Thursday, September 02, 2004

I'm Not Feeling so Well

I just got off the phone with a pastor friend of mine, who said he had just come across research showing that churches are virtually guaranteed to plateau or decline when they send more than 11% of their total receipts out of the local church. I assumed he was talking about protestant churches in the North American context. Immediately I felt sick. My church sends over 50% of its total receipts out (including the amount we get back for staffing).

I was looking for more information on church giving, and I found this website, which claims that when your fixed expenses "begin to exceed 75 percent [of total receipts], you begin to choke off the money that supports the reason for your church's existence, your ministry." By fixed expenses, the article meant overhead, salary, building and maintenance, etc.

When I did a quick analysis of last year's expenses in my local church, I found that we sent off a full 78% of all receipts to the conference. That left us with 22%, out of which, we still had to pay for many fixed expenses, including building, maintenance, utilities, office supplies, etc. The total left us with only 12% for actually doing ministry through the local church (including the church school subsidy!!).

"Virtually guaranteed to plateau or decline..." The words are still ringing around in my head. And they make me sick. For years, we have either bought the line that the Adventist church in North America won't grow A) because our message is unpopular and the remnant is supposed to be small (you can find that kind of reasoning here) or B) because we are not trying hard enough.

I have never bought the first line - that the Adventist message is supposed to be unpopular. I believe the Adventist message is the only set of doctrines that make any sense biblically. Adventist doctrines also present a very compelling view of the character of Christ. The Adventist message shows what Christ is doing right now, so we're not left to wonder about an absentee God. It is the only set of beliefs that shows a merciful (yet righteous) God, in relation to death and hell. The Adventist message shows that God has not left us out here to wander, but that He has provided contemporary guidance through the Spirit of Prophecy. I have always seen this as an infinitely compelling message.

But, as a church employee, I have bought into the line that we're not trying hard enough. But maybe it's not that after all. Maybe it's just that our system is broken, designed over 100 years ago to facilitate a movement with no settled pastors and only church planters (and administration) being paid. Maybe that's why Adventist churches are "virtually guaranteed to plateau or decline" in our current structure.

It makes me feel sick because I want more than anything for the Adventist message to be heard. I want our churches to have an impact in their local communities. I want to see people coming to Christ and making discipleship decisions for Him. I want Jesus to come back soon.