The Coming Revolution in Church Economics was published in 2019 on the eve of a pandemic that is still radically changing our world. The knock-on economic challenges from COVID-19 facing the church will accelerate as we move into the oncoming decade.
Churches that were already struggling to survive in 2020 will find it that much harder to keep their financial heads above water post COVID-19. Primarily this will come about from an ongoing deterioration and disruption in church attendance and tithes and offerings – the two key determents of church sustainability as defined by Deymaz and Li.1
I will refer to these as ‘drivers’ of church sustainability. The Coming Revolution in Church Economics doesn’t reflect a lot on these drivers and of course did not anticipate a global pandemic that would not only exacerbate the underlying problem but skew these drivers in ways which we are still grabbling with as church.
The main focus of the book is about what can be done to replace the decline in church giving. And this is certainly a critical part of finding a solution. But it is only one part of the puzzle.
Before looking at some of the solutions put forward in the book we need to look more closely at these two drivers and some of the assumptions made. Assumptions about mission and markets, scarcity and stewardship – all of which are interrelated.
Driver 1 – Sunday attendance: mission outreach or market competition?
The first driver is church attendance. Less people turning up to church on Sunday translates into less tithes and offerings in the plate. The paradox here is that as the western church has nosed dived in overall Sunday attendance, the rise of megachurches has gained momentum.
Decline in church attendance and the trend to bigger church complexes began to emerge in the 1980s in Australia. It is no coincidence that church seeker services and “church shopping” led to the rise in consumer church at the same time. This shift in church attendance follows the rise of shopping centres (malls in the US), mega stores like Bunnings and the major minis such as JB HiFi in Australia. Big business franchises have driven out the majority of small local traders.
It should be no surprise, then, that this “Bunnings economics” is reflected in the rise of the bigger scaled churches offering better and more diverse services leading to the demise of the small local suburban church. But this church growth has come at the cost of burgeoning property loans, increased ministry team payrolls and burn out of pastoral staff and volunteers.
All of this might be justifiable if it translated to more souls being won for the kingdom. But overall church attendance continues to decline. The evangelical and pentecostal power church brands claim this is because the dying churches are, well… dying. Dying spiritually which is why they are losing their flocks.
Bunnings is an Australian hardware chain success story owned by Westfarmers with 295 stores and over 300,000 employees. It follows the big-box store business model defined by large retail establishments usually part of a chain of stores. This model is inspired by megastore chains such as Walmart in the United States.
But what if the emptying out of our smaller, less competitive churches with less ministry services to offer is correlated with increased competition amongst the sheep (or should I say shepherds) which leads to a migration of souls from smaller, less attractive churches to bigger churches with more attractive worship experiences and a greater range of services on offer.
Lets assume that the bigger churches are more effective in communicating the gospel and providing ministry services. Let’s also assume that there is a net kingdom benefit in “souls won” – souls over and above existing Christians floating in from less competitive churches. Let’s assume that we have a revival of sorts on our hands from mega consumer church growth. The economic question raised by Deymaz and Li is still relevant – how are we going to pay for it?
If the answer is from ongoing tithes and offerings then we will also have to assume that we will witness some kind of revival in church growth and that our congregations will be blessed and prosperous enough to pay for the increased cost of our more attractive 5 and 6 star churches. Why? Because either we are winning more souls to Christ through evangelism or we are simply competing in the same fishing pond.
In economic terms we are either growing the size of our market which should increase giving from higher church attendance or we are introducing more players into a static or declining market which will reduce giving for those churches dropping attendance.
If we are competing with each other in a static or diminishing market then we are depleting each others’ people resources which will result in a drop of tithes and offerings in less competitive churches to pay for additional investment in more competitive churches’ property development. If we are growing the market size of church attendance by drawing new converts and more unchurched into our services then we will be getting a mission return on our additional investment in mega church property development.
Whether we are growing the kingdom or fleecing each others’ sheep, it is still costing us more and more money to build and maintain our infrastructure as we scale. Even in more prosperous congregations we will reach a ceiling from hip pocket giving and will need to find a different financial solution.
In the next blog in this series of Church Economics, I will look at the second driver of church sustainability and ask, what funds church mission – market scarcity or redemptive abundance?
- Mark Deymaz with Harry Li, The Coming Revolution in Church Economics: Why Tithes and Offerings Are No Longer Enough, and What You Can Do About It, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2019, 19.
Next blog – Church Economics 103. What funds mission – market scarcity or redemptive abundance? – 30 July 2021
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