Church Economics 104 – The myth that we have always paid for our church buildings

Are tithes and offerings still enough to sustained our church operations?  It’s certainly becoming more of a challenge for the church to financially sustain its buildings though the plate.  And with the economic turmoil brought on by COVID-19 since 2020, many of us are wondering how we will keep our heads above water financially given the drop off in attendance and giving for many churches.  

In 2019, on the eve of COVID-19, a book asking some hard financial questions on church finance was published.  The Coming Revolution in Church Economics, by Mark Deymaz ands Harry Li.

A question posed by Deymaz and Li is, how sustainable are our churches from giving alone?  How are we to fund our current churches and plant new ones given the ongoing decline in tithes and offerings in recent decades?  What is somewhat overlooked in this book is the exponential increasing cost of our existing church models and the implied assumption that tithes and offerings have up until now paid for the church building.  

In this blog post I want to address the second underlying implied assumption that tithes and offerings have always paid for our church buildings.

The church survived without its own buildings for the first three centuries of its inception through discreet gatherings – from meeting in the private homes of wealthier church members to clandestine assemblies in public places like catacombs.  It wasn’t until the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century that the Church was gifted with a portfolio of public buildings and building projects.  

Then came the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe which was sparked by a protest against the bad theology of buying indulgences to free souls from purgatory – an inspired Vatican fundraiser for the holy citadel and Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome.  Church property was largely initiated by the state and funded by the state up until the Reformation and beyond.  

Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome – Image by dianemeza3 from Pixabay

There were exceptions like monks raising money for monasteries and support from wealthy patrons.  The poor cousins of the Reformation – the non conformist, non-state churches were driven to find alternatives.  This pattern was repeated in the new lands, the colonies of New England in North America and New South Wales in Australia.  Governments gifted land to the state churches while the poorer cousins had to find other means.  

The funding and development of church property started to move away from state investment as separation of state and church began to progress from Enlightenment thinking after the Reformation, particularly in the new colonies.

In the American colonies, a “great privatisation” took place of a “relocation of religion from a public good to a private, voluntary supported good”.⁠1

This shift was propelled by the Great Awakening revivalism of Jonothan Edwards and others which spurred on both separation of state and church as well as competition between churches.  ‘One church towns’ grew to accommodate multiple sectarian choices as America spread west and became more urbanised.  

The church survived without its own buildings for the first three centuries of its inception through discreet gatherings – from meeting in the private homes of wealthier church members to clandestine assemblies in public places like catacombs. 

But notwithstanding the poorer church cousins, public support for church buildings and clergy was high.  At the onset of the American Revolution in 1775, most states continued to be supported by government tax.⁠2 

The move away from public funding from government and the community at large weaned slowly to where we find ourselves now in the twenty first century.  The benefits of church buildings, clergy and benevolence were understood and appreciated to a degree which we have now largely lost.

In Australia we see a similar dynamic of government and public support for church buildings and clergy.  As you might imagine, the Anglicans started in the most privileged position.  For example, one seventh of the Colony’s crown land was vested in the establishment of the Church of England.⁠3  Later, in 1826, Governor Bourke’s Church Act provided for government contributions to build churches for Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians on a pound by pound fund raising basis.⁠4

Like America, government and public financial support for churches weaned in Australia.  But where government support dropped off, congregational giving and innovative evangelism kicked in. The great twentieth century revivalists set up tents for itinerant preaching in part because church halls were too small.  Really, the great age of church planting by fundraising for buildings arrived as we now think of it very recently in the last century. 

Up until the twentieth century, most churches were more like chapels that typically held less than a hundred people, in small towns and emerging suburbs.  I’ve seen a number of these churches first hand. 

They were literally churches built in a day – I say weekend when talking about this because it just seems so hard to believe we could do it in one day.  But in actual fact it pretty much happened in a day.  A lot of planning went into the logistics to gather trades and labour quite often from other supporting churches.

On the appointed day, all hands were on deck from men, women and even children to build the new church to what we would now call lock up stage in one day.  I’ve seen first hand and heard the stories passed down from local churches of how we did this for Carnegie and Ringwood Churches of Christ in Melbourne, Australia. 

Other churches would give money, provide people and turn up on the designated weekend to build the church. This happened in an age when land was more readily available, building regulations less stringent, community expectations less demanding and construction more affordable.  

Then came the church growth movement, mega church trends and consumer church of the eighties onwards when we started graduating from three and four star churches to five and six star mega churches.

Churches became bigger and more accommodating – much like our homes.  Everything else became more expensive and congregations started to struggle to pay the bills.  This is where Deymaz and Li pick up the story in their book, The Coming Revolution in Church Economics.

Churches would give money, provide people and turn up on a designated weekend to build the church. This happened in an age when land was more readily available, building regulations less stringent, community expectations less demanding and construction more affordable.  

There are other factors impacting the cost of church economics that Deymaz and Li didn’t touch on, for example, heritage listings and planning overlays, local council permits for renovations, building extensions and green field developments.  

Given that the economic viability of running church out of church buildings is a more recent problem, we may want to re-think some of our missiology on how and where we do church as part of doing an economic rethink of church sustainability.  Without this re-think, Deymaz and Li are right in their assessment that to keep doing church in buildings independently and exclusively maintained and controlled by churches, will require a revolution in church economics. 

In order for us to step back and re-think our position before launching a full on economic evangelistic campaign as proposed by Deymaz and Li, we need to establish a more comprehensive framework for church formation and mission in the 21st century.  

I will return to the economic challenges of church mission in my series of The Post COVID Church coming soon to Sacred Cash Cows. If you missed the first three posts in this series of Church Economics you can catch up on the first one here.

The book quoted in this article is by 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

An Australian take on the same theme can be found in Matt Hunt ed., Leading Hybrid Churches: 8 Missional Principles for Pastors, Healthy Vibrant Communities, Helensvale, Queensland, 2018

1 Hudnut-Beumler, James. In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar (p. xiii). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

2 Hudnut-Beumler, James, p9

3 J S Gregory, Church and State (North Melbourne 1973), p 6.

4 Miles Lewis, “Government And Church” in Victorian Churches: Their origins, their story & their architecture, National Trust, Melbourne, 1991, p5

Image by Carlo Armanni from Pixabay

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3 replies

  1. interesting read Joel and i don’t pretend to understand Church Economics so i found it a hard read, but interesting as stated. I look at this in a simple way now. Regardless of the past building of churches by state or by the church itself, i feel it is up to the establishment to build it’s own building. Surely as most governments build schools, libraries, government offices etc and Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Hindus, etc build thier own so too should the Christian church pay and finance their own places of worship. I feel that if you have a divide between church and state then the state has no responsibility to build religious buildings. Just my opinion and probably very naive of me but an opinion none the less.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Phil. I’m not arguing a case for state funding. My point is that the church hasn’t always raised funding for its buildings in the way we do now. In Australia and elsewhere the church still gets some state support through tax exemptions as charities. What I am questioning is whether we spend too much time and money on building and operating churches that are not always sustainable. In the past, the church had more state support to be extravagant to the point of excess. But we can still fall for the same trap of excess by aspiring to church buildings and models that take up all our time and energy to economically sustain and at the same time distract us from our mission in the world.


  2. I think the article posits two relationships – church and state funding and the other being successful church ministry attracting groups of people sufficient to fund “mega churches.” In Melbourne, many former churches are now commercial buildings simply because of demographics. New urban growth corridors provide the young families who are drawn to large suburban mega churches which are able to sustain the financials. But as the article points out so succinctly, when the numbers in these churches decline – as is the current trend – then the financial burden of such structures gradually reaches the point where it is no longer sustainable.
    The historic government support of the church and its legacy of church ownership of bluechip property can only sustain the church to a point – heritage costs as the article mentions increase dramatically by the year. Governments are increasingly hostile to or unable to continue funding any religious group. Is the church then reduced to market principles of declining customer base translating to religious venues becoming commercially not viable? Are the solutions likewise market orientated? Is there a spiritual answer to this such as prayer and reliance on God? Or a judicious combination of both? Church sustainability normally depends on a charismatic, gifted ministry that is more than willingly endowed by the congregation – the two go together. If a church is wealthy but lacks people it is but a relic of bygone glory (inner suburban churches). A vibrant church has people and people provide the necessary support which is CPI indexed as tithes reflect wage increases to match rising costs.
    There is also in our culture the idea of debt and sustainable servicing of that debt. Some cultures do not entertain debt, they purchase only what they can pay for, thus eliminating future servicing of the debt.
    The answer to sustainability is complex as each case is unique, but not relying on debt and service of that debt could reduce pressure on a church. Rather have three services a day than one big one, or have smaller satellite groups in rented halls connected to the main service centre remotely. This could eliminate the need for large auditorium type churches. Certainly COVID has brought a new context and ways to adapt and hopefully this pandemic has been a stimulus for positive re-evaluation and not just the catastrophic outcomes it has wrought on our world.

    Liked by 1 person

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