Keep in mind when reading my answer to your question that these ideas are my personal convictions and I don’t expect other people to agree with me. Also keep in mind that I am aggregating US churches as a whole at a macro level. I am aware that there are solid churches that people go to where there is community and spiritual development. Try to separate the churches you’re familiar with from what I will address at a macro level.
I think the institutional church in the US has become oriented around extending its presence in order to support itself primarily and the life of Christ secondarily. Churches in America have accumulated assets in large quantities: buildings, staffs, programs, multi-media equipment, etc. Most churches focus on numbers and one of the primary reasons for this is that as a church’s asset base increases — often purchased with debt — their need to grow and maintain the number of tithing attenders increases as well. I’m not saying all churches pursue money for the sake of money. I am saying that paying a mortgage and the salaries and benefits of staff tends to tug one’s motivation at least a few degrees away from North.
The asset-based church functions on the belief that growth in physical churches will result in growth in the kingdom. I question whether this is the case and to the degree it is true, I question whether making one church bigger is better than intentionally and peacefully splitting off to grow another, smaller church — a kind of spiritual mitosis, if you will. In America, we do things big. I’m not convinced the Big model is beneficial when it comes to body life.
The asset-based church seems to do a poor job of reflecting the nature of what Jesus did to fundamentally change how spirituality was developed. When he died, the temple veil was torn in two and access to the Holy of Holies was given not to priests but to everyone. Through Christ, everyone has access to the Father. The Church itself transformed from a temple-based hierarchy to a reality where people are priests to one another and the temples are no longer made of stones but of the people of God.
Yet, when we look at our church infrastructure, what do we see? A perpetuation of the physical temple and professional priests. We are taught to consume the services and programs of the physical temple and our priests. It makes sense that a consumption-based society would approach church from a consumption perspective but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good model for spiritual development.
So, when we give tithes at these churches, we aren’t necessarily giving to support the advance of the kingdom but rather the sustenance of the church’s asset base. Facilities, staff and programs are the primary building blocks of most churches in the United States. The extent of this focus on facilities, staff and programs can be seen when one considers that in many churches, those three line items consume 85% of total revenue (http://holysoup.com/2013/08/06/the-shocking-truth-of-church-budgets/). About 1% of a typical church budget goes to programs outside of the church.
I believe that this results in at least two significant problems: first, people leave ministry to the professionals and second, the church gives to the needs of the disadvantaged after the asset-based needs of the church have been met. We talk about caring about other people but if we look closely at how our churches behave and spend money, meeting the material needs of others is usually a budgetary afterthought.
The church in the United States has a tremendous amount of capital invested in itself. So, when I get marketing collateral asking me to give sacrificially, I start thinking about what that means to me and what it means to the typical church. To me, it means giving to organizations that seek to alleviate suffering in the world. Tanya and I give to many different organizations and World Vision is the only one we support that has an explicit Christian mission. We like them because of the substantive ways they help improve the material conditions of people they serve through their Five Fingers model and emphasis to lead communities to self reliance.
We donate to cancer several cancer research organizations (because three of our parents have died from cancer), to a couple animal welfare organizations (because we love animals) and to a few social welfare organizations in San Jose and San Francisco. I mention this not because I’m trying to congratulate myself for what we do but to demonstrate that our tithe goes to organizations that seek to reduce suffering and to improve the conditions that people and animals live in.
One could counter that these organizations have their own infrastructures that cost money to sustain and this would be a credible point. That is why we look for efficiency and effectiveness in charities. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with infrastructure; every organization needs structure. But for me, the issue is the difference between supporting the infrastructure for itself and the infrastructure as a means to extend assistance to the world with the intent to improve it. If I were considering giving to a charity and CharityNavigator.org reported that 15% of their revenue went to efforts related to their mission, I wouldn’t give to them.
We say that the demands and expectations of our culture require tooling church the way we do. I’m saying that maybe we ought to question that assumption. The early Christians weren’t renting out the Colosseum on Sunday mornings where bands played through sweet sound systems and pleasing PowerPoint slides were presented on large screens. They met in smaller settings and everyone handled the work of body life. A church that gets 20% of its people to be involved in the logistics of body life is probably average. That means 80% just comes to consume spiritual services. Just on that basis alone, one has to question how well American churches fit the norms of discipleship and spiritual maturity described in the new testament.
Another thing strikes me as significant. One would think that the very best time to advance a message to a global audience would be today. If Jesus wanted to influence as many people as possible, the internet and the information age would seem to be the ideal time to arrive. But he didn’t choose this era. He came instead to what was considered a backwater land at a time that was anything but sophisticated in its ability to spread messages quickly. Either God had insanely awful timing or there is something to the message that is not dependent on communication technology, entertainment, cultural relevance or massive infrastructure.
I’m open to sacrificial giving but I’m not interested in giving sacrificially to an infrastructure. What would happen if we turned the notion of sacrificial giving inside out? What if the churches in America decided to divest themselves of their assets and instead committed to meaningfully meeting people’s needs with that money? Think of all the churches in the country and the amount of money tied up in them. Now imagine all of that infrastructure gone and the tithes of believers being freed to give directly to creatively and meaningfully alleviate need and suffering. There are, of course, practical problems with this thought exercise but the intent is recognize how much money and energy is placed in the asset-based church model that is not being directed to meet needs.
It’s not all about money, of course. But when the primary focus is the temple and the priest, it’s difficult to understand that the kingdom can be advanced very well without temples and professional priests. One time when Tanya and I lived in Michigan, I bumped into an acquaintance from a church we used to attend. He told me we should come back and check them out. I asked why. His response was about the giftedness of the pastor. It struck me that he didn’t mention the nature of the people in the church and the kind of body life they had but rather, that their new pastor was entertaining.
The body of Christ managed to communicate well enough before the Industrial Revolution and its subsequent waves of innovation convinced us that spiritual work required technology, assets and a communication plan. Was the temple veil torn in two? Were we all made priests to one another? Are we not as individuals and as communities the temples of God? If these things are true, where is the best place for giving?
Give sacrificially but give sacrificially to the right thing. For me, the asset-based church is not the right thing.