A few years ago I received an email from someone who had a question for me regarding the mounting debt issues at their church.
The email read:
"Our church is in debt. We owe the bank thousands. We now need the debt to function. We have become dependent on it. My spouse challenged the finance person, in private, about this and got no where. We suggested we stop doing stuff and paying so many people to run the church. These suggestions feel on deaf ears."
Now, my perspective may be different than most in this situation, but since the question has been asked, and since I believe that many other Churches will soon find themselves in the same boat very soon, I wanted to take the time and respond here.
For a bit of background on my personal situation, let me make it clear that my wife and I have fairly radical views when it comes to the Church, and especially when it comes to church finances, offerings and tithes. For our family, it is our conviction that the offering belongs to the poor and not to the Church to spend on herself and her own comforts. This is why we left our on-staff, paid pastoral positions and started a house church where 100% of all offerings could go to the poor in our community. I do not take a salary. We use every penny received in our basket to buy groceries for needy families and to help people in need.
However, many churches, if not most, do not operate in this way. Most churches in America today are operating as a business. Because of this, these churches, like every single other business, are suffering financially and facing economic hardships that force many to make difficult decisions about staff, expenses and programs.
Like every other business, Churches around the nation are laying off workers, cutting back on programs and down-sizing to make it through these uncertain economic times.
Could it be that God might be allowing the Church as we know it to go out of business so that she can realize that He has never intended her to operate as a business in the first place?
Most Christians today cannot imagine Church without a paid professional clergy, a large building, a state-of-the-art sound system, and programs for youth and children. However, the historical evidence is that people have been operating without these things for literal centuries. These churches have been making disciples and preaching the Gospel and serving the poor and worshipping Jesus just fine, thank you. All without a building, a paid professional clergy, or programs or a thousand dollar sound system. Seriously.
Furthermore, the New Testament tells us that Jesus refers to His Church as a Family, a Body, an Organism and a Bride. He never treats her as a business and, in my opinion, the Scriptures reveal a very different DNA for Church than we've adopted here in the West.
One pastor friend recently shared that he had approached his board of directors at his church about not continuing to take a salary for his services. He wanted to take a job in the real world and not be a burden to the Body financially. This, I thought, was a wonderful idea. However, they wouldn't allow him to work for free or to take his salary elsewhere. This response puzzles me in many ways, but sadly, most cannot conceive of running the Church in any other way than as a business.
Over the last few years I have met three different pastors, here in California, who have found it necessary to let go of their church building and their paid staff due to financial hardships. In each case, these pastors made the decision to re-organize as a series of house churches. All of them have since discovered the joy and the freedom of "Being the Church" rather than asking their people to attend one. None of them would ever go back. None of them would have taken the step towards House Church if their bank accounts were bursting either.
Now that they have made the leap towards organic forms of "being Church" these three pastors have also discovered that, instead of shrinking in size, they are growing, in maturity and in numbers. Instead of hurting for money they cannot help but generate money, because they have little to no expenses. Instead of spending thousands of dollars a month on utilities and bills, they now spend hundreds of hours in community and in fellowship with one another and have discovered what it means to really be the Family of God.
Our house church, The Mission, has been together for just about 5 years now. I have been very blessed to grow alongside others who share our passion for living outward-focused lives of love. My family has been blessed to open our home and discover true Koinonia fellowship and community with people who have a sincere desire to follow Jesus. We've all been blessed to encourage one another in our faith and to spur one another on to do good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do.
We've been blessed to share our finances with one another, and with those we encounter in the community, who are in need. We've been amazed to connect every dollar we give with actual people whose lives are blesssed because of what we share.
Of course, this is no way to run a business, and that's the whole point. Our passionate desire is to live our faith and share what we have been given without allowing profits or corporate strategy or ROI to muddy the waters.
Perhaps God has other reasons for allowing financial pressures to put the Church out of business? Perhaps our economy will rebound soon and all of this will go away? Who knows?
I just cannot help to see God at work in all of this, especially when I hear joyful reports of pastors who are seeing growth and maturity in their church as the walls come down and the people discover what it means to be the Church they were always meant to be.
My hope and prayer is that the people of God here in America would really begin to fully understand what it means to operate as a family, and to share what they have, and to embrace one another, and the poor, no matter what the cost.