For years, I’ve been troubled by how many churches spend money—God’s money, as we call it. When I’m in church, I often look around at all the sound equipment, chandeliers, carpets, decorations, and everything else that’s “necessary” to pull off a church service week after week. I’m not a troublemaker, so I usually keep my mouth shut. But I’ve often wondered: Is all this stuff necessary for discipleship? Are there other ways that we could spend our money that would more effectively further the kingdom of God? If we pulled way back on our church expenses, would we be able to send more missionaries overseas? Or rescue little girls from sex-trafficking? Or help the poor around us?
Speaking of missionaries, I often think of the ones who are under-supported, or have returned home because their support ran dry. Or the many aspiring missionaries who never got off the ground because they can’t raise enough funds. I think of the two billion people in the world who live on less than two dollars a day—millions of whom are Christians, our very own brothers and sisters. Or the one billion people who don’t have adequate access to clean water. Or the 1.5 billion people who live without electricity. I think of other needs at home, in our own communities. The homeless, the widows, the elderly, the ten thousand refugees who live in my hometown of Boise. By the time you finish this chapter, more than three hundred children will have died due to hunger or malnutrition.
I look at all of this and I can no longer look away. American Christians give $50-60 billion to the church every year. About 18 percent of this money goes toward the cost of church buildings. The real estate owned by churches in America is worth over $230 billion. According to Richard Stearns, president of World Vision:
Simply stated, [the American Church] is the wealthiest community of Christians in the history of Christendom. How wealthy? The total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion. . . . It would take just a little over 1 percent of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest one billion people in the world out of extreme poverty.
Have we made Christianity in America too expensive? Are we spending God’s money on the things he would spend it on? Are all the resources (time, energy, personnel, and money) that go into pulling off church services every Sunday producing radical, Christ-like disciples? It just seems like we’ve created an expensive machine called “church” that’s so dependent upon money (and lots of it) that it’s hard to sustain or reproduce. And the return—making disciples who make disciples—has been far less than what we should expect.
A friend of mine who used to be a megachurch pastor asked ten of his pastor friends these questions:
· If money wasn’t an issue, would you continue doing ministry the way you’re doing it now?
· If you had unlimited funds, would you have the same programs, the same types of services, the same staff positions, and everything else that your church is devoted to?
· Would Sunday morning look the same?
You know what they said? Ten out of ten said, “No.” Ten out of ten pastors admitted that at least some—or most—of what they’ve created is necessary because it keeps people happy and maintains a steady or growing attendance. A church that retains its people can pay the bills, because more people means more tithe money. And more money helps sustain the expensive ministries we’ve created. And around and around we go.
On the flip side, if the pastor rocks the boat too much, or implements ministries that turn people off, or cancels ministries that aren’t helping people become more like Jesus, then people might leave. And if too many people leave, the church can’t make budget to sustain all the ministries. Or it won’t be able to pay its staff, or, worst-case scenario, if enough people leave then the pastor won’t get paid.
Please don’t get me wrong. I believe most pastors are filled with integrity and aren’t trying to make a lot of money from doing ministry. I believe most pastors truly desire more than anything to see people come to faith in Christ and then grow closer to Jesus through fellowship, teaching, communion, and prayer (Acts 2:42). My concern isn’t so much with the intention or motivation of church leaders. It’s with the system of doing church that’s been passed down to us (in America)—a system that’s inherently expensive and oftentimes overly complicated.
This post was adapted from chapter 9 “A More Simple Way” of my forthcoming book: Go: Returning Discipleship to the Frontlines of Faith (NavPress, 2016), which is due to release Sept. 15th.