Banking on God: Church Finances, Part 2


Yesterday, I mentioned the problem of cost overhead in our churches. It’s a big problem, too, as many of you thought your church should spend its money on more important things than mortgages and office supplies.

Let’s not talk about those first. Instead, I want to alienate every pastor who reads this blog by tossing out one word: bivocational.

I look at it this way: We should most definitely pay our pastors. We should also pay the head of the children’s ministry. In fact, we should pay a lot of people, because, let’s face it, the church secretary is truly the one who runs the church. Next to the Lord, that is.

I think those folks are worth money. However, I also think we spend too much money on staff salaries, especially at these massive churches that have 100+ people on staff. That’s nuts. And it’s a big drain on the mission of the church.

How so? Well, we somehow found a way to separate the lowly from the priestly class, a sort of sequel to the Old Testament’s temple system, the very system Christ fulfilled and therefore put to rest.

That separation gave us a full-time clergy and the “well, someone else is doing the ministry for me, so I’ll concentrate on everything that isn’t ministry” laity, an artificial distinction that pretty much denies the idea of the priesthood of all believers. As George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, some are “more equal than others.”

In many ways, this has been a train wreck for pastors because no one treats them like a fellow brother in Christ. They are not one of us, so to speak, a view that facilitates all manner of craziness (cults of personality, depression, marital infidelity, and so on) that derails churches left and right.

Still, the greater hurt comes when those who aren’t “professionals” decide to lay down and do next to nothing to advance the cause of Christ. Sadly, under the bifurcated system of ministry we have today, that’s all too often the outcome.

Which is why I believe that pastors need to have a job outside the church. Even if it’s only a small part-time job, the pastor needs that dose of reality, that connection to the life his flock leads. Talk to some pastors and it’s all too clear they have no idea what goes on in the cubicles today. (I know. I read books by pastor/teachers talking about the modern work world and they just have no idea.) That works against them in many ways. I remember a pastor who preached that it didn’t matter what you looked like or how old you were, yet at the same time there were people in his congregation who were getting Botox injections so they wouldn’t be the old-looking one in the office and therefore subject to the first pink slip when the next round of downsizings came.

But more than that disconnection with the world of their congregations, having pastors work in the “real” work world affords churches the chance to have more than one pastor. A church could hire two pastors for the cost of one if both worked outside the church a few days a week. For a lot of churches who can afford only one pastor, having two bivocational pastors for the price of one full-timer would open up many more options and better broaden the giftings of the leadership in that church.

I also think that having bivocational pastors forces the people in the seats to step up. And that’s always a good thing. No one should be irreplaceable, even a pastor, and the more the congregation takes over the roles it should be handling apart from the lone office of the pastor, the better for their church.

Like I said, that won’t curry me any favor with the pastors who read this blog, but that’s my stance and I’m sticking with it.

I’m also going to quote this:

And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
—Matthew 17:4

Our tendency in the Church is to want to pitch that tent. This is why we have so many church buildings. In 2007 dollars, the price tag would have been $55 million...That tendency is also why the Lord Himself oversaw the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. He wanted the Church to get out there. To move. To not be tied to one place, to a building that can so easily become like cement shoes.

When it comes to church finances, for many churches, that church building has become the impediment that keeps them from running. Its very convenience slows them down, keeps the people thinking small, keeps them stuck in one place, imprisoned by a multi-million dollar mortgage.

But the temple? Well, you are the temple and so am I. Wherever we are is where the Church is. The Light moves where we move.

Track revivals around the world. Those revivals last until someone decides to pitch a tent, until the building committee comes together. Then it quietly peters out. That’s why revival burns bright in Chinese house churches and not so much here. It’s why God is using the poorest of the poor in today’s world to be the best evangelists of the message of Christ. They don’t even have the money for the tent so many others want to pitch. Somehow, making do with what they have is good enough for them. Because they’ve got another paradigm, a heavenly one.

I can’t help but think that our churches can be better by making do with less. By not being tied to the earth by wealth any more than a lone individual should be. Yet you look at so many church building projects and they seem a lot like this:

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
—Luke 12:16-21

I look at that passage and it’s all too easy to see a church enamored of numbers talking about even bigger numbers and a place to store them all. Tearing down the old church building to build an even bigger one, and in the process losing sight of what really matters to God.

As Americans, I think it’s knit into our DNA to have a building. The American Dream’s foundation is built on home ownership, and I suspect that ideal translates into our compulsion to erect a church building. And just as nature abhors a vacuum, a church abhors being plain. Funny how expensive it is to rig up a church building for maximum entertainment and comfort value nowadays.

Between paying staff and paying for a building (and its upkeep and utilities—ask to look at the electrical and heating bills sometime), a big chunk of cash goes away from fulfilling the overall mission of the Church, especially as it pertains to the world outside the walls of that very building.

I think a church that ran without a full-time pastorate and a semi-utilized building would find itself less burdened by titles and mortgages and more burdened by the lost. It would be a church that cornered on a dime rather than running up on the sidewalk like a semi.

It’s a hard sell, though.

I keep hoping some day that we get a flat-tax or value-added tax in this country, but then you’ve got an entire industry of tax-prep and legal people screaming bloody murder that their livelihood—based as it is on the arcane, cryptic mess our tax code is—will up and go poof. I’m sorry, but it needs to up and go.

And so it is with the way we do church, especially when it comes to spending too much of our money on things that may not be advancing the Kingdom. Too many people are deeply invested in the crusty institutions our churches have become. They’ll find a way to hang on kicking and screaming, resisting what may be better for us in the long run, so that they can maintain the status quo.

Unfortunately, the status quo ain’t doin’ all that well for us anymore.


Banking On God: Series Compendium

Monday-Morning Miscellany


Got about three hours sleep Saturday/Sunday night, so I hit the hay early last night and didn’t post as usual.

* I’ll be starting a loosely-connected series of posts on love in the days ahead. Stay tuned.

* Brad Hightower gets it. 21st Century Revolution is one of the most challenging blogs out there. Check out this post: “The Church or the Kingdom.”

* Mark Lauterbach over at GospelDrivenLife is rapidly becoming my favorite blogger. He dissects the implications for ministering to postmoderns in “The Litmus Test.”

* Confused by all this talk about the Emerging Church? In “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” Scot McKnight will clue you into the diversity of that movement and why blanket definitions (and condemnations) don’t work. On the same topic, a new blog to me, finitum non capax infinit, attempts a different taxonomy in the post “Leonard on Emerging Missional Trajectories.”

* Loads of links on house churches can be found in this post from ReligionLink: “House Churches Gain Ground.”

* Matthew 7:2—”For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” Looks like the so-called discernment ministries are weighing each other in the scale and finding a lot of want. I won’t link to the debacle, but let’s just say it isn’t pretty. I find it ironic that the call for grace in this comes from the same folks who weren’t willing to give much grace to the ministries they castigated on their site. There’s a right way and a wrong way to address error in the Body of Christ, and you could see the trainwreck coming ten miles away in how these ministries dealt with error. If we judge people guilty by association, everyone winds up guilty in the end. For more, see my post “Who Watches the Watchers?

Advice for today: Lead with love in everything you do, while acknowledging your own penchant for missing the mark.

Commune-ity Values (or Redefining “Church” Yet Again….)


Oy vey!

That’s all I can say after reading The House Church Blog’s post on what the Bible really says about house churches.

As someone who has even considered whether a house church was the “church of last resort” for a couple of square pegs like my wife and I, this semi-new definition of what constitutes a house church should have even Robert Fitts throwing a few of his namesake (minus a “t”—of course.)

A distressing—for all those house church proponents, at least—excerpt:

The implications of Gehring’s insights about the importance of oikos [Greek for “household”—Ed.] are huge! For one thing, it means that moving church from a special church building into a home does not go nearly far enough. The churches established by Jesus and his disciples were not mere weekly meetings. They were literally households—ongoing, 24/7, family-like communities.

Consider 1Cor. 16:19 – “Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house (oikos)”. If we read this from our 21st Century Western context, we would (unconsciously?) conclude that once a week a group of Christians met in this couple’s home for church. However, if we read this verse from the 1st Century context, we would conclude something quite different.

To say that we have a “house church” because we meet in someone’s home at 7 pm on Tuesday nights, falls significantly short of the New Testament concept of “house church”.

Yikes! Are we back to the redeemed hippie communes of the 1970’s Jesus People era? Well, from this assessment, it seems we are.

St. Chapelle Stained Glass by Dan EdelenThe perpetually moving target that is the method of some to capture the exact mode of meeting of the first century Church is bothersome. Methodology is great and I applaud those who are going for as pure a methodology as can be understood, but at some point we just need to get on with doing what the Lord commanded: making disciples. If every couple years we rip down the idea of what constitutes a “true” church meeting, then we are only forcing our churches through ever-finer strainers. Who or what comes out of that in one piece is debatable.

Perhaps we are asking too much of people. In the midst of a resurgence in house churches, this is an acid test that few can withstand, I suspect. “Now we have to live in the same house with these people!” is asking too much too early on in this nascent movement.

My wife and I have wondered if the best model is to get a group of six or seven committed Christian families to purchase about fifty acres of land near a smaller town and build a home for each family on that land, along with a larger building that can provide a centralized meeting place. One or two of the families can work the remaining land as a source of food and revenue for the community, not to mention a source for feeding the poor. A portion of the income of each family would be pooled and used to support the community, especially during times of duress (such as medical expenses or job losses), and for basic outreach benevolences. Childcare and homeschooling would also be provided in this model, with every family chipping in. Group meals could also be planned, as well as allowances made for private dinners devoted to the needs of each individual family. The items that many families duplicate (yard care, basic tools, even vehicles) could be pooled in order to save money, while time can be saved not having to work and shop for duplicated items, freeing folks up to spend more time in devotion to the Lord.

Despite this idea of ours, I’m not completely ready to give up on the current model we have used for so long. It may not be perfect, but that imperfection may lie more in our inability to stay true to the Gospel message than in our lack of replicating the Book of Acts’ style of church meeting to a “T.” There is much to be said for the synergy a church of two hundred or more can bring to a locality when all two hundred souls are on the same page spiritually, right with God and with each other. You just can’t get that with any other style of church meeting.

That’s what I am hoping for now in the church we just joined, at least. Should we grow that into something more “organic,” then great. But for now, I’m not going to get flustered by yet another (somewhat) new direction in ecclesiology. You shouldn’t, either.