By Gary Johnson
Most Americans welcomed in the new year by making a resolution. By far, the most popular resolution is to lose weight by exercising more and going on a diet, and most of us do not enjoy either of those.
Likewise, money issues are a necessary part of church life that needs periodic attention. As elders, we enjoy dealing with church finances about as much as we enjoy diet and exercise. Like it or not, money is an everyday aspect of ministry. Bills (salaries, utilities, insurance premiums) must be paid. Missionaries need our support, and ministry programs must be funded.
When addressing church finances, think 3-D. People enjoy three-dimensional movies because of the illusion of greater depth to the images on the screen. We put on our 3-D glasses and enter a unique world of cinematography. Objects seem so close we sometimes reach out and try to touch them. When it comes to church finances, we should consider three important Ds: dollars, debt, and discipleship. Examining church finances through the lenses of these “3-D glasses” does more than heighten our perception, it exposes reality.
Across America, Christians are attending church less frequently, and that is hurting church finances. Giving is flat in far too many churches. Budgets are being cut. New ministry initiatives are on hold. Mission support is suffering.
Even though our economy has grown stronger in recent years and unemployment is at a historic low, people are not giving at record levels. Christians rarely practice tithing, and even when they do, the entire tithe does not always go to the church. Last summer Christianity Today reported on a Lifeway Research study: “Among Protestants who attend church monthly or more, 4 out of 5 say tithing is ‘a biblical command that still applies today.’ Here’s where they say their giving can go: 47% can only go to a church; 48% can go to other Christian ministries; 34% can go to an individual in need; and 18% can go to a secular charity.”
This phenomenon is a result of a long journey. The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy reports that 95 percent of all charitable gifts were given to churches in the 1960s, but over the years, that number has dropped significantly. At the end of 2017, only 27 percent of charitable dollars were given to churches. Giving to charities has become very competitive; charities have made the process very quick and easy. Churches must do the same. Younger-generation Christians will give using technology. Online giving portals must exist if we hope to receive a greater share of donors’ dollars. And remember this: Though many charities pursue noble causes, the church pursues the most noble cause of all; God uses the church to offer the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ. For that reason alone, we are compelled to “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (Malachi 3:10).
In Debt-Free Living, Larry Burkett said, “Regardless of how it seems today, debt is not normal in any economy and should not be normal for God’s people. We live in a debt-ridden society that is now virtually dependent on a constant expansion of credit to keep the economy going. That is a symptom of a society no longer willing to follow God’s directions.”
American culture most certainly is debt-ridden. The national public debt is $22 trillion and rising. City governments have filed bankruptcy. Consumer debt exceeds $4 trillion, while 44 million Americans carry significant student loan debt.
One of the fastest-growing demographics of debtors are individuals age 65 and older. Money magazine reported in 2012 that “more Americans are retiring in the red” than ever before! Credit.com reported on a Social Science Research Network study last year that found “the rate of citizens over the age of 65 who are now filing for bankruptcy increased about 204 percent from 1991 to 2016.”
We don’t own our possessions so much as our possessions own us.
Regretfully, churches are not exempt from this phenomenon. Congregations can live beyond their means and be saddled with debt as a result. As leaders, we must reduce and eliminate debt. After all, debt is bondage, and God never intended for us to live in bondage. Moreover, we must practice what we preach. When we teach biblical financial principles, such as debt-free living and contentment, the local church should be practicing those same principles.
When church finances become more challenging because of declining dollars and increasing debt, we need to consider the importance of discipleship. Too often, we have a dollar-centric mind-set. We strain to raise dollars to support our various ministries. Instead of raising dollars, we should raise disciples. When we raise up disciples, their dollars follow. When people grow increasingly devoted to Jesus Christ, they give more generously of their time, talent, and treasure.
One Bible interpretation rule states: If something is repeated, it’s important. When God repeats himself in Scripture, he wants our attention. With that in mind, be advised there are more than 2,300 verses in the Bible about money and the things that money can buy. Also, roughly one-third of Jesus’ parables were about money. If it’s repeated, it’s important. God wants us to have our financial house in order, including the finances of the church house. For that to happen, we must intentionally preach and teach about money—and practice what we preach in our own lives. Elders must lead by example (see 1 Corinthians 11:1).
Our ministry, e2: effective elders, offers the four-week “Too Much” series that dozens of churches have used to help their congregations become more financially stable (contact us to learn more).
Movies in 3-D can be exciting, but money in 3-D—dollars, debt and discipleship—is more enjoyable because it brings our lives under the authority of God’s Word. When we, the elders, learn and live what the Word says about money, we lead well.
Dr. Gary Johnson serves as an elder/senior minister at Indian Creek Christian Church (The Creek) in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is a cofounder of e2: effective elders. Gary offers resources and coaching as he works with elders to lead with greater focus and confidence.