each of us conditioned by the solidarity of the human race in its accumulated wrong-doing and wrong-thinking, and hence wrong-being. And to this accumulation of wrong we have ourselves added by our own deliberate acts of sin the gulf grows wider and wider."

For Orthodoxy, the bridge is there in Christ, together with all kinds of God given gifts expressing themselves through our capacity to reach cognitive heights, mystical heights, and moral heights.

We just have to keep reading Kant.

I perked my ears up, BTW, in my Reformation seminar, learning about similar things -- that is, that the highly individualistic concept of salvation is just one view, and, until recently, probably not the most common one.
Re, "Suffering through time is."

Luke has an interesting piece that talks about this some:

I'm glad Luje and I bumped into one another. It's gettin' to where ya cain't sling a cat 'round here without hittin' a seminarian or an ex. :-)
Did I hear six word sermon? "God is good, so be good." Now go home, grab a brewsky, and catch the big game. *cackle*

ER, that's perhaps the most honest and straightforward call for offerings I've ever seen. At the same time, it's a particularly powerful criticism of the way religion today seem to operate. Kudos.
Thanks, A-Chuck. You know, when I was coming up with it, I really wasn't even thinking about the offering being taken up immediately following. I meant to take a measured swipe against the fundie emphasis on "saving souls" even as most don't seem to give a damn about the whole person. In retrospect, I reckon it did dovetail with the plate passin' very well! :-)
This all reminds me vaguely of one of my favorite bumper-stickers:

"Jesus saves sinners souls...

And redeems them for valuable cash and merchandise."
Jesus Saves.
Christ Redeems.
Grace absolves.

6 word sermon.
i read all 29 comments! thanks for the shout out. loved your 6 word sermon:

"Six-word sermon? Can't improve on this:

Love God; love neighbor; love self.

Or this:

Act justly; love mercy; walk humbly."

i think i may preach that one week when i get my own church. just stand up and say those very things and then sit down.

simplicity is the key there.

loved the "cost per baptism" and the importance of giving. love the illusions which need to be shattered! i concur! i question everything save for the existence of God and that revelation through Christ. i've had too many strange experiences that are completely subjective and non-empirical mind you, than i can only say that it was a higher power, a prime mover, or the universe in action.

of course, i could have something wrong with my brain. i'm okay with that. ;-)

keep RAWK'N ER!
Gracias, Luke!
Luke:'...of course, i could have something wrong with my brain...'

Naw, Luke, we are design to see God. Here is a very good discussion about how that happens:

Now the interesting thing is even know this and how it works it still doesn't prove or disprove
God true existance.
DR Lobojo,

You're messing with a young seminarian. That's not nice.

He's got enough he's trying to wrap his head around right now.
Back in the dark ages when I was at OBU there was a philosophy teacher named Feaver that had a special class just for preacher would be's and mission volunteers.
He was referred to in some quarters as the crucilbe. Better to find this stuff up front than in the middle of a sermon or worse yet a church board meeting.
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