Jesus feeding the 5,000 from a limited basket of 5 loaves and fishes is legendary. It reverberates with God’s provision of manna from heaven for a pilgrim people searching for the promised land.
It reverses Jesus’ temptation to turn stones into bread to a blessing for those in search of God. And it acts as a parable of redemption to the curse of exile from God that humanity labours for to bring food to the table.
The gift of grace brings abundance in God’s coming kingdom. The curse of separation from God throws us upon our own limited resources. We are given a choice between this world’s economic rationality and God’s gift economy of redemptive abundance.
In my last blog in this series on Church Economics, I looked at church attendance as the first driver of church sustainability from my analysis of the book by Deymaz and Li, The Coming Revolution in Church Economics published in 2019.
In this instalment of the Church Economics series we will look at the second driver of church sustainability, tithes and offerings. Is giving a curse or a blessing? An obligation or a gift?
Driver 2 – Tithes and offerings: redemptive gift or consumer consumption
The second driver in church sustainability is a decline in tithes and offerings. This is not just an outcome of a drop in church attendance. Today we have more disposable income than ever but less capacity to give, or so it seems. In part this is due to the increased financial impoverishment of our church congregations with higher debt and cost of living per household.
In recent decades we have also witnessed another neo-liberal economic horror – the emergence of the working poor.
What money we have left over we are less inclined to gift over or, as Deymaz and Li point out for the gen Xers and Y’s, we are more suspicious of who gets it and more diligent in making sure it goes to a ‘worthy’ cause.1
But nevertheless many of us have the capacity to give more than what we do to the church. Chapter 3 in The Coming Revolution, Stop Begging For Money, addresses this. We are told that church congregations should give over and above tithes and move beyond an impoverished mindset to one of abundance.
Scarcity or abundance?
God loves a cheerful giver and we should be more generous with our finances. But there are some assumptions here about abundance and giving that should be examined.
First, although God promises abundance it is an abundance of grace operating in a gift economy of redemption. The economics of consumer capitalism are actually an economics of depletion which exhaust our resources – our finances, attention and energy.
The more we are focused on working, accumulating and consuming the less we can focus on God’s economy of grace and forgiveness. In fact, we can’t really do both at all. To think we can is an illusion. Jesus said you can’t serve God and Mamon (Matthew 6:24). Most of us would agree with this.
But what we may not appreciate is that the way we are increasingly “doing church” in terms of both serving and giving is driven by the consumer capitalism of this world. This is not just about our motives, which for most are genuine, but about how we serve and give which can be unconsciously shaped by the consumer market.
Evangelistic outreach is packaged and marketed as slick ‘seeker’ services. Servanthood is contracted out to cleaners and professional pastoral care. Worship is produced as a professional music stage show.
Our time is consumed in meetings and programs at the expense of less time for devotion to God and less time to engage as Jesus followers with family, neighbours and work where the real mission fields are. Eugene Peterson picks up on this church busyness in making a point about Sabbath keeping.
“Pastors and congregational leaders commonly cram the Lord’s Day with work: committees, meetings, projects, mission and social activities. Much doing and much talking displace Sabbath quietness and stillness.”2Eugene Peterson
But why? Because we are operating in an economy of production and consumption where we constantly have to be busy and productive to feel we are serving God. But God doesn’t want our idolatry of work and consumption. It’s the Devil’s work to keep us busy and distracted so we have no time left to be still and listen to God.
Stewardship – the best use of our resources
The second assumption is that we should give indiscriminately – we should give but we should also be wise in how we invest our money and time. The more we invest into a consumer driven church experience, the more our investment burns holes in our pockets which we can’t afford.
Instead of 3 or 4 star churches we build 5 and 6 star churches which cost a fortune to build and operate. Instead of developing smaller more sustainable church structures and operations we aspire to size and scale churches beyond our means.
Its not just the cost of the building and everything associated with it – car parking, cafe, TV studio production; its the drain on peoples time and energy in running the church from meetings to programs and volunteer teams of carpark attendants, ushers, worship and children’s ministry teams. We’ve become so entrenched in this way of doing church that we can’t envision anything beyond it.
The solution to this crisis for Deymaz and Li is to commit even more time and energy into monetising church services and starting new businesses. Focusing on leveraging church assets and multiple income streams is certainly a way forward. The trap is that we can become more focused on the business and economics of running a church and even more distracted from God’s business, with less time and energy to attend to the mission of the church in the world.
I’m going to come back to how we can think creatively about church economics and mission models in future blogs but first we should look at how we got to where we are now with our reliance on church buildings to do mission. Tithes and offerings didn’t always fund our buildings as imagined and buildings were not the only way we evangelised and did mission.
In the next blog in this series of Church Economics, I will ask the question: Is it true that tithes and offerings have always sustained church economics?
- 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.
- Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual theology, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2005, 118.
Next blog – Economics 104 – 6 August 2021
Thank you for reading. If you liked what I had to say – or even if you didn’t and have a different view – I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment and subscribe below before you leave. If you’re a fellow blogger, I’ll make sure I check out your blog and provide feedback.
You can enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.
It would also be great to interact with you on Face Book and Twitter.