Monday, September 30, 2013

Are We Outward Focused or Inward Focused? Follow The Checkbook To Find Out.

$50 billion.

$50,000,000,000

That is a lot of money even in a day of trillion dollar Federal deficits. It is also the estimated amount given as "tithing" by some 10,000,000 American church goers based on a study I saw published by Christianity Today ( 10 Million Tithers Donate More Than $50 Billion ). Given that some ridiculously high percentage of Americans self-identify as "Christians" that is not a lot of givers but since I put zero stock in checking the  "Christian" box on a survey it doesn't make much difference. What is pretty incredible is the staggering amount of giving. The study also points to the most common form of religious giving, a form that is pounded into the head of every Christian, "97% make it a priority to give to their local church". If there is one thing that is uniformly taught across the religious spectrum, it is the prioritization of giving to your "local church".

I have said this before but the idea of prioritizing giving to the "local church" is at its most fundamental level a self-serving concept. I say that because most of the money that goes to local churches stays in the local church and is used to make "worship" and religious observation more pleasant, more entertaining and more convenient for the very same people who donate the money. That is not to suggest that all local church giving stays in house as most local churches pay a token percentage to mission work, mercy work or local ministries like food pantries. It is to say that most local church budgets focus on keeping the local church open on Sunday morning. As an added bonus those who are most vociferous in teaching the priority of giving first to your local church are those who likewise depend on perpetuating that myth, namely the paid clergy who depend on this system for a paycheck.The entire system borders on a scheme where our most trusted sources in the church are the ones peddling the most self-serving notion.

This gets back to the broader of issue of our love and indeed worship of money in the church, an idolatry that is a near perfect reflection of the broader American cultural obsession with money. I absolutely affirm that we have a serious problem with how money and the church relate but I don't think it is the same problem we hear about so often. We don't so much have a giving problem in the church, what we really have is a spending problem. Where is our spending as the church focused? Is it outward or inward and which is more Biblical?

The New Testament church was outward focusing in....
  • Caring for the needy, such as widows among the church.
  • Concerned for the welfare of Christians in other locations that were suffering.
  • Supporting the evangelistic work of apostles/missionaries/evangelists who were traveling and preaching the Gospel.

The New Testament church was not concerned with...
  • Mortgages, interest payments, building projects, utilities.
  • Salaries for religious employees.
  • Material and curriculum for Sunday school. 
  • Supporting the hierarchy of religious organizations like denominations and seminaries.

...because those things didn't exist. Have we matured beyond the simplistic, primitive state of the early church? Or have we rejected what was important to the church under the leadership of the apostles and substituted what is important to those with a vested interest in perpetuating the current religious system that panders to the basest impulses of a people obsessed with convenience, entertainment and self-focused consumption?

It is not a coincidence that there is a backlash against the "radical" Christianity movement and the labeling of virtually any notion of a prioritization of mercy ministry as "social justice" with the connotation of liberalism that is attached to that term. These movements, which are by and large so mild that Christians of days past in the early centuries of the church, or those persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike through the Reformation years or contemporary Christians who put their lives on the line for Christ everyday would find laughable to be label them "radical", are a major threat to church as we know it. The questions they raise are uncomfortable and lead to people thinking thoughts dangerous to the religious establishment. When you read between the lines you can see the worry as the religious world that we have known for so long evaporates.

We can have all the studies we want about giving with the implied disapproving finger wag toward those who don't "tithe" to their local church or who give less than 10% or who, gasp!, "tithe" based on net earnings rather than gross. That doesn't get to the heart of the problem, a problem which truly is a "heart"  issue. Where is the church focused? Is it on Sunday morning and our own convenience? Or is it on the messy and often invisible work that goes on "out there"? Until we get our spending figured out, our concerns over giving are a wasted effort.

6 comments:

Jeremy Myers said...

Wow. I knew the number was large, but didn't realize it was that large. Imagine what the church could actually do with $50 billion if we focused less on buildings?

Arthur Sido said...

Jeremy when you look at the inherent value of the real estate holdings of the church the number is staggering.

Neil Braithwaite said...

Sadly, most of my Christian friends get livid when they hear of a government program that spends 90%+ of its budget on its self-sustaining bureaucracy, and only 10%- on the actual purpose. But they have no problem supporting their local corporate churches who do the same without a second thought.

Aussie John said...

Arthur,

Excellent article with which I concur 100%

Your comment re real estate is particularly of concern in Australia, Two of the major denominations hold the most amazing portfolios of real estate in our major cities. One holding in excess of $100 billion in property and other assets.

One senior clergyman lives in a $25 million dollar home (the published market value).

Arthur Sido said...

Aussie John, that is incredible (and heartbreaking). I sometimes think that this is just an American problem but I am reminded that anywhere humans dwell, opportunities for abuse and misuse of Scripture abound.

James said...

Just imagine. I once had a convo with a Roman Catholic who professed faith strongly due to the obvious status of the "True Church" because of its vast resources and edifices.

Looks like Rome really has conquered the Earth.