Move Over Generosity
The coming revolution in church economics
In 1993, my wife, Linda, and I moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, to serve as student ministries pastors at a suburban church. Over the next eight years, that congregation grew from 2,000 to 5,000. Youth group attendance quadrupled, from 150 to 600, and the youth team expanded from two to nine full-time staff members. We even built a new student center for our young people, who had previously gathered in various rooms throughout the church.
I designed the $3.5 million, 36,000-square-foot facility with the blessing and support of senior pastors, who raised the necessary funds. In that time and place, money was not an issue. I didn’t worry about where it came from or how to raise it. Tithes and offerings, along with an occasional campaign, were more than enough to cover the annual budget and help advance bold initiatives from year to year.
We left that church in 2001 to plant Mosaic, a multiethnic, economically diverse church in one of the most under-resourced communities in the city. We served an area with high rates of violent crime, with 30 percent of the population living at or below the poverty line, and 66 percent of children growing up without a father in the home.
In that context, we soon realized tithes and offerings alone could not sustain our ministry — let alone advance it. Paradoxically, the more we grew, the more we struggled to make ends meet.
Over the years, desperation led to innovation in our approach to funding. We also began to recognize that the need for thinking beyond the offering plate isn’t an anomaly, nor is it a situation that applies only to churches in impoverished areas. It portends the future of church economics.
So, let me ask: How is your church doing financially? Is it struggling to survive at the moment, somewhat stable, or truly sustainable where finances are concerned? In consideration of growing needs and rising costs, how confident are you in terms of future funding? Will you have sufficient resources to fund your ministries three, five or 10 years from now? Are you sure?
For nearly seven years, I have been addressing these questions with pastors. Like me, many now believe the days of money so freely flowing to the Church are coming to a close. Sure, believers will continue to give in the form of tithes and offerings. Generally, however, they will not give as consistently and/or will give less of their income (in terms of percentage) than pastors could once count on. In fact, already in many churches across the United States, giving is stagnant or in decline — as is weekly attendance.
To finance ministry in a rapidly changing world, pastors will soon need to do more than host Financial Peace University, preach yet another sermon on generosity, and chase numeric growth — which, by the way, will no longer guarantee larger offerings as it has in the past.
Indeed, there is a coming revolution in church economics ... and the sooner you lean in to it, the better positioned your church will be not only to survive but to thrive in future winds of disruptive social and financial change.
Start by considering this fundamental question: How can we leverage church assets to bless the community and generate sustainable income?
At least four contributing factors are driving the need for economic innovation in the local church today.
The first is a growing burden on the middle class. Inflation, higher standards of living, the increasing cost of education, and widely available access to credit have led Americans to borrow more money than ever before. U.S. household debt rose by $124 billion in the first quarter of 2019 — the 19th consecutive quarterly increase — according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Student debt alone increased by $29 billion.
Meanwhile, the wealth gap between upper-income and middle- and lower-income Americans has been widening over the past five decades, according to 2018 analysis from Pew Research Center. As people struggle to get ahead, churches struggle with them.
The second factor can be described as a marginal increase in religious giving. As noted in the Chronicles of Philanthropy, “Religious giving remains strong but is losing ground to giving to other causes ... . Giving to religious causes was 56 percent of the total [of all charitable giving] from 1985–89 but just 33 percent from 2010–14.”
According to a more recent “Giving USA” report, giving to religion increased 2.9 percent in 2017; yet this accounted for the lowest increase in overall charitable giving to the nine major categories of recipient organizations the report tracks from year to year.
Comparatively, marginal increases in religious giving impact local church finances. For example, a “Faith Communities Today” report found that the median church budget fell from $150,000 in 2009 to $125,000 in 2014.
A third factor concerns a generational shift in approaches to giving and finances. A recent Barna report revealed that practicing Christians born before 1946 most frequently express their generosity through financial giving (41 percent), compared to 26 percent of baby boomers, 17 percent of Gen X, 13 percent of millennials, and 6 percent of Gen Z.
Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to express generosity through volunteering. This is not surprising, considering they have fewer resources. However, younger Christians are also less likely than older ones to say their ultimate financial goal is to give charitably or serve God with their money.Finally, there is a rapidly changing population and demographic. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the rate of population growth is slowing. In addition, the population is aging and also changing in terms of its racial and ethnic composition. Given income disparity between people groups, such things too will likely lead to a loss in revenue and to a fundamental reshaping of the way congregations are funded.
Of course, no discussion of the need for economic innovation in the Church should take place in the absence of sound theological reflection. Well-meaning believers will likely denounce leaders who propose leveraging church assets to generate income beyond tithes and offerings, no matter the motive. We must be prepared to respond to the following three erroneous assumptions:
Assumption No. 1: “Pursuing profit through a church is intrinsically and morally repugnant.”
There is nothing wrong with admitting that a local church needs money. To be clear, I’m not encouraging pastors to pursue money at the expense of faith, to become double-minded, or to acquire money to build their own kingdoms. Rather, I’m encouraging a more thoughtful and honest approach to church economics. Money is not a necessary evil; it’s a necessary tool. Local churches need financial resources to fulfill their God-given mission, calling and vision.
Assumption No. 2: “A church is faith-based and should wholly depend on God for its funding.”
Think about it. We go to a doctor when we’re sick, take prescription drugs as prescribed, and consent to surgery to improve our health. These actions do not imply a lack of faith on our part, do they? Seeking additional income sources beyond tithes and offerings does not imply a lack of faith on the part of leaders in God’s ability to meet the needs of the church. God gives us creativity, wisdom and insight to solve problems and overcome barriers as we obey His command to preach the good news.
How can we leverage church assets to bless the community and generate sustainable income?
Assumption No. 3: “Conducting profitable business on church property is offensive to God.”
Jesus’ actions in expelling merchants and money changers from the temple might seem to suggest this. However, Jesus was not reacting to the making of fair and honest profit. Rather, He was protesting unfair and greedy profiteering on temple grounds. By charging inflated fees and using rates of exchange well beyond what was reasonable, the merchants and money changers — in association with temple leaders — were perpetuating economic injustice.
To the degree that its heart and purposes are not self-serving, a local church might consider (among other things) renting space to other businesses and organizations who are likewise interested in redemptive community development, to generate passive income to supplement tithes and offerings.
So, how can churches increase funding for the purpose of advancing the gospel? Here are seven essential steps:
1. Free your mind. Imagine what a better understanding of economics — informed by sound theology — might someday mean for your church. Sure, some will say, “A church should wholly depend on God for funding.” Yet those same people probably go to doctors.
Taking intentional steps for future well-being does not render faith inoperative. On the contrary, God expects us to ask, seek, and trust Him while being deliberate, responsible, and accountable for that which He entrusts to us. What’s true for individuals is true for the collective Church, and your parishioners need to understand this.
2. Stop begging for money. To be clear, asking others to contribute to the church is not the same as begging for money. Begging arises from worry, doubts and fears. It seeks to manipulate potential givers through guilt, condemnation and even deception.
Yes, graciously encouraging members to be more faithful and sacrificial in their giving is important. However, it’s not always enough. Coupled with helping people reduce or eliminate personal debt, and teaching them to live generously, your church will need to become entrepreneurial to meet financial demands in the future. Good and faithful servants do not bury their potential (Matthew 25:14-30).
3. Create multiple streams of income. Similar to an American football team, develop three teams to work synergistically as part of your strategy: a spiritual team, a social team and a financial team.
“Each group [has] different objectives and motives but playing in harmony for each other, for the good of everyone,” as former New York Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin once put it.
The spiritual team comprises your local church and its ministries. A senior pastor leads this team, and funding comes primarily from tithes and offerings.
Create a social team alongside the church as an additional 501(c)(3) umbrella nonprofit. Then, move any justice and compassion work out from under the church’s budget into this nonprofit’s budget. By doing so, programs can attract grants, donations and human resources not otherwise available to a church. Appoint an executive director to lead this team.
Generate sustainable income by adding a financial team to run a for-profit business enterprise on behalf of the church. Pastors may not have the gifting or passion for this, and that’s OK. Partner with and empower entrepreneurs in the Body to develop and oversee this leg of the stool as would a CEO.
4. Leverage church assets. Pastors in the U.S. tend to compartmentalize business (secular) and mission (sacred), as if the two concepts are mutually exclusive. Around the world, however, missionaries understand that effective community engagement requires both a spiritual and an economic approach.
It is imperative today for pastors to think correctly, strategically and creatively about such things. With this in mind, how might your church leverage your resources (people, money and facilities) to generate sustainable income?
5. Become a benevolent owner. At Mosaic, we rent half of our facility to a large fitness club. The passive income covers half our monthly mortgage payment. Since doing this in 2015, 6,000 people from the community have become members, and 15 to 20 new jobs have been created.
6. Monetize existing services. There are certain things churches are already doing and for which they are already paying that could otherwise generate income. For instance, instead of paying for janitorial services, why not start a janitorial company that would create jobs and net profits from other contracts to offset the line item expense of cleaning the church? Sure, provide free coffee on Sunday mornings, but sell other items at a profit to offset costs.
7. Start new businesses. Contrary to common misconceptions, a nonprofit may start, own and/or control a for-profit business. One church in Ogden, Utah, asked, “What if we, collectively, took up the call to tent-making as a body?”*
In 2015, they rebranded their building as an event center. Once they advertised, their calendar filled with bookings. Weddings, business meetings, government events, high school events, class and family reunions all came to the church, happily paying for use of the space.
Conventional wisdom suggests a church budget that exceeds tithes and offerings is not sustainable. However, the coming revolution in church economics will redefine the notion of church stability altogether, as an increasing number of congregations find they are not stable or sustainable by this definition. The world is changing. We must be willing to stretch ourselves to reach our communities for Jesus.
Considering that local governments may someday assess church real estate to collect property taxes or that the federal government could take away tax-exempt status for churches altogether, the time to pivot is now.
Today, approximately 30 percent of Mosaic’s $1.2 million annual budget is funded outside of tithes and offerings. Imagine what your church could do if it generated an additional 30 percent of its revenue through for-profit business enterprise.
On the other hand, imagine how much less your church would accomplish if it were forced to cut 30 percent of its budget, resulting in a significant reduction of staff, programming, community engagement and missions giving. Such a scenario is already playing out in many churches across the nation. We can no longer afford to cling to the status quo.
After considering our disruptive approach, some pastors express concern about not being instinctively entrepreneurial. They are unsure if they can or even should move forward in terms of implementation. The good news? You don’t have to be the one to do so. As in our church, God has likely already brought gifted and passionate people your way. They have sharp minds and are smart with money. They are focused and credible, people with proven expertise and specific experience.
These men and women have a heart for your church and truly desire to make a difference beyond the level of mere employees or managers, so to speak, in the church. Such people will welcome the opportunity to run point for you in one or more of the ways I’ve discussed. They’re just waiting for you to ask.
*Caution: Before launching a business be sure to consult with legal counsel regarding (1) the impact on the church’s tax-exempt status, (2) the tax on unrelated business taxable income, and (3) the effect on the church’s coverage under the nondiscrimination provisions in a state or local public accommodations law.
Mark DeYmaz is the author of The Coming Revolution of Church Economics, from which portions of this article are adapted.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of Influence magazine.