Church budgets: shame on American evangelicals

22 Aug

I’m writing this post not to encourage convicted Christians to go on a rampage, belligerently confronting church leaders, demanding radical changes and so on.  I don’t intend that because I’m sure that’s not the right attitude or approach.  I also do not want to give any aid and comfort to the critics of Christianity, since when it comes to charitable giving, non-conservative Christians seem to only talk a good game (see the study Who Really Cares, by Arthur Brooks).  But it is time that the evangelical church looked at itself and asked some hard questions.  For too many evangelicals, the idea of a “good church” is one that is essentially self-serving (makes people happy, busy, and feeling good about themselves).  We look at the bells and whistles and activities of churches, and as ordinary consumers, we think the one with the nicest stuff is the ‘best’ church.  We say, “Oh yeah, we have a great church.  Our nursery is unbelievable, and my teenagers love the youth room.  It has a half court basketball court and coffee shop and four huge plasma televisions! ”  Seldom do we judge churches on simply how biblically faithful they are to their mandate or how sacrificial in giving they are.  One of the best indicators of a church that is caught up in marketing and commercialism strategies (one that takes a business model over a biblical model) is a careful look at church budgets.  Churches that are obsessed with pleasing their members instead of God typically have budgets that reflect that.

A simple question one might ask of a church budget in this regard is this: What percent of the church budget is spent on items that do not directly benefit the church itself in any material way?  What happens is people are satisfied that their church is doing that sort of thing, spending money on missions and such (the stuff, they know, we are supposed to be doing at some point somewhere) when they see little video clips from 1-2 week church sponsored mission trips visually and dramatically depicted during worship, or when they are told that the church gives x-amount (not x-percent, mind you) to missions, when they see pictures on church walls of “missionaries we support,” when they see church facilities used for community activities (softball, basketball, concerts, boy scouts, etc.).  But these are not true indicators of sacrificial giving on the part of the church.  Many of these activities benefit church members themselves as much or more than anyone else (even if they are justified in the name of ‘outreach’).  What one needs to see is the percentage of money allocated in the church budget to foreign missions or local missions that go away from the church itself (for example, money spent on full-time missionaries, church plants in other places, pastor training schools, mercy ministries to the poor and sick, etc.). Money spent on items such as these is truly sacrificial.  It does not come back in the form of facilities for your kids, trips for your teens, activities for your families and well furnished buildings for your eyes.  These things are fine and good and taking care of one’s own fellowship is biblical, but I wonder what the New Testament church would think if they were to read this article from Gene Veith describing giving patterns in the American church today (indicating that, get ready, the average amount of money spent on foreign missions in America’s churches is a whopping TWO PERCENT). A clip:

Of every dollar given to a Protestant church, the average amount that goes to overseas missions is two cents. In contrast, of every dollar Antioch Presbyterian Church in Chonju, Korea, takes in, 70 cents goes to missions…And what do churches do with their money? In 1920, the percentage of giving to missions from the total offering was 10.09 percent, just over a dime out of every dollar. In 2003, conservative and evangelical denominations gave 2.6 percent (about three cents per dollar), with the liberals giving only 0.9 percent (one cent). The combined average for overseas work is about two pennies per dollar.

Where is the money going? For buildings? Not really, since churches spent proportionally more for new buildings in 1965 ($29 per capita) than in 2003 ($27). But the sprawling church “campuses” that have become the norm today are expensive to operate. Congregations today typically run an abundance of internal programs. The number of staff members and the amount of salaries have risen. All of this is for the good, but, as the authors of the report conclude, “the numbers demonstrate an increased emphasis on internal operations over the broader mission of the church.”

What often happens in many churches is that at some point, the ministry team will decide it is time to do a ministry emphasis on giving again.  Typically, a presentation will be made begging people to give more for purposes indicated on the overhead screen or in some video.  Typically the video will feature spending on missions (mission trips, to be more precise).  What is rarely presented is just how much of the current budget goes to missions in the first place.  Unfortunately and all too often, the true reason why a series of messages on giving is presented to the congregation is not because of a hunger to spend more on foreign missions or mercy ministries (sacrificial giving), but ministers are trying to satisfy the consumer demands of church members; they are trying to gather funds for a new church building or entertainment facility or activity schedule or salaried position or renovation or youth room or stage lighting or sound system or paid musicians or state-of-the-art nursery complex or “family center” or whatever.  Basically, we want more stuff for us, or for you, and we can’t get it without more giving, so it’s time to change sermon topics from marriage and family to giving.  So we ask members to give more for the “work of God” in our church.

Of course, in terms of just dollars and cents, the only way to truly give large percentages of money to things like foreign missions and church planting and mercy ministries and so on is to keep church simple (that means not going much beyond what is called for in scripture, an old reformation principle, called the ‘regulative principle of worship,’ that has kept the church protected from vanity and greed, but doesn’t sit well with American evangelical sanctified commercialism and consumer demand).  Simple means that church is primarily about the gathering of God’s people to worship God (preaching of the Word, worship in song, public reading of scripture and prayer, administration of sacraments).  Then, its about proclaiming the gospel to the lost all over the globe (missionary activities outside the church) and caring for the disadvantaged (mercy ministry).  Then, if there is a little money left over, we might spend some on ourselves and our own comforts and delights (new buildings, fun activities, aesthetic renovations, etc.).  I’m afraid, most churches have their priorities exactly backwards. Our “us” budget items dwarf our others budget items.

It is worth noting how little American churches give to missions compared to churches in other countries (alluded to already in the Veith article).  The evangelical churches in South Korea, Africa, and South America seem to understand the true mission/purpose of the church and its money better than we.  We should be embarrassed, given what we have and what they have.  Didn’t Jesus talk about the moral insignificance of giving only out of excess?  I often wonder what our brothers and sisters serving and worshiping God and sacrificially spreading the gospel in, say, India would think if we invited them to take a tour of some of our “great” churches in America.  I can’t help but think that they would be astonished to hear us boast about our church’s fifteen plasma televisions, when the price of one of them could literally build a solid church structure for their brothers and sisters worshiping in shacks back home.

***A note on American mission trips.  Mission trips, when a group from an American church goes to work on a missions project in another place far away, is a common thing these days.  They can do much good (especially medical and construction missions trips).  However, when asked, foreign missionaries routinely report that what they really need is not more short-term mission trips.  They simply need more money from American churches and long-term missionaries sent from American churches.  Why?  It’s really simple.  Suppose we have $5k to spend on missions.  We could spend it on a short term mission trip ($5k spent on sending a group of 20 from our church to Nigeria for 2 weeks to do VBS in the community there – most $ spent on airfare alone).  Or we could send a $5k check to a church plant in Nigeria, a missionary serving God in Nigeria, a Nigerian seminary student for tuition, a Nigerian Christian school…  Which, do you think, is a better use of that money (usually at least, given what I’ve said about medical missions and construction projects, for instance)?  I think we know the answer, if we are honest (and certainly, I know what most serving God in foreign missions would say).  The question I have is, then why do we spend so much on these short-term mission trips?  Is it because we have decided it’s best for them (Nigerians) or pleasing to us (American Christians)?  My suspicion is, if we simply give our money away to foreign missions themselves, our kids won’t see the world and have those experiences and our church members won’t get to feel good about themselves as they watch videos set to emotionally arousing music on Sunday evenings depicting our mission teams working with impoverished children, and we won’t get to hear the personal testimonies of our church friends talking about how they intended to minister to the Nigerians, but the Nigerians actually ministered to them and so on.

So, if you dare, take a hard look at your church’s budget at the next business meeting and perhaps start a conversation with others about budget priorities.  In any case, may we be driven towards repentance and prayer.

Prayer: Forgive us Father for forsaking the calling of the church and instead building more and more barns for ourselves.  Cause to hunger and desire to see the lost saved and healed.  Take from us our sinful proclivities to us increase at your expense.  Rather, let us decrease, so that you may increase.  Amen

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