The phone disturbed what might have been a beautiful dream. The caller was a friend of mine who evidently had forgotten he was in another time zone. I'll confess I appreciate telephone calls in inverse proportion to the lateness of the hour, but he sounded so cheerful I made an exception.
"We're going bankrupt," he laughed. I wondered if I was missing some of the pieces.
"No, my church."
"Your church is going bankrupt?" I came wide awake with this one. I knew him to be a very successful pastor, and began to wonder if this was some sort of late-night joke—until he listed all the things he had tried in an unsuccessful effort to keep the church's program afloat. There was a long pause, then an audible sigh. "I've been a pastor for a long time, but this is the first time I have ever faced this situation. I called to see if you have an answer. I hope so, because we are going bankrupt."
It may seem inconceivable that a church would have to go out of business because of a lack of financial support. But it is possible. The question is Why would this happen?
One might understand such a crisis if the church had experienced a sudden loss of membership because of some unusual situation such as a lack of employment, but my friend was describing a church with an adequate member ship in an area where economic conditions were normal, or nearly so. He was concerned by the downward trend in the giving habits of members who had been staunch supporters of the program.
Before considering this dilemma, which today is not at all unusual, let's take a warning from the problem-solver's notebook: Most solutions are aimed at symptoms rather than problems. A problem, they say, is like an onion; one has to remove many layers before getting down to the crying part. Very possibly a lack of support for the church is only a symptom. And likely the situation recurs because the methods used to correct it treat the symptom rather than the problem. Possibly we should use some "onion techniques" and determine the real cause—even if it is a crying situation.
The evidence that we have been treating symptoms lies in the endless array of fund-raising schemes that have become standard in most churches. The financial problems faced by these churches confirm that such methods have produced temporary solutions. Is lack of money the church's real problem, or is it only a symptom?
A disturbing observation suggests that a person will support anything he believes in, regardless of the cost. If this is true, and if members are not supporting the church satisfactorily, they must not really believe in it or its mission. They may give lip service, and pride themselves in being members, but they have not made a genuine heart (or pocketbook) commitment. Four reasons bear consideration.
First, the members may perceive the church as poorly managed. Lack of confidence often affects support. Second, they may find other things more appealing. Third, the church may have no aggressive program. And fourth, the priorities of church administration may have become clouded by the constant need for money. Let us consider these possibilities and their consequences.
Irresponsible management. Some church leaders have been guilty of managing church finances in a loose, irresponsible manner; either they do not have a budget or they do not operate within its limits. This open-ended type of management (one man referred to it as pouring sand down a well) spells financial disaster in capital letters, because no amount of income could satisfy it.
A budget does not produce income, but it certainly controls expenditures and makes wise use of available funds. Any successful business is conducted in a responsible way. The church is big business and should be managed as such.
Some church leaders have a habit of spending money for nonessential or nonproductive programs. This, of course, would have no effect on the nongiver and very little on the token giver. But it may seriously affect the hard core of church support. Traditionally these people are industrious, thrifty, careful managers of their personal finances and do not like to see money wasted or used in unproductive ways.
Often these people, who are really interested in the activity and outreach of the church, will voice their opposition to these wasteful or ineffective programs. If their concerns are ignored, they may withhold support as a means of protest. (Some people consider this the only way to get leadership's attention.) These people may be dismissed as negative or dissident, but the fact remains that their voice will be heard—audibly or through a lack of support.
Church leaders, of all people, should recognize that all money belongs to God and should be managed in a way He would approve. Those who are in charge of the funds placed specifically in His treasury hold an even greater responsibility. This area must be thoroughly investigated whenever a downward trend in support appears. Mismanagement is not just a financial problem. It is a problem of Christian stewardship. A lack of support could be a blessing in disguise if it calls attention to irregularities in the use of the church's resources.
External appeal. Possibly the world outside the church, with its alluring prospects for fun, satisfaction, and security, appears more attractive than the rewards the church offers. This should cause concern, for material things rather than spiritual interests may claim the members' attention and support. The church certainly cannot compete with the world in entertainment or self-indulgence; attempts to do so only compound its problems.
Material interests have always drawn men and women into their net. This is not a modern trend—the prophet Ezekiel spoke of it in his day: "Man, your fellow-countrymen gather in groups and talk of you under walls and in doorways and say to one another, 'Let us go and see what message there is from the Lord.' So my people will come crowding in, as a people do, and sit down in front of you. They will hear what you have to say, but they will not do it. 'Fine words!' they will say, but their hearts are set on selfish gain. You are no more to them than a singer of fine songs with a lovely voice, or a clever harpist; they will listen to what you say but will certainly not do it" (Eze. 33:30-32, N.E.B.).
Could it be possible that as ministers we have been guilty of entertaining people rather than convincing them of their need for a sin-pardoning Saviour? Have we been fearful of stepping on the toes of the selfish, the self-indulgent? Have we been guilty of resembling a "singer of fine songs," or "a clever harpist," rather than a voice of con science calling for repentance?
Have we, in fact, neglected to hold before our members' eyes the advantages of a Christ-centered life and the glories of eternity? Have they, as a result, become blinded by the glitter of earthly things—things that are temporary and unsatisfying? We should recall the words of the Master, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:21). The reverse is also true. Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.
No aggressive program. This demands careful examination. One man expressed it this way: "I don't mind putting gas and oil in the car if it is going somewhere, but I don't want to waste my money idling in the driveway." A church cannot, must not, "idle." It will either move forward or backward. It either advances or retreats.
One of ancient Israel's greatest enemies was love of the status quo. After entering Canaan, they squatted in contentment. Joshua chided them, "How long are ye slack to go to possess the land, which the Lord God of your fathers hath given you?" (Joshua 18:3). Centuries passed; still they squatted. The prophet Amos cried out, "Woe to them that are at ease in Zion" (Amos 6:1).
Some modern churches are afflicted with this same malady—referred to by some as "circular progress." This is a virulent form of collective selfishness in which a group spends all its energies and resources on itself. It thinks only of its own existence, comfort, and pleasure. It is a self-perpetuating mentality in which a church insulates itself from the world, becoming self-centered and exclusive. Its movement lies within its own circle. Its objectives are mainly cosmetic. G. MacDonald once said, "One thing is clear to me, that no indulgence of passion destroys the spiritual nature so much as respectable selfishness."
The corporate body must take its nourishment through unselfish service for others or it will eventually wither and die. Only by a constant, consistent exercise of disinterested benevolence can any church hope to grow—or even survive.
One of the most progressive church programs I have ever seen involved a small congregation with limited financial potential. The church stayed small because it spawned two other churches and "lost" its key leaders to these new offspring. The members were so involved with community outreach and local and foreign mission projects that they had no time for internal problems.
Here was a classic example of corporate responsibility and personal and group dedication. This church was what every church should be: a viable, going concern—demanding and receiving wholehearted support. The congregation had no problems with finance because members were putting their money "where the action was" and there was plenty to claim their attention. Theirs wasn't a talking, listening religion, but an active outreach spurred by the command "Go ye into all the world."
Priorities. And finally, the church must recognize that people are more important than money or programs, that the benefit to the giver must always outweigh the benefit to the church. Religion centers on people not churches, schools, or missions.
I was traveling with a friend of mine, the editor of a small city newspaper, to Crater Lake, Oregon, when he said, "Yesterday I joined a church."
"Which one?" I asked. He named one of the more popular ones.
"What did you have to do?"
"Yes. Didn't you have to do something, give up something, change something?"
"No. Why should I? Do you have to do something to join a church?"
"Well, I always thought so, or why join? If there is no change in the lifestyle, it seems a person could spend his time in more interesting pursuits and besides, joining could cost a lot of money."
He laughed, "Oh, they contacted me about church support and I said I'd help out."
I still wonder about that church. Is that all they were interested in—financial support? Is that why they wanted him for a member? Wasn't a soul involved somewhere? Weren't they interested in him as an individual? I'm sure the church didn't benefit from his support very long; he quit attending soon after he joined. We need to remember often: A person will support anything he believes in, regardless of the cost.
Possibly we need to review our priorities. Jesus told Peter to "feed my sheep," not start some enterprise or initiate some promotion or program. Every activity of the church will merit importance only as it is designed and implemented to build Christians. Otherwise, the most impressive endeavors will be empty, unsatisfying memorials to the misdirection of Christian priorities. Churches must not become mausoleums, a final resting place for the living dead. They must be houses of God filled with men and women, teeming with life, bursting with activity. They must not be merry-go-rounds but aerial tramways, always reaching upward to higher objectives and achievements.
When we recognize that a lack of support is not a financial but a heart problem, then we shall have a basis for solving it. And if, by God's help, we can convince our members of the glories of salvation and the privilege of spending an eternity in a country free from sorrow, sickness, and death, then we shall be able to lead them past the obsolescence of this world, past the glitter and glamour of today, to the fantastic promise of tomorrow.
Their hearts will be filled with love and gratitude to God; their wellsprings of benevolence will fill His treasury to overflowing. Thus, we will be, first, developing Christians and, second, ensuring support for the church of God. Lack of finances will no longer be a problem. "For where your treasure is..."
Questions to aid your diagnosis
If your church has a financial problem, consider these questions:
- Does your church have a working budget based on an accurate estimate of the church's potential?
- Are you following this budget?
- To whom are those in charge of church funds accountable?
- Do the members have access to regular, accurate financial reports?
- Is there a democratic voice in the planning and execution of the church program?
- Is there a pattern of spending money for things that are nonproductive, wasteful, or unnecessary?
- Is faithful stewardship regularly emphasized? How?
- Are you placing special emphasis on eternal versus material values? How? Does your church have an aggressive outreach program to its community? To the world?
- When considering some objective, do you emphasize only the program, or do you include the members' need to give?
- Is the spiritual welfare of the members your church's first priority--or are they considered solely as a base of support?