The Church Amid the Economic Storm


I hate to end 2009 on a down note, but I thought the following was too important to ignore, as it illustrates a pressing reality.

Saddleback Church, home of noted pastor Rick Warren of The Purpose-Driven Church/Life fame, is facing a $900,000 budget shortfall. Warren put out a letter requesting $1 million from church attendees in two days.

I find this newsworthy because it exemplifies a topic I have discussed here at Cerulean Sanctum for years: Leaders in the American Church are utterly out of touch with job, income, and economic issues.

One of the header lines in that letter says it all: 2009: A BANNER YEAR OF MINISTRY IN SPITE OF THE RECESSION

Honestly, I suspect that too many church leaders, those men and women used to seeing a steady stream of income from other people’s money, thought the recession would have little effect on their ministries. Why else would Saddleback, in this case, budget in such a way as to ensure a year-end shortfall?

Megachurches everwhere face a series of problems related to jobs and income:

1. Too many people in those churches are only there for what they can get because that’s how the church was sold to them.
2. Too many people in those churches are only loosely affiliated with the church and can easily drift elsewhere.
3. Because of #1 and #2, those people feel no obligation to give money.
4. Now add in 10+ percent unemployment and diminishing incomes (whether proportionally or in real dollars).

For years, American Church leaders have failed to plan for the famine despite having the example of Joseph right before them in the Scriptures. Sixteen months after the American economy basically collapsed and still no plan exists. Churches with benevolence ministries got caught amid an onslaught of needy people and the wells ran dry. Yet Christian leaders, especially those on the national stage, act as if nothing happened.

Several years ago, I said that the American economy would be increasingly caught in a series of boom and bust cycles, with the booms becoming less booming and the busts growing larger. We in the Church failed to prepare for the bust of 1999-2002. Then, despite all the warning signs, we failed to prepare for the worse bust of 2008-?.

Now we once again have pundits saying the economy is rebounding (though I don’t believe them in the slightest). That can only mean that the next bust, surely worse than what we just experienced, is awaiting.

And we won’t be prepared for that one, either, unless American Church leaders wake up.

TSinking shiphe problem here is one of pride. Tightening one’s belt and preparing for tough times looks like failure or a concession to doom. Neither of those sit well with Church leaders interested in keeping up appearances. The Church Growth Model doesn’t work when a church’s leadership stands up and says, “Uh, we have some bad news….”

Bar the exit door.

If our church leaders refuse to get serious about practical issues of jobs, income, benevolence, poverty, simplicity, and community, then the lighthouse that is the Church of Jesus Christ will be left darkened amid the storm. We will have no guidance for people when it gets worse, no port to offer.

19 thoughts on “The Church Amid the Economic Storm

  1. The American Church is filled with americans. Though we are being transformed into new creations, we still have deep roots in the culture of our first birth. It’s completely true many of the biggest churches didn’t plan properly for this, but no greater a percentage than huge banks or car companies or other kinds of corporate business failed to be ready. The false faith in financing, in ever rising property values, in security based on financial “realities” has just about as many adherents in the church as outside of it. Is this contributed to by how many huge churches are settled in high income, white flight areas?

    On the other hand, I read the news daily. While I’ve never read a headline “American Church Very Helpful to Poor!!!”, there are a plethora of articles about churches being sued for housing/feeding the poor in places as diverse as Los Angeles, Penn, Orlando, and Phoenix. There are a multitude of small mentions in all kinds of news articles about churches from all sorts of regions and denominations doing things to be proud of. Interviews of the homeless often include positive mentions of some church people who give them things they need or let them sleep on the grounds without hassle. There is a level on which the church is out there, being the church.

    I pray that we do better and am personally thankful to be part of a congregation that gets it. We’re not a megachurch though, just a little group of 125ish folks doing the best we can.

  2. “1. Too many people in those churches are only there for what they can get because that’s how the church was sold to them.”

    Well THAT needed to be said.

    I have conversations with one friend of mine, who happens to have a rather apocalyptic vision of the near future. He expresses, and I agree with him, that a crash in either economic, social, political stability, leading to a lack of financial security, rampant sickness and crime, and the overall downward spiral of a society, is in fact the time when the Church is able to do its best work. If we are living in such a way that displays dependence on the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, it will be one of the few things that survives such a fall. The question is, do we really depend on these things, or is it all about the show?


    • Nate,

      I watched a big church implode because one of its foundational truths was to give stuff to people in hopes they would come to the church. They did. Problem was, those people always had a figurative hand out. When the church ran into some money issues, those people bolted.

      One can say “good riddance,” but it never should have come to that. That only inoculates people against the Lord.

      • Francisco

        I know a person who left a small church because of some issues she had with someone there but rather than reconciling with him, this person now attends a local megachurch. Reason? If memory doesn’t fail me, this person said “because there, I can go on without being noticed”.

        Conclusion: People want the religion the megachurch offers them but don’t want to involve in serving the body, in being a part of a community and so on. It’s strange because you would think at a a larger setting you would find more people like you (given numbers and probability). Or maybe that’s part of the problem too…

  3. We built seats, then had to sell the “gospel” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) to fill them in order to pay for them. We liked the cash flow and the sense of satisfaction that resulted, so we built more seats, that we had to one-up the last sales pitch to fill. We liked the cash flow and the appearance of success, so we built more seats…

    Operating under a formula that can only exist in good times, but fails miserably if times stay bad for any stretch is always risky. Then again only natural, for look at the development of flood plains, the outer banks, faultlines, and New Orleans. We ignore anything that isn’t likely in five to ten years, and then beg when we get “surprised.” Spiritual people are supposed to see beyond the natural, no?

    Not only is giving down, attendance is too (at least anecdotally from what I hear). The next loud sucking sound we’re likely to hear is not jobs going to Mexico, but big-time, success driven ministers catching their [last?] breath, with a suitably accented “ahee”, as they wail with desparate begging as they swirl in Charybdis grasp.

    After your busy hiatus, this post was a welcome reentry and right on the mark!

    • slw,

      Spiritual people ARE supposed to see beyond that. Trimmed wicks, right?

      The worst experience of “seats” came when I interviewed for a pastor of discipleship position at a wealthy megachurch. The church was growing quickly and had a dedicated, on-the-mark pastor. Problem was, too few of his compatriots “got” it. When the call board interviewed me, they asked what I thought discipleship was. I started by telling them what I thought it wasn’t: more butts in seats. Their combined glares told me all I needed to know; skewering their hallowed definition did not advance my cause. 😉

  4. Rick Carlisle

    This is sad – yet informative. About 12 years ago the church I attend embarked upon a huge building campaign, ironically after they had just completed a Larry Burkett seminar. The late Mr. Burkett wasn’t actually at our church, but his materials were used. One of the things his teaching stressed was to never make financial commitments without a clear and solid plan of how those commitments would be kept. Our pastor even taught that from the pulpit one Sunday. However, a few short months later, the “leadership” of our church decided what kind of new building they wanted without even considering what we could afford (reverse order for certain). We embarked upon a capital fund raising campaign for the down payment on the new building and came up several hundred thousand dollars short. The congregation fissured and to this day the building has never been built. Obviously, the wise thing to do would have been to figure out affordability as the FIRST part of the equation and not the last.

    Dan, I totally agree – too many church leaders – and especially too many parachurch ministries – have come to rely on the 11th hour “plea” to balance the budget. Out of touch with the real world if you ask me.

    • Rick,

      I’m not against the “11th-hour plea.” I’ve only been in a couple churches where there wasn’t an 11th-hour plea. People forget about giving. It happens.

      And I’m certain Saddleback will get their $1 million.

      What bugs me, though, is that we are in remarkable times, yet too many Christian leaders seem to have checked out as if raptured already. No one is preaching to stock the storehouse. No one is addressing unfair employment and salary practices. It’s as if there are no economic worries. Honestly, considering all the foreclosures and medical bankruptcies we keep hearing about, how come none of that is changing the attitudes of church leaders? Surely people in their own congregations are losing everything. Yet where’s the outcry?

      I’m not talking about televangelists, either. I’m talking about the big gun national stage guys people are always quoting on blogs. It’s as if they have nothing to say. I’m also talking about those guys just under that level, the ones with the 5,000+-member churches.

      But if Christianity has nothing to say about the economic meltdown, how can we say we know the heart of the Lord? Isn’t He concerned about these things? The Bible is filled with economic statements. Sure, we hear about the ding-a-lings who buy heavily leveraged McMansions and max out their credit cards, but plenty of people did not dig their own financial graves. They were the victims of a string of financial circumstances they could not have seen. What is being said to them?

      • Chris E

        The fear of being thought of as socialist is causing Christians in America to ignore their prophetic mandate to speak out against those who defraud, injustice in general, and the abandonment of the weakest members of society.

        There will now follow a series of comments about the inability of government to fix things which will completely miss the point.

    • John

      Hasn’t that come, unfortunately, to be the definition of “Faith” in much of the evangelical/charismatic church? That is to say; go out on a limb, than trust God to “meet your need.”

  5. You make so many good points here, not the least of which is: “Too many people in those churches are only there for what they can get because that’s how the church was sold to them.” There’s a huge mega-church in our town with billboards everywhere touting how many “programs” they have for the family. They also had a “Christmas Spectacular” this year to rival the one at Radio City (for which they charged $11 admission!)

    I think the reason budgets were not scaled back in anticipation of hard times is that these churches realize the programs are necessary to keep the existing people there and the new people coming. Given that virtually every mega-church sees numeric growth as the Holy Grail of Christianity, they’re not likely to do anything to jeopardize that.

    Trouble is, if the money stops rolling in, they may not be able to keep it up much longer.

  6. I worked on the finance committee at my first church, shortly after stumbling through the door. Needless to say, it was a thankless task. The pastor stocked the committee with cronies that upheld his one signal rule: budgets can never get smaller. Even a flat budget from one year to the next “looks bad” to the denominational authorities. We were instructed to propose a 5% increase every year, regardless of actual conditions. It was quite plainly a matter of keeping up appearances. By the end of the years, with income (I’m sorry, tithes and offerings) falling well below budget, the needed money would appear from undisclosed sources–elderly donors carefully cultivated over the years by said pastor. Budget optimism was thereby confirmed and justified. Budgets represent the creepy-crawly underside of Church governance.

  7. Sulan

    Good to have you back, Dan.

    For a long time in the charismatic church world, it has seemed that the Godhead’s only outfit was green — MONEY!

  8. David

    I don’t think that we could look at the decline of the Church in America and question that it has at it’s root the lack of strong discipleship. Because discipleship begins with the leadership of the body, it’s no big surprise that the decisions being made at the top are less than stellar.

    Which then begs the question: What do we do about it? Is it enough that we cloister ourselves in our “good” bodies and shake our heads sadly at the predicament of the “bad” bodies?

    That the Church in America didn’t prepare for the economic downturn is only a runny nose on the list of what ails the body. That the diagnosis is terminal remains to be seen. But the current problems are, I think, merely the knock on the door. The Physician stands outside waiting.

  9. I’m sorry to come so late to such an important post. I believe this economic recession may ultimately end up humbling church leaders, bringing the body together, and turning the Church back in the right direction. But you’re right… they’re still not really taking it seriously. Sending out a year-end request for $ to make ends meet when thousands are losing jobs and homes shows that the church still considers its own ends to be the first priority.

    And I think that’s also reflected in another aspect worth considering. Two churches where I was previously employed had expansive 5-year vision plans for more off-site campuses (in addition to those already in place), small groups, etc. One church has since closed 2 satellite campuses & abandoned the plan for more. These grand “God-given” visions appear to be expendable depending on funds.

    Hopefully, stripping away the financial excess will eventually serve to clarify our mission to make disciples.

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