Posted by: minnow | October 31, 2008

Counting the Costs

Lately I have been listening in on and at times participating in several conversation about the US vs THEM attitude which exists between traditional Building-Based Christianity and those who do not fit such a mold.  An interesting discussion along these lines has been going on over at The Carnival in My Head.  Some who defend Building-Based Christianity point to the fact that many are reached, encouraged, and trained in these traditional formats who otherwise would not be exposed to the Gospel.  Critics ask if some good justifies or compensates for the problems they see within these top heavy ministries.  Your answer to that question may depend on whether you are on the receiving end of the harm or the receiving end of the benefit, which incidentally, may not always be too easily discerned.

Obviously people who have been overtly harmed by Church abuse can have residual issues that make trusting traditional expressions of the Church difficult.  And, while overt abuse at the hands of Christians is particularly reprehensible given what the Church is supposed to stand for, the truth that some will suffer at the hands of any group of people with power over them is nearly impossible to avoid.  So for the remainder of the discussion we are not going to focus on the extreme (overt abuse). Instead the question: “if some good can justify or compensate for that which is not good in Building-Based Christianity?” will be our focus.  To address this question we must look at both what is right and what is wrong with the traditional system. Finances, programs, outreach all are up for examination.

Let us begin with finances.  In the past I have blogged about the issue of tithing.  I will not repeat that discussion except to say that tithing as it is taught in traditional settings is not supported Biblically.  For more on that issue check my other posts here, here, and here.  Now let us get on with our original discussion.

The reality of most Building-Based Christianity is that it costs money.  Owning or renting a building costs.  A fulltime pastor or ministry team costs.  Program materials, sound and lighting equipment, office supplies, and furnishings, all cost.  Please do not misunderstand–costing money does not make Building-Based Christianity evil.  Most everything in life costs.  But, our job as Kingdom stewards is to weigh the costs and find out if our organizations are cost-effective.  To accomplish that task we need to look at how Building-Based Christianity utilizes the space, staff, and things on which it spends its money.

Sadly, most Buildings use the vast majority of their space only minimally.  Now, before I get a bunch of you telling me how often your buildings are used let me admit that I am talking about my personal experience.  I have attended mostly small congregations, the largest being approximately 600 and the average being around 300.  Generally speaking, I have seen little differences in these fellowships despite the fact that they have varied from conservative Baptist to liberal United Methodist. Some have labeled themselves “spirit-filled” and others “Bible-believing“.  They have been charismatic, traditional, evangelical, seeker sensitive, formal, and laid-back.  A couple have been non-denominational but most associate with a particular denomination such as the Dutch Reformed or Episcopal.  And, while their Sunday morning music differs one from another and how they govern their Bodies differ one from another, most offer the same basic package on a week to week basis.

Each of the fellowships I have attended had one or more services on Sunday and one (usually a youth service) some other day of the week.  During the rest of the week the offices have been open on a near daily basis, rehearsals have taken place in the worship spaces, and a couple small groups or planning committees have met in some of the Sunday school classrooms one or two nights a week.  In our current building we have a foodbank that is open to the public for two hours on Saturday morning, a prayer room that is available but not manned 24/7, and a once a month prayer and praise service.  On occasion we host a guest speaker or a conference.  Otherwise, we fit the basic description.  All totaled the majority of our building is used approximately 8 hours a week.  The offices are active about 32 hours a week and the remainder of the building (the food bank and classrooms) are open another 8 hours weekly.  In other words, out of 112 non-sleeping hours in a week, our building is only open 48 hours and during those 48 the majority of space is only used for 8 hours a week.  Judge for yourself if this is an effective use of resources given the fact that according to Lifeway Research 29 percent of the average Church budget goes toward its building–mortgage or rent, utilities, and office supplies (another 9 percent of the budget goes toward denominational dues).

I can not tell you with any authority how full-time pastors use their time during the week.  I assume they do some counseling, prepare for the weekly message or worship* time, visit people from the congregation, meet with other pastors, chair the board of elders and deacons, and spend some personal time studying and in prayer.  Based on the confessions of several of my former pastors who were/are personal friends very little time is spent rubbing elbows with non-Christians.  The smallest fellowship I was ever a part of employed one full-time pastor and one part-time pastor.  The largest employed four full-time pastors, one full-time secretary, and five part-time staff.  The average mega-church employees between 12 and 20 full-time pastors.  Whatever they do with their time, nearly half ( or 49 percent) the average church budget goes toward their salaries, again according to Lifeway Research.

If you have been adding this up you will know that we only have 13 percent of the budget left to allocate.  According to Lifeway 5 percent of the average Church budget heads out the door to overseas missions.  That means approximately 8 percent goes toward other aspects of ministry–Sunday school materials, local out reach, worship materials, benevolence funds, etc.  Does the smallness of these percentages surprise anyone? If they are not a shock perhaps this research by David Barrett, Tom Johnson and Peter Crossing, will be.  Barrett, Johnson and Crossing found that while Christians account for 16 trillion dollars in annual wealth they only contribute 2 percent of that (or 370 billion dollars) toward Christian causes, including their local denominations.

Now I realize that for many these figures are not all that important.  You are happy with how your fellowship functions, like your pastor or pastors, feel fed, enjoy worship, perhaps belong to a small group, like the fact that your children are learning and growing in their Sunday school or youth group. Church life is good.  The gospel is being preached and THAT is what really matters.  Perhaps you are right.  For those who are “IN” the established Church seems to be working.  Maybe your particular fellowship can even claim to be growing.  However, the over all growth statistics of the Church are in decline.  In other words, the new members joining your part of the Body by in large come from other fellowships not from the non-believing population.  In addition, many of the people who leave one particular fellowship do not choose to go anywhere else.

Is the exodus just about money?  Probably not.  Does money have something to do with it?  For some, yes.  But for others the issues are much deeper and not so easy to pin point.  I will try to look at a few of those “issues” next time.

*I apologize to those who may be offended when the word worship is used to refer to the playing of music and singing of songs rather than the whole service but I am at a loss for a short way to refer to the part of the service that is the music, especially when the music is an entire section of the service.


  1. Thanks for your carefully researched and thoughtfully presented words on the cost-effectiveness of building-based church. I think no one would deny that having a building and staff will always require more money per member. The evidence you provide certainly gives us cause for a gut-check on how we use the money that is so generously given each week.

    I know you have more coming on this subject, as it is too involved to include in one post. Perhaps you will have more to say on how the emergent church is filling in the gaps where building-based church cannot reach.

    I’d like to add that, some years ago, after God brought me out of a tight, controlling ministry, I found a building-based church with all of the flashy sound system, video projectors, full-time staff, and generally-churchy bling. For me, this was a God-send, as it was just what I needed. I needed to know that following God was not all rules and regs, but could be fun! It could be light! This church, with all its extra costs, spoke to my heart, “There is room for you in God.”

    I wonder if the question is not so much about cost-effectiveness, but one of balance. God lives in the balance. I think any kind of unbalance (whether it be legalism or relativeism) seperates us from God. In this respect, neither the building or the emergent is right or wrong — they are just avenues available to bring believers and non-believers in balance and closer to God — something we all want to see happen.

    I look forward to your next post…

  2. thanks so so much Minnow for your insight. I’m getting the first glimpse into the actual specifics that people get frustrated over! sadly enough, I don’t know the specifics about my church body and what they spend where….

    I do know that we have at least 2 new couples the past 2 weeks that were “against church” that are now part of our church. so I don’t think we’re reaching just church hoppers looking for a new ‘experience’. so we are an exception to some generalizations which is very reassuring.

    I am going to bookmark this page though to come back to as far as spending — because shamefully I don’t know how our church allocates. I do know that one other church body meets at our church on Sunday afternoons. a hispanic group. not sure about the rest of the week.

    the numbers you gave that only 2% is given…. WOW. the church needs to really start being the church. imagine if we bumped it to 3 or 5 or TEN!? much less 30!? Imagine if we took what the government wants to take, and instead choose ourselves to donate and give. if we don’t give — eventually we will be forced to.

    thanks as always! 🙂

    the tithing 3 posts didn’t work for me.

  3. by the way – you are good to talk about % and not dollars… because ultimately it’s not about a dollar amount that should or shouldn’t be spent on ___ …. it’s about percentage. like the lady who gave from her poverty and not ‘extra’. ya know? we can’t judge by dollar amounts – but my %.

    for the record – we’re a pretty ‘creative’ church — but our uniqueness is that we are 114 years old. we keep on changing – rather than leavign and breaking off – we are findign ways to change and adapt and yet stay together as a body. pretty awesome if u ask me!! and I think we’r about 300 ish members…. as far as videos, screens, media, etc. etc….. but have no clue waht the % is spent on it. I am curious to find this all out….

  4. @ Shelby–great insight. Many posts by Randi on her blog and several comments by her on other blogs that I have run into also speak to the strengths of the Building format. I agree that different people have different needs met in different ways and during different seasons. Life definately isn’t one size fits all.
    @Randi–I think I fixed the tithing links. I’ve been impressed with the things you have said about your fellowship in the past and am very impressed with your personal attitude and sense of responsibility. My post really isn’t meant to bash all Building-Based Christianity. I just am more and more aware of the discontent and wanting to understand why. I guess I am one of those folks who think it is always easier to fix problems if we understand the cause and it’s always easier to see and deal with problems if we keep our eyes open.

    When I was on the leadership team at a little tiny church plant (about 30 families when we moved) I was excited that 10% of our budget went to ministried we did not directly benefit from (poor grammar, sorry). I was also excited that we had another 10% allocated to a benevolence fund for any who came asking–sometimes it fixed a stranded traveler’s car, other times it bought groceries for someone. Their stated goal was to get to be a 10/90 body instead of a 80/20 body. In other words they wanted 10% of what came in to stay in house and 90% to leave the building. Partly they wanted to pare down expenses and partly they wanted to bring in more resources. I’m all for bringing in more as long as it means more NEED is met. My problem is when we don’t understand the difference between need and want. Want always wins because it is always more attractive.

  5. always appreciate what you share here. i do see the value of a building for a community & know that it helps people have a sense of place, etc., but i just can’t see how it’s a good use of resource. like you have suggested in other posts, why not open it in all kinds of ways to the community, offer all kinds of resources & make it a hub for help, not just a couple of hours a week? why not partner with other churches and share the space so that everyone’s expenses are reduced. sure, that happens with spanish speaking churches and “unique” situations but on the whole churches are afraid of competition & a “what if we believe something slightly different from those guys and people think we might agree with them if we are together?” oh, all kinds of things. bottom line to me is what you are saying: there are so many wasted resources out there. my friend always says “jesus must be a really bad real estate guy” it all just doesn’t make sense. i know of a church that launched a new $40 million building campaign. they are touting, we’d like to raise an additional 10% to give away, isn’t that great? well what would be great, in my opinion, is if they used the 90 to give away and somehow figured out how to make do on the 10%. okay there i go again, it’s just hard for me. i think people just like to be part of somethign cool and don’t realize how much money gets wasted, that, if redistributed could really have a tangible impact. enough rambling for the moment. thanks for writing!

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