This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Another Rant About the Church and Money.


            There is not a hint in the New Testament that disciples of Jesus are to be measured, evaluated, judged, or disposed of according to how much money they have, or don’t have.  This seems so obvious as to be ridiculous, of course.  Jesus says we can’t serve both God and money, we have to pick one or the other (Luke 16:13).  And Paul talks about the love of money being the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10).     
            But some church groups behave as if they have chosen money over God.  Granted, few churches these days would be so crass as to admit to treating an individual decently or not according to the person’s wealth, consciously at least.  Yet I am pretty sure that were an affluent person and a poor person to show up as visitors on the same day, in many of our churches people would give preferential treatment to the former.  I am sad to say. 
            But this bias towards wealth – or more accurately, against poverty – is most definitely prevalent in the way denominations deal with their constituent churches.  We habitually care more about how much money a church has, than how well they are doing mission.  We will gladly let a church with money do just about whatever it wants: new steeple, pipe organ, stained glass, six-figure salary for the “Head of Staff,” etc., no matter how empty and ineffective may be its actual mission.  And we will just as willingly close a church doing effective, innovative, and faithful mission, for no other reason than that it ran out of money.
            In fact, a church can even lose money hand over proverbial fist, but if it is rich enough to absorb the loss and keep paying its expenses, the church will hear no criticism.  And, of course, conversely, a church can see an increase in giving to it is mission, and still draw the ire of presbytery if the increase is deemed insufficient.
            Furthermore, because of misuse of the infamous “trust clause,” a small church may be prevented from – or even punished for – doing creative mission by a presbytery with leadership chronically deficient in energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  The trust clause means that a significant portion of a small church’s resources – its property – is subject to presbytery’s whim.  Such property may not be sold or encumbered without approval of a presbytery.
             Churches, however, that have significant cash reserves, may do as they please, no matter how counter-missional a particular initiative may be.  Indeed, a church may even be positively hemorrhaging members, but if they have cash they need no presbytery approval to do anything not liable to invoke the Rules of Discipline.  But a small church that wants to support its mission by the liquidation of a manse, or the selling of an acre of real estate, is subject to the withering scrutiny of a presbytery whose leaders may be mired in the mindset of the 1950’s, or unwilling or unable to appreciate the style and/or content of the congregation’s mission.  (“Too evangelical.”  “Too liberal.”  “Too unusual”  Whatever.)  Indeed, some in the presbytery may even want the church to close, so that, when its property is sold off, the proceeds may be used by the presbytery to pay staff or even reduce the per capita apportionment.  (I’m not kidding.  There are apparently presbyteries that use the money gained from sold church property in this way, thus incentivizing the closure of churches.)
              The truth is, that a church that is doing the most effective mission is never the church that has the most money or is the most profitable.  This is because of what Jesus says.  Churches and people don’t get rich by serving God.  By definition, serving God means giving away what you have (Luke 14:33), not storing your wealth (Luke 12:16-21), and not ignoring the poverty in your midst (Luke 16:19-31), and so forth.  A church that makes a profit has effectively denied the Lord Jesus and chosen to serve money instead.  There is no complicated assessment that needs to be done to determine this; just count the cash.  Indeed, the most effective churches are far more likely to be those that habitually lose money because what resources they have are all going to mission.  Every dime sunk into an endowment or frittered away in paying for a building is robbed from Jesus.
            This is assuming that we are defining “effectiveness,” and “success” according to Jesus’ teaching that the mission of his disciples is witnessing to the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) by service to the needy (Matthew 25:31-46, etc.), peacemaking (Matthew 5:9), healing (Luke 7:22), and disciple-making (Matthew 28:19).  It’s a big assumption, I know.  Not all that many churches, let alone presbyteries, are able to wrap their minds around this concept, even though it is screamed at us from virtually every page of the gospels.
            I pray that the day comes soon when we evaluate churches by the quality and effectiveness of their mission, and find ways to get our resources to the places where mission is happening (or at least give them access to the resources they already have).  And I also look forward to the day when we stop evaluating churches by how much money they have.
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