Posted by: minnow | April 16, 2008

Ministry and Money

My love hate relationship with Building-based Christianity has been intensifying for about a year now. A little over two years ago I started examining the traditional doctrine of hell. A year before that (although I am just now posting my thoughts) I started researching the principle of tithing. I have been blogging for just over three months. My “most recent reads” list includes a couple by Brian McLaren, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, and currently Shane Clairbourne’s The Irresistible Revolution. I’ve already been in tears reading it aloud to my son(s) and I’m not even a third of the way through it. Who could have guessed that waking up would be so painfully wonderful.

Before I go any further I need to say the fellowship I currently attend is the best Building-Based expression of Christianity I have experienced as an adult. I have no personal animosity toward anyone in leadership or in the body. My conflict is not with individuals. And, while I do not completely line up doctrinally with my current fellowship, I feel no compulsion to debate my point of view there (or anywhere else for that matter) with the goal of “proving someone wrong”. Many needs within the body are being met, the poor are being ministered to, and disciples are being made. Having said that I give this warning, the rest of my post will not sound so complimentary.

In my experience, April tends to be tithe message month. Soon our fellowship will be having “Miracle Sunday”. The hope is we will collect over $100,000 dollars to go toward our building fund. Every week as part of the offertory we hear mini-sermons about tithing and the blessing of giving. A couple Sundays ago we were informed that if each individual gave $50.00 more dollars to God a month we could meet all our bills, and have money left over for additional ministry. We were also told that in the last two months we had wiped out half of our reserve funds because we were operating in the red. In our small group that afternoon we were told we needed approximately $15,000 a week to cover operations. Later that night my husband and I were sitting at home watching TV. A Bread for the World advertisement came on. “For nine dollars a month,” the narrator said, “we could feed, clothe, and educate a child in Africa.” The television screen showed several big eyed African children receiving a plate full of rice and gravy with smiles on their faces while a building (possibly a school) was being erected in the background.

In the past I reacted to these Feed the Hungry-type advertisements by telling myself “Oh, my church helps the poor. We support missions. And, I support the Church so I don’t need to help them (whoever the them happened to be at the time).” Until very recently these sincere assumptions were not accurately descriptive of the corporate fellowship I attended. We promoted missions verbally and encouraged individuals to support these areas financially however, except for the occasional “special offering” corporately we did not add to their coffers. Even now most of our corporate support is voluntary. In other words, individuals who want tax credit can funnel their money through our fellowship by marking the memo section of their checks “missions” or “food bank”. The percentage of our corporate budget allocated to these areas is actually quite small.

Since discovering the truth about our corporate finances these World Vision-type advertisements have caused a different reaction in me. They are beginning to effect my self talk. I find myself asking more questions like: “just what am I doing to make a difference?” The night my husband and I sat watching the Bread for the World advertisement together I was struck by the stark contrast between that advertisement and the one we heard during the service that morning. With the same amount of money my church was asking for I alone could feed five children a month through Bread For the World. My family could support thirty-five children. To my newly awakened mind there was/is something wrong with this picture.

If you are familiar with any of the authors on the list I mentioned earlier you will know that they are voices from the emerging church movement and/or social justice advocates. Some in more traditional circles have been highly critical of these new voices and yet their observations about where Building-based Christianity has dropped the ball concerning the poor are spot on. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new buildings which we use for ministry just a few hours a week. We buy state of the art sound and lighting equipment that sits dormant for days on end. And, most congregations of any size (ours is approximately 600) employ several fulltime pastors, administrators, assistants, and secretaries to keep the ministry of the Church going. (My fellowship has 3 fulltime pastors, one administrator, and one secretary, plus three or more part time assistants). Sermons are taped, Sunday school materials are purchased, and office supplies are added in (computers, printers, paper, etc.). By the time all these expenses are calculated little is left in most budgets to support ministry outside the building.

Contrast for a moment the expression of priorities exampled above with the Church we see modeled throughout Acts. In Acts believers pooled their resources so no one would be found wanting. There was a daily distribution of food. Paul supported himself when necessary by making tents. The sick were healed. The captive set free. They met together daily. We certainly live at a different time in a different culture. But does that really explain the difference?

Please hear me when I say–I am not calling Building-based Christianity evil. I believe these ministries can and many do reach out and touch our greater communities. For example, our fellowship provides housing for a city food bank. Programs, like the food bank, are generally run by a volunteer staff and in many cases the goods and supplies are donation driven. The financial contribution of housing, staffing and supplying these programs is a difficult thing to measure. Certainly if it all needed to be paid for the expense would render such ministries inoperable.

At the same time, I live with a growing tension in my spirit and many more questions then answers.

 

 

 

 

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