Today I want to talk about money as a corrupting force in the life of the church. Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24). And 1 Timothy states in clear terms “The love of money [avarice or greed] is the root of all evil” (6:10). Of course, money does not force you to love it. But it’s an effective persuader! You can make money serve you, but it often turns out the other way around. Money is a means of exchange that enables the acquisition of real goods—food you can eat, clothing, shelter, beautiful things, services, etc. These things can serve human needs and produce joy, but they can also be abused and create misery. By pooling the resources of its members a church can acquire more of these things and use them for greater good. That’s the ideal anyway. But ideals are rarely realized completely.
Parachurches Need Lots of Money
Consider the churches I designated “parachurches” in the previous essay. They organize and conduct their work in ways that require a constant stream of revenue. They purchase and maintain building complexes, making it necessary to hire janitors, make periodic repairs, and pay huge utility bills. To coordinate the activities of hundreds or thousands of people and provide programs for every age and interest group, they must hire five, ten, or even twenty-five ministers. And of course the senior minister, the CEO, oversees the other ministers and the whole operation. The Sunday worship alone requires the services of a worship minister, sound and lighting techs, some singers, and several band or orchestra members. Such an operation requires support from a large secretarial and bookkeeping staff. Even a medium sized church needs an annual budget of $500,000 to $1,000,000. Megachurches need $10,000,000 to $50,000,000 annually.
And from where does this money come? It comes from donations from members. And why do they give? I speak only from my own experience. I am sure most of them give because they believe that their churches do good things with the money. They feel proud of participating in these large-scale good works, which they could not accomplish by themselves. However I think additional factors are at work.
Some churches teach explicitly and others imply that giving to a church is a Christian duty or even a quasi-sacrament. That is to say, giving is considered a meritorious work or a kind of bloodless sacrifice, a required act of worship distinct from the practical purpose for which the gift is to be used. Or, we think of our gifts as membership dues. We attend church services and enjoy the pageantry, the inspiring music, and the uplifting message as we sit comfortably in a state of the art facility. We benefit from the work of scores of staff and volunteers. And we feel guilty if we enjoy all these things without helping to pay for the them.
Pass the Collection Plate
But money exerts a corrupting force. Churches have earned a reputation for constantly soliciting donations, a reputation nearly universal among outsiders but also common among loyal members. Churches need to meet their annual budgets. The staff’s livelihood and the viability of many programs depend on it. Many churches “pass the collection plate” every Sunday. Passing the plate to the person sitting beside you without making a donation can be a bit embarrassing. You imagine that everyone notices your stingyness, especially the “deacons” who are standing at the ends of the rows to receive the plates.
The church seems to be of two minds on money versus people. The church sign says, “Everyone is welcome. Come as you are.” But do they really mean it, or will it be a “bait and switch” operation? Do churches want to grow because they want everyone to know Jesus? Or, do they wish to keep the income stream flowing? Because churches have organized themselves in ways that require lots of money, the good news of the love of Jesus and God’s forgiveness gets mixed with a less noble message.
People Got to Get Paid
I want to speak next from personal experience. I served as a paid minister for eight years as a young man. I entered the ministry because of what I believed, and still believe, was a divine call to which I could not say no. I responded in obedience to God. But when I became an employee of a church my duty to God got confused with the expectations of the church. The two are not always the same! I could no longer be sure of my motives. I learned a bitter lesson: if your service to God becomes also a means of livelihood on which your family depends—mortgage, childcare, health insurance, car payments, school loan payments, and retirement savings—the joy of ministry often departs. You begin to think about salary, benefits, and working conditions! You begin to think about who has power over you and who does not.
On the other side of the equation, later in life I served as an elder [a volunteer lay leader] in a church where a part of my duty was supervising the ministry staff. In that role my partnership with the ministers in the work of the Lord was made joyless by having to deal with their requests concerning salary, benefits, and working conditions. Money is indeed the root of all evil!
If you have been following this series you know that I favor small group churches over parachurch churches. We could go a long way toward removing the corrosive effect of money if churches met in homes, took no collections, made no budgets, owned no common property, and had no employees. I don’t think I am naïve about this. There would still be occasion for greed and envy, shame and pride, because of economic differences among individual believers. But at least the church would not be always seeking donations to run its operations.
Next Time: What about the clergy?
Great post! One thing I am curious about—what do you think about arguments that Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 9 that a full-time minister should be supported with a living by the congregation? Granted, Paul appeals to his readers’ conscience and not duty in the chapter—but it seems to me that one could make an argument for a practice like the general collection (passing the plate) from this passage.
Jesus also lived from support from patrons. He advised his missionaries to accept hospitality from the villages to which they preached the good news. Indeed, 1 Corinthians 9 argues that Paul could have asked for support so that he would not have had to work. Others asked and received support. But Paul treasured his freedom more than his time. He realized that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” And he realized that people can question the motives of someone who is asking them for money easier than of someone who works to support themselves. Yes. Being supported to free your time to do the work of a minister is legitimate. But what kind of “support” did these missionaries and teachers receive? And for what kind of ministry? Most of the support, I think, was what we’d call hospitality. A long way from salary, benefits, and working conditions! And it served a very practical purpose: to facilitate the mobility of traveling missionaries. It’s a long way from there to the senior pastors and the music ministers of today? Again, I am not arguing that para or megachurches are illegitimate or are doing wrong. I am questioning holding them up as the ideal, and making giving to them an obligation. I am arguing for the legitimacy of disengaging somewhat or wholly from parachurches and moving to a simpler model. Thanks!
Thanks for the robust response! Looking forward to more.
There are enormous differences between then (early Christianity) and nowadays. And i believe Ron’s focus on “support” is quite correct.
It is one thing to help out or augment an income, and quite another to pay a large professional salary. Of course in those early times, it may have been common place to pay for a roof repair with ‘half a goat’ (indeed i’ve been offered that a few times): but that won’t pay for double-glazing, a car, an expensive holiday or fashion clothes.
So is it possible to minister in a ” lay” capacity? I believe it is. And some of the very best sermons and guidance can come from a visiting lay-preacher, many of whom decline the meal ticket and travel expenses.
It almost puts one in mind of the Pharisees (like Saul) mentioned by Jesus in the NT who have comparatively wealthy lifestyles at the expense of their 2 groat congregations.
And finally, has church gone far too far from Minister, to Administerer?
Agreed. Well stated!