As with most walks with the Lord, my journey out of the traditional church system has not been a straight line. There have been a few left and right turns along the way.
One such detour happened in the fall of 2001.
Honey was selling furniture in Yorba Linda, California, and a Christian couple invited her to attend their church for a Sunday service. She wanted to please them and felt we both should go.
Now, the couple’s church was the mother church for a denomination which is famous for worship music, casual dress and laid-back style. The denomination’s founder had recently passed away and another had replaced him. And to be honest, the denomination was one which Honey and I usually searched out in the many cities we had lived in.
So, I was eager to visit the church.
The couple greeted us at the door and led us inside the sanctuary to where they were sitting. As we sat down, the husband leaned over and said, “The new pastor mentions finances a little more than our founder did. It’s probably because the church has dropped from 5,000 in membership to 3,500. ”
My antenna went up, as did the hairs on my neck.
The service began with worship music, followed by the taking of the offerings, a few prayers, and then, the pastor strolled to pulpit. He was forty-ish, dressed in Dockers and had a pleasant voice.
“I was going to speak on prayer today, but I felt a pressing need to speak on a different subject,” he said, looking around the sanctuary.
Now, what subject do you think had jumped over prayer to the top of his sermon docket? Was it salvation? Or healing? Or love? No, no, no!
It was finances!
The pastor explained how the church had just spent millions of dollars to purchase a parcel of land next to the church for planned expansions in the future. The additional expenditures increased the church’s total debt to $13 million. $13,000,000.
“As always,” said the pastor, “our goal is to help the poor, but until we pay off our debts, the poor will have to be put on the back burner. Then, when the debt is retired in twelve years or so, we will be in a strong position to help the poor and others.”
Yipes! Yuck! Yowie!
Now, you might be thinking this left turn experience is the exception for the traditional church system, right? Sadly, not so!
The Barna Group which is known for their extensive surveys on Christianity and churches has conducted yearly surveys on church finances. Their findings for all of the Protestant churches in America are that 85% of the tithes and offerings are spent on mortgages, construction, salaries, building upkeep, special programs and miscellaneous. Less than 10% is given to the poor or foreign missionaries.
For me, this last church experience was the dot at the bottom of the exclamation mark after the words, “Pull the plug!“
(Starting Monday a new series will begin on the callings. Stop back if you’re interested.)