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."
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.