Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Expecting More Of Ourselves, Part 3

As I wrote yesterday, we know that American Christians don't give much money to churches. In light of Jesus' teachings about how our use of physical resources reveals our hearts, I take this as obvious evidence that our hearts are more devoted to the kingdom of America than the kingdom of God. But of the money we do give, what happens to it once it gets to the church? How is it spent?

While browsing the websites of dozens of large American churches, an interesting commonality emerged. Nearly all of them have a prominent "donate" button where you can easily give online. But for the vast majority of them, budget information is nowhere to be found. In other words, churches have an impressive zeal for taking our money, but it is not matched by a commitment to telling us how that money will be spent.

That said, I did find a prominent church that had readily available budget information online, and I'd like to use it as a case study. There's a certain injustice in what I'm about to do, because this church is one of the few that has the transparency and integrity to post detailed budget information online for all to see and, paradoxically, that enables me to criticize it. So let's stipulate at the outset that it seems reasonable to think that the dozens of less transparent churches I looked at probably use their money even worse than this one does. Let's also emphasize that this church has done a great deal of good and has made a huge difference, surely, in the lives of many thousands of people. I myself have read one of the pastor's books. Since it will be so easy to figure out the church I'm talking about, I'll go ahead and tell you: Andy Stanley's North Point Community Church in suburban Atlanta.

Their 2011 budget is fascinating. North Point had an income of $41.2 million. The two biggest expenditures were $18.7 million for "salaries and benefits" and $3.2 million for "facilities." Another $3.5 million went to "Information technology/web, Music, Media, Worship, and Worship production." So by the time North Point has paid its employees, kept its buildings up, and made sure their services and website are sleek and entertaining, over 61% of their income is gone. That is without counting administrative overhead.

I wondered how much North Point is spending on global missions. Happily, there's a line in the budget for it: $2.5 million. Or, if you prefer, a million less than they spend on their ultra-modern website, sound systems, and worship services. Not only that, it appears that most of the global missions expense comes from sending their own members on 7-10 day trips overseas. By their own admission, then, even the global missions budget is used primarily to serve North Point's own members by giving them the opportunity to go on such short, inefficient trips. Okay, that's a bit unsettling, I thought. But I wonder how much they spend on the neediest people in their local area?

Browsing around the website, I discovered "The Intersect Project," which is their "vehicle to serve Atlanta" by partnering with local nonprofits to provide volunteer opportunities for North Point members. Tagline: "Serving Made Simple." Unfortunately, serving is not simple, and our desire to make it so is one of our biggest handicaps. But oh well, I thought, their focus is on the homeless, near-homeless, and at-risk kids, and that sounds really good. So how much money, exactly, is devoted to serving these groups? I click over to the budget and, sure enough, there's The Intersect Project! Its expenses are...$58,322. In 2011 North Point Community Church spent 0.14% of its income to reach out to the most vulnerable and needy people in its local metro area. There are lots of fun ways to put this in perspective. We could add up the cost of putting on those fancy church services with awesome music (categories: music, media, worship, worship production) and see that it is 5.47% of income. In other words, North Point spends over 38 times more on entertaining its members and visitors than it does on caring for the poorest people in Atlanta.

I'm not just asserting that I disagree with this approach. I'm saying this is sin to be repented of, and if I'm wrong in thinking so, please show me. As I said at the top, I have no doubt that North Point Community Church has helped many thousands of people. I'm sure they use their money more responsibly than a lot of churches. But that's the problem, isn't it? There isn't any good reason to think this budget of this particular church represents anything out of the ordinary.

According to Passing the Plate (mentioned Monday), around 3% of the money we give to churches ends up making its way to non-Christians. According to a 2009 survey of church budgets, it is common for salaries, building and property costs, maintenance, equipment and supplies to consume almost three quarters of church budgets, leaving little left over for actual ministry. A study of American mega-churches by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that almost half of mega-church income goes to salaries, leaving only 13% for "missions and benevolence."
 megachurch budgets
Is this really the kind of church Jesus wanted to build? Is this what he had in mind when he prayed people would know we're his followers because of our love? Just as the data show we as individuals have valued big houses and nice things more than giving to the kingdom of God, so the way churches spend their money collectively reveals a mindset that prioritizes buildings and programs over people.

In many of our churches, it seems the values of middle class respectability and the consumer culture are more privileged than the values Jesus talked about. In many of our churches, it seems we come to be entertained and coddled rather than to serve, and our leaders let us get away with it.

All is not bleak. I believe there are changes stirring in many people and churches. But on the whole, I think what I've described yesterday and today is the norm. It's unacceptable. So let's talk about how we can do better.


  1. I like this series of posts -- very insightful, challenging, and thought-provoking. It's shocking to see what a "normal" megachurch spends on what I would consider to be frivolity. However, I think back to the building of the temple in the Old Testament and how much money and labor went into that building -- granted it was a different time and the holy of holies, but God did place a premium on excellence and spared little expense on it. Is there a place to say that as Christians we ought to do things with excellence and not barebones? This from a house-church attender... :)

    1. I think you raise an important point, Kindra. I've often thought of this in the context of the old European cathedrals. We enjoy looking at them and they are architectural marvels; they can even assist in drawing our hearts toward God. Yet the question remains, should they have been built in the first place?

      In a certain sense it seems that there is more than just a "place" for excellence; we must insist on it! We're supposed to put our best into everything we do. But there are several reasons I think this is a bit different from what we're talking about above. For one thing, I believe excellence is defined quite a bit differently in the kingdom of God than in the kingdom of America. Here in the U.S. it is easy to equate excellence with just the material quality of the thing. Second, on any given endeavor our pursuit of excellence is always tempered by priorities. It's always happening in a certain context. I could, for example, write much better, more "excellent" posts about how we should all expect more of ourselves if I closeted myself in my room and ignored my responsibilities as a husband and father. But that would be missing the point, wouldn't it?

      I tend to think a lot of churches are missing the point. Yes excellence should be pursued in things like the worship service, but if you define that by the sleekness of the presentation and the professionalism of the band, you very easily find yourself spending more on sound equipment than on reaching out to poor people.

      We'd also do well to think about what excellence really means in these sorts of contexts. I don't think many people are under the illusion that the current church music scene is on the cultural cutting edge or that much of it will stand the test of time. In other words, we're spending a lot of money and still not making it excellent! The church should be focused on being excellent at loving people. I think all the attention and money given to buildings and programs tends to distract from that.

      I don't do you think the idea of excellence fits into this?

  2. Not included in this equation is the number of people who would be living in poverty but because of Jesus and other Christians in their lives are living a better existence. The community is better served by the churches programs (other than services) and influence. I'm not sure how you would measure that.
    I too am enjoying this series of posts. Quiteenlightening.


    1. Yes, there is much good that the church is doing that is, in the end, really not measurable.

  3. I also agree that these posts are a helpful way to dialog about these issues. I resonate with your previous comments about concerns that the money we give to the church or other charities is not always spent well. One minor example is the difference between two child sponsorship programs we support. They are very similar in terms of what they do for the children, but for one we pay 27% more per month per child than for the other.

    You should check out this recently released survey on people's perception of how much non-profits should spend on overhead:

    I think that it is very sad to see how inward focused this church's budget is. They are missing something, and it is something that many large churches are missing. Ed Stetzer has an interesting post about this over at his blog (

    However, I think complaining that a church doesn't post their budget online for the sake of transparency is missing something about how churches operate. I think it is fair to say that most American churches do not hold themselves financially accountable to the general public. Rather, they hold themselves accountable to their membership, who are the ones that primary support the church and in many cases "approve" the budget each year.

    I get your point about the “Donate” button and the lack of budget info, but you are assuming that the people who use that button don’t have access to budget info at all, which isn’t necessarily happening. They may disseminate it at church meetings, membership classes, or perhaps by just asking at the front office.

    I don't agree with your conclusion that these large churches that don't share their budget with the world must be hiding the money trail that leads to their inward focus. In fact, it would seem that many of the people who attend large churches are actually attracted to their emphasis on the experience of church and the programs they offer for their families. (See the Christian Post for more on this: Perhaps the leadership at North Point actually thinks it may encourage people to give more if they can see that most of the stays directly focused on the membership! The lack of budget info online doesn't seem like a reliable indicator of a church’s priorities.

  4. That's an interesting study but now I'm wondering how much most nonprofits DO spend on overhead, not just what people's perceptions are. Do you know?

    Good post from Ed Stetzer. It definitely seems to me that it is extra hard for mega-churches to be outward focused. One of the things I was trying to find in my googling is whether there is statistical evidence indicating that smaller churches do a better job. I didn't really find anything though.

    I think your points on the availability of church budgets are valid. I was probably off base on that. My main concern was that I felt odd taking advantage of North Point's unusual transparency to criticize them and I wanted to make clear that I didn't think they're some kind of big bad monster. I just happened to stumble across their budget.