One view that is commonly shared among those skeptical of giving to the church is the belief that the church cannot utilize our giving as effectively as a non-profit organization. We’ve all heard these concerns, and some of us agree with them. You might hear someone ask, Isn’t the church mainly using the money to pay for buildings and salaries? Or you might wonder, Will anyone outside the church benefit from the gift that I am giving?
For the last six years, I served as an elder at my church, and I have repeatedly heard the complaint about the percentage of the church budget which is directed to staff salaries, buildings and overhead. But this complaint often misses what those salaries and buildings represent: real ministry taking place. I have yet to hear anyone complain about calling the office and finding someone there to pray with them, or needing someone to come to their hospital bedside, and discovering that a pastor was in fact available for that very purpose. No one complains when their son or daughter is mentored by a youth leader who makes it a point to show up at their baseball games, and no one is put off when the worship service is well planned, when the structure of the service leads to a worshipful experience, and when the creative elements enhance our experience with God. Why is it that we suddenly denounce these real instances of ministry as “overhead” when we are handed the church budget and discover that we actually pay salaries to those who minister to us on a full time basis? Doesn’t Paul remind several time that “the worker deserves his wages”? (1 Timothy 5:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:9)
There was a time when I was tempted to view those who worked full time in ministry as living off the rest of us who had “real jobs.” As a result of unexamined pride, I challenged myself to make similarly significant contributions in ministry, all the while remaining bi-vocational. What I brought upon myself was a life that was utterly lacking in margin, while I was often working well below my competency in both work and ministry. After ten years of bi-vocational ministry, I can honestly count more drawbacks than benefits. And while it may become increasingly necessary as churches have to do more with less, I have come to better appreciate that there is no substitute for pastors who have made it their daily work to shepherd and care for the rest of us.
In a similar vein, it is popular — especially among younger adults — to bemoan large building projects and church campuses, thinking wistfully back to the days of the first century when Jesus wandered the Holy Land with “no where to lay His head.” (Matthew 8:20) But this appeal to a romanticized simplicity ignores the fact that a ministry without a place quickly finds its limits. We ourselves would not agree to live this type of displaced lifestyle. Why then are we eager to relegate churches to that kind of nomadic wandering? Our society greatly values the concept of place. In a time when Starbucks has flourished mostly because it provides a “third space” to meet with others, most of us flock there while we overpay to consume donuts, danishes and milkshakes. Our ministries, too, must take place in a physical surrounding. In addition to worship services, youth groups, Bible studies, education classes, missions trainings, a food pantry and our ever-growing ministry to mothers with young children, our buildings regularly offer a space for classes offered to the community for divorce care, grief recovery, anger management, and premarital counseling.
Where would these ministries take place if there were no building to house them? Could we hold every event in someone’s home (not likely) or would we have to start renting out spaces for each event, risking that our meetings would become poorly attended and less effective because no one could find the place we were meeting? Our church also opens its doors to local counseling ministries, to social justice conferences and even to other organizations that need to use the space for ministries which are often unaffiliated with our church. The line item in our annual budget labeled “property loan” is paying for all of this.
Real and tangible ministry is going on inside the very buildings that are so often disdained by skeptics. Whenever we hear a testimony of real life change that came as a result of a person’s interaction with God, that interaction very likely took place in one of the church buildings. We can always debate the merits of large church campuses verses making do with smaller quarters, but there is little debate that our impact is most felt when we gather together as the body of Christ, and that almost always requires a place in our modern ministry context.
Non-profit organizations know the skepticism that exists over ministry dollars going to “overhead,” and long ago started to recharacterize those dollars as part of the ministries they helped support. If you look carefully at the annual report of many of these non-profits, you won’t see line items for salaries and office space. Instead, you’ll see a breakdown of how much of each dollar goes to the various program areas supported by the organization. Are salaries, office space and overhead included in those percentages? Of course they are. Non-profits simply learned it is easier to get people to give to a tangible impact than to a salary. Churches could certainly learn to do same, and they should. But that doesn’t address the issue that is going on in our own heart. We should recognize that very few of the expenses a church takes on, regardless of how big or small, are unrelated to ministry.
Let us also keep in mind that not all non-profits are on equal footing. How many non-profits are formed every single day as a result of our insatiable desire to be in control of our own fiefdom’s in God’s work? How broad and how brittle are most of our efforts because we refuse to deepen the ministries and non-profits that already exist, preferring to strike out on our own as sanctified Lone Rangers? How many non-profits are managed more by passion than any relation to a sustainable enterprise? How many can actually demonstrate their effectiveness beyond the testimonies and anecdotal evidence packaged for donor communications? Perhaps we should not be so quick to abandon the power of Christ through His church.
That brings us to the second concern I often hear, which is the percentage of a church’s budget which is (or is not) used for purposes outside of the church. Here again, the piety is thick. If large church buildings trouble us so deeply, why are mega-churches — with all their stadium-filled excesses — the fastest growing churches in the country? And before we point fingers at the speck in the church’s eye, let us examine the log in our own: How much of our personal income is being utilized for needs outside of our own? Perhaps the church, the common unity of individual believers, would be more capable of sacrificing to meet the needs of those outside of the church if we ourselves were first doing the same.
Of course, it is quite popular to denounce the church as a social club existing primarily for the benefit of its own members, as if the evidence for this fact was clearly known to everyone. But like much of conventional wisdom, the facts often disprove this popular notion. Ram Cnaan, a nonreligiously-affiliated scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, recently found that the value the average church in America contributes to its local community (if it billed for those services at market rates) would be $184,000 per year. If you focus only on urban churches, the figure is closer to $476,000 per year contributed to the local community. In a follow up study, Cnaan found that one urban church in Philadelphia contributed over $6 million in value to the local community, over ten times its annual budget. You can see a one-page infographic on his work here, or read Agnieszka Tennant’s interview with Cnaan for Christianity Today here.
All of the reasons I’ve discussed in my three blog posts are good reasons that the church should remain the primary place where we lay our gifts at the “apostles’ feet.” But I want one reason to rise above the rest. The most important reason for us to give primarily to and through the church is that the church is the body of Christ in the world. We should tread cautiously around any notion that would lead us to diminish the glory that is due Christ while we partner in His work in the world. Our work on His behalf should always be in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and while plenty of non-profits share that same goal, it is hard to make a case for any form of giving that sees the church playing an increasingly diminished role in the work of Jesus Christ.