OFFERING PLATE AFFLUENCE

It’s Sunday morning, and I am at home writing instead of worshiping at church. Worse, my family is here with me. I don’t feel like much of a spiritual leader right now, and that burdens me tremendously. It’s a responsibility, a Biblical mandate, which I take very seriously. Church is what we do. Not because it makes God love us more or because it’s the road to Heaven. It’s just what we do. On a “good” Sunday, we go to worship our Savior. On a “bad” Sunday, we go because it’s a habit. I hope God honors both. He tells us His Word does not return void.

The problem is my Spirit is unsettled. My wife is watching Andy Stanley in the living room, and my kids, both of whom have grown up in our church, are still in bed. Our justification? My daughter got home from a drama workshop last night at around 1:15 a.m. We let her sleep in this morning. The rest of us stayed home because getting my daughter to her small group has become our motivation for going to church. She loves her small group. She is growing in her faith with a core group of friends during a formative time in her life. Her spiritual vitality currently takes priority over the spiritual stalemate in which the other three family members (all adults) currently find ourselves. Spiritual leadership is burdensome and sometimes involves opportunity costs.

Giving has become a serious stumbling block for me. It hasn’t always been this way, though. My wife and I have tithed since we got married. She brought the practice into the marriage, and I admittedly lost the argument against it. I’m so grateful I did. Tithing is an act of obedience for us. More than that, though, it is an act of worship. Giving should feel good. My much, much better half prefers to give by faith and let God do the rest, understanding that she isn’t giving to a church; she is giving to the Almighty. Because of my cynical nature (I thoroughly hate that about myself), I take a much more pragmatic approach. I believe that stewardship of God’s resources requires me to ask questions. I think stewardship requires clarity, in other words. Clarity is becoming increasingly difficult to get in our churches, however. Clarity now requires scheduled meetings.

  • How is the church specifically spending tithes and offerings?
  • Who is benefitting from God’s resources, filtered through His congregation?
  • Is church staffing fiscally lean?
  • Are church staff members enjoying affluent lifestyles underwritten by offerings of less fortunate church members?
  • Does a single mom’s offering help provide church leaders with a higher standard of living than her own child enjoys?
  • Have glossy ministry plans replaced the financial transparency once provided by traditional church budgets?
  • When did internal “Resource Teams” comprised of church employees replace traditional finance committees comprised of laity?
  • Am I the only one who thinks a healthy church should redistribute wealth outside its walls, not within them?

Maybe I have simply evolved into the old church contrarian. I hope not. Ministry costs money, and I understand that we can’t put a price tag on salvation. Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the only one who paid for my salvation. I am not redeemed by corruptible things. If an affluent minister leads a nonbeliever to Jesus, is that person any less saved because of the minister’s affluence? Of course not. So, wouldn’t the matter be a personal one between the minister and God? I suppose it depends on whether I am enabling that affluence through my tithes and offerings. Wouldn’t I potentially be complicit in the sin of greed if I knowingly give to a church or a religion that fails to hold ministers financially accountable? The Western Church has historically been a shining city on a hill for a dark and fallen world. Is our Light dimming because we have ignored the fog of greed? I blame no one more than I blame myself. I am personally guilty of greed, too. But silence is something I can be guilty of no longer.

The remainder of this blog will likely win me no friends. In fact, what I am now compelled to question publicly is far more likely to cost me friends. The Holy Spirit compels me nonetheless, so I have reluctantly decided to post this blog. God controls the timing and circulation of the message. Observations that follow collectively comprise the source of my unsettled Spirit. It should also be noted that I have approached various leaders at different churches with these concerns on several occasions over the last year. Emails have been exchanged, and face-to-face meetings have occurred. I have sought counsel from trusted mentors, and I have prayed for discernment. Answers provided by humans, though polite and conciliatory, have proven inadequate to settle my Spirit. Discernment alone has led me to start this conversation. I genuinely wish it wasn’t necessary to do so. Readers who know me personally should not necessarily assume that the observations shared reflect issues within my home church exclusively. The context is much broader than that. What follow are questions about the Western Church in general, not allegations about a particular congregation.

I wonder if Jesus is honored when prominent pastors own lucrative, non-profit ministries, some of which are underwritten through the tithes and offerings of local churches. “Non-profit” should not be misinterpreted to mean “non-salary-paying.” More importantly, would Jesus leave the tables upright if he walked into our churches in 2017? I wonder what He would think if He visited church websites and clicked on hyperlinks to Amazon where pastors’ books are sold, some for profit. Selling things for church participation is nothing new, and Jesus was pretty clear about His thoughts regarding the matter.

In Matthew 21:13, when people need animal sacrifices to participate in worship, Jesus reprimands the merchants selling animals in the Temple: “My house will be called a house of prayers, but you are making it a den of robbers.” In John 2:13-16, Jesus overturns the moneychangers’ tables and drives the animals out of the Temple with a whip, telling the merchants, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” To summarize these two scriptures, business people were engaged in an acceptable practice at an unacceptable location, the Gentile Courts (an outer part of the Temple). Jesus passionately condemned the practice because of the place it occurred.

In modern times, when people need Bible supplements to participate in church-wide initiatives, Jesus remains silent unless someone has the courage to speak out against the practice. It seems like a compelling similarity: Ancient Jews were encouraged to buy animals in order to participate in church; some contemporary Protestants are now encouraged to buy supplemental resources in order to participate in church. I wonder if our gathering places have become marketplaces. I wonder if amazon.com has become our modern day Gentile Courts. The only way the two scenarios could be more similar is if the Jewish priests had been the ones selling the animals in the Temple. They were not. The practice would have been unconscionable. Not today. Entrepreneurial pastors are seemingly everywhere.

It is no accident that Jesus talks more about money than Heaven and Hell combined. It is no mistake that 16 of the 38 New Testament parables focus on money or possessions. Estimates are that 10 percent of Gospel verses directly or indirectly address money. Somewhere around 500 Bible verses are devoted to prayer; another 500 verses focus on faith. But money is the basis of some 2,000 Bible verses. Jesus understands the temptation of greed. So did Martin Luther. Money is referenced 13 times in his 95 Theses, the document that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

Christian entrepreneurs are no less Christian because they sell things, and pastors are no less Godly, in my estimation, if they sell Bible supplements. In fact, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:17, “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit.” We can infer, then, that profiting from God’s word is not necessarily sinful.  If it were, Paul would have likely condemned the practice in no uncertain terms. I see Biblical evidence of entrepreneurial believers, and I see Biblical evidence of vocational ministers. What I don’t see, however, is Biblical evidence of entrepreneurial ministers. The Western Church has seemingly built a different model. The practice is rampant. It is not, unfortunately, the only trendy, questionable practice in modern Protestant churches.

What about the evolution of the church budget into vague, glossy ministry plans? Church members still need to know that church leadership is intent upon being good stewards of God’s resources. It shouldn’t require a private meeting to learn that approximately 50 cents of every church dollar is earmarked for personnel. A $20 million church budget, in other words, pushes less than $10 million toward the heart stirring images–disaster relief, missionaries, and orphans–projected in our sanctuaries on Sundays. What we don’t see projected are pastors’ swimming pools, boats, and gated communities, none of which are necessarily sinful. But these are also reasons we give–veiled reasons. We need to be assured that greed has not crept into our beloved churches. Godly stewardship compels us to know if the offering plate has become a source of affluence.

The problem is church members can’t find these assurances based on the current trend of “ministry-based budgeting” with hidden personnel costs. We need financial transparency. I am neither a Bible scholar nor a theologian, but the only consolation I find in this capitalistic, Western Church model is the assurance God gives us in Isaiah 55:11: “…my word that goes out from my mouth…will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire.” No, God’s Word does not return void. And that’s why not even our collective greed can damage His purposes. But it sure can leave the Spirit unsettled.

My prayer is that the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth aren’t allowed to creep in and choke out the Word, making us unfruitful. That’s my prayer for everyone, church leaders and laypeople just like me. God continues to do miraculous work through His church in spite of our imperfections. Imagine what He would allow us to see if we were willing to break free from the shackles of greed.

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