On Chequebooks and Churches

Earlier this week I did something that my parents did several times a week but that I haven’t done in at least six months. I wrote a cheque. I just don’t use them anymore. I pay my all my bills online. I give my offerings to the church via pre-authorized remittance. As for cash, I seldom carry any. Why would I? Any expenses I might happen to incur can all be handled with a swipe or tap of my debit card. Some of my kids have never written a cheque in their entire lives! I suspect yours aren’t much different.
   In some of our churches, the vestry doubles as a “counting room.” I often “di-vest” in the midst of a group of church elders who are dutifully tallying up the weekly offering of cheques, cash and a handful of coins. Most of those congregations have no other source of income. Consequently, anyone feeling motivated to support the ministry of that particular congregation has no other available means to do so. There’s something wrong here.
   But that’s just one aspect of our churchly economy that needs to be revisited. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, North American churches functioned on the basis of a simple but effective economic model. If a hundred or so middle class families gave a percentage of their income to the church (for Lutherans it was about 2-3%!), they would be able to provide a living wage to a pastor, maintain a church building, employ a few part-time employees and also pass along a portion of the offerings to fund denominational programmes and church-wide institutions. It was an effective model for its time. In fact, between 1950 and 2000, 90 new “mission congregations” were launched on the territory of the Eastern Synod based on that simple formula.
   That model isn’t serving us so well anymore. Participation rates have dropped dramatically. We’ve also witnessed a significant shrinkage of the middle class. Congregations are struggling to maintain their local ministries and reducing their support for church-wide ministries. At the same time the church is feeling properly motivated to launch new ministries and establish communities of faith with partners for whom our assumed economic model is unlikely to ever work. Should those individuals be denied an experience of the gospel because of an inability to pay? Of course not.
   In spite of our present challenges, we are the richest Christians who have ever lived on planet Earth. Much of that wealth, however - to usual a biblical image – is being “stored up in barns.” Our accumulated congregational assets of real estate, much of it under-utilized, has a total self-reported value of well over 200 million dollars. My guess is that number is extremely conservative.
   It’s time to consider doing a reset of some of our primary economic models. We need to assess, consolidate and utilize our assets intelligently and creatively for the sake of mission. We need to liberate ourselves from a slavish devotion to economic models that are no longer serving, and may well be impeding, our ministries. We need to move beyond chequebooks and churches. And I think we need to do it together. Revolutionary? I suppose so. But so, too, is the gospel.