One of the most creative and impactful churches in this country is the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. It all began in 1947 with three people: Gordon and Mary Cosby and her sister. In Gordon’s words, “We don’t exist as individuals. According to our faith, all of us are connected… To move from individually understanding it to corporately embodying it is one of the most important journeys in the world.”
Most people learned about Church of the Saviour because of its many outreach ministries, including a coffee house, clinic, housing assistance, job training, and placement care for children and the elderly. Realizing that intimacy and high expectations were necessary for spiritual depth, the first priority of the church was a total commitment to the Christian life. Over the years, Church of the Saviour intentionally divided into small independent and affiliated congregations, each committed to the reconciling way of Jesus where all people were welcome.
In the beginning years, Church of the Saviour provided a Sunday lunch that was free for first-time visitors. One Sunday, a woman went there for the first time, and a church member invited her to lunch. She said, “I’d love to.” He said, “Is this your first time here?” She said, “Yes.” “Then your lunch is free since it’s the first time you have visited.”
She said, “Oh no, no, no. I’ll pay my own way. Thank you.” When she got to the cash register, the man said, “Remember, this lunch is free.” She said, “Young man, I want to pay for this lunch. I want it to cost me something!” He said, “Lady, you stick around this church long enough. You stick around this Jesus about whom we preach, and this lunch will cost you your whole life!”
There’s no free lunch in this world, even in the church. There is a cost to everything, especially to being a Christian. Last week, I began a series of four blogs based on architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s advice to his clients about how contracting and construction work will disrupt their lives. He says, “One: the project will take longer than you planned. Two: it will cost more than you figured. Three: it will be messier than you ever imagined. And four: it will take more patience, perseverance, and determination to get through it than you ever dreamed.” This week we are going to look at Wright’s second bit of advice. It’s gonna cost more than you figured.
From 1989-1993, I was the pastor of Hart United Methodist Church in Hart, Michigan. After serving half-time for eight years in two previous appointments in order to care for three young children, I was now full-time and was eager to help this county seat congregation reach its full potential. Soon after I arrived, church leaders decided that the time was right to do an extreme makeover of the building and property by literally turning the church around. The west end of the sanctuary, which was the previous main entrance, would now become the chancel area, and a new main entrance would be created on the east end of the church. That’s where we planned to build a new parking lot, a large fellowship hall, handicapped restrooms, and a wide hallway/narthex area.
It was a huge endeavor for a medium-sized church, but we were a growing congregation. The building plans were completed and presented to a church conference, but the project was voted down. Despite our disappointment, we counted the cost. Realizing that we had more work to do in “selling” the many benefits of a more hospitable, usable, and accessible church facility, we waited another year. In the meantime, we refined the building plans, engaged in more fundraising, and welcomed new members.
To everything there is a season. The next year, the plans were overwhelmingly approved, and we quickly moved to the bidding process. There was so much energy and enthusiasm and willingness to do “whatever it took” to get started. But we weren’t there yet. The building committee understood very well the phrase, “It’s gonna cost more,” because at every meeting it seemed like something new and unexpected had to be added to the contract. Unfortunately, we let out for bids right during the Persian Gulf War, and we were also in the throes of a recession. On the positive side, contractors were looking for work, and several bids were lower than expected. We ended up borrowing a little more than $200,000, and the loan was paid off handily.
Yes, building projects cost a lot more than we think they will. But isn’t it the same with our faith? For the longer we stick around Jesus, the more we understand that being a disciple will cost us our life.
Jesus illustrates this point by telling two parables from Luke 14:25-33 CEB. He introduces them by saying, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters – yes, even one’s own life – cannot be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
In the first story, Jesus asks us to imagine that we are building something. He mentions a tower, but let’s pretend it’s a house. Before you start building, don’t you sit down and calculate how much it’s going to cost? Sure, you do! You decide how much money you are willing and able to spend. Then you’ll know how much of a house you can build. That’s the procedure we went through in Hart.
You may have your dream house all planned out in your mind, but if it’s going to cost twice as much as the financial resources at your disposal, you’ll have to scale the house down to reality. Because if you don’t, you’ll end up with a foundation and nothing else. And because you can’t finish what you started, everyone who passes by will ridicule and laugh at you. Before you build, Jesus says, count the cost.
The next story is about a king going to war with another king. He only has 10,000 soldiers, and he knows that his opponent has 20,000. So, the prudent and wise thing to do is to sit down with his generals and consider the cost of the entire campaign. Because the king is outnumbered, he has to think through his strategy carefully. And if the king decides that he doesn’t have a chance, he should negotiate a peaceful settlement before the war starts. Before you go to war, Jesus says, count the cost.
But what does it actually mean to count the cost? When Jesus talks about counting the cost, I do not believe he is saying we should never risk or move out in faith or be extravagant. All Jesus is saying is, consider all angles.
There’s a place in the Christian life for risk. There’s a place for shooting the wad, so to say, for giving it all now. There’s a place for building the most beautiful church we can and purchasing the most useful furnishings we can. Nothing is too good for God. But if we insist on saving something to the death, whether in the church or at home, someone may open our safe someday and find only ashes. None of us can experience abundant life until giving lies at the heart of our existence.
There are indeed risks in being a Christ-follower. Least important is the financial risk of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, that’s what many Christians think hurts the most – giving their money. Oh, that we could embody a generosity that changes the world. A second risk is the emotional cost of our faith, which means giving up our lives to Jesus, dying to self, and radically reorienting our priorities. The third and the highest risk of our faith is the spiritual cost. Jesus’ invitation to carry the cross and follow him is not easy or convenient. We may even be ridiculed or suffer. When you and I profess faith in Jesus Christ, we look at the world with different eyes. We see needs that we ignored before, for now, we are looking through the eyes of Jesus.
“Young man, I want to pay for this lunch. I want it to cost me something!”
“Lady, you stick around this church long enough; you stick around this Jesus about whom we preach, and this lunch will cost you your whole life.”
 Tom Tewell, Sept. 1, 1991, “Before You Build … Consider the Price Tag,” Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church Houston, Texas.