Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How Expensive is Your Church? (Spiritual Formation on the Run)

My recent car accident has distracted me a bit from my routine. And though I am not scheduled to preach this month, I have been busy with a number of pressing ministry matters that have also been distracting. So I am grateful for a long preaching break where I have had a lot more time to pray, reflect and try to figure out what to do!!! Sometimes the tunnel seems pretty long and dark and there is no indication of any light showing that the tunnel is near.

Anyway this is good as again, it forces me to remember that it is God who will take care of matters not me - my task is to do my best to discern his leading and move accordingly. So again I turn to my re-centering exercises and I find comfort in chapter 26 (How expensive is your church). Why? Well, because our church building project journey has been difficult and I think will continue to be challenging BUT at the same time at this stage of the journey I can see clearly God's hand and guidance.

Anyway, here's the chapter first and then my reflections on it.

How Expensive is Your Church? (Chapter 26)

I wonder how you will answer if someone asks you, "How expensive is your church?" Your first impression may be, "My church is free. No annual fees, no service charges and no membership dues. It is not expensive.' Then if that person persists, "What about your church's expansion plans? New building projects. What will it cost you, as a member? How expensive will it be to remain in your church?"

Many churches, especially bigger churches in the Klang valley, are embarking on multimillion-dollar building and expansion plans. I am sure there are excellent reasons for these projects. Rising church attendance, increasing ministry programmes and a bigger staff are some of them. I am also sure the churches have excellent Christ-centred, carefully discerned reasons that are in God's will for them. However, I hope that churches are not planning to spend huge amounts of money (estimates of $50 million, $30 million and $10 million, to give a few numbers) for the following reasons: "We want a church campus that looks like Rick Warren's church campus in California' It is great to have a church campus like Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. The whole complex is bigger than some of our local university campuses. The main auditorium can sit 5,000 people and have the latest audio-visual equipment. We must realise that we are not in California but in Malaysia. We have to be realistic and contextualise our church buildings. Sometimes we look at mega churches in other countries and want to be like them. There is nothing wrong with mega churches provided it is God who wants us to have them. There is something wrong when we try to imitate and end up with only the superficial simulacrum of the whole concept. A multimillion-dollar building may be the proverbial white elephant and turn out to be a millstone around our necks. Instead of trying to build physical assets, we should concentrate on and invest in building spiritual assets in our members.


"We must show the surrounding community an impressive church building so that they will know our God is a powerful God!" Aesthetic buildings are good to look at but we should aim for functionality and multi-purpose usage. Then the building project will not cost so much. If the intention of building is for show, we need to rethink our priorities. If we think God will be glorified by manmade structures, then we need to take another look at Old and New Testament history. Also, we must exercise sensitivity when desiring to build impressive, attention-drawing buildings in a country where the "priority" religion is not Christianity.


"Our church building must be more impressive than that other church's building because we are better than they are." Keeping up with the Jones also occurs in religious communities. We need to be aware of this and not get caught in a vicious circle. Often, it is a subtle and unconscious need on our part to compare ourselves with others. The onus is on both the church leadership and the members to ensure that the tremendous investment in money, effort and work is for the expansion of God's kingdom, and not in proving themselves better than other Christians. Good Christian stewardship demands that every dollar we spend must be accountable and go towards the mission of the church, which is evangelism. How many missionaries and "full-time" workers suffer from a lack of finances while home churches are putting up "fine" buildings? The work of the gospel expands not through buildings, but through personal relationships and effective stewardship of financial resources.


"We must have a new church building/expansion because there is not enough space:' On the surface this sounds like a good reason. However, "not enough space" is a perpetual problem. I have never been to a church that has "enough space." When I was visiting Rick Warren’s church, the people I spoke to also complained of insufficient space. The solution to this lack may not lie in having new buildings, but in more creative use of existing space. We need to have a paradigm change in our thinking that regards a church as operating out of a single building. Can a church not have a small shop lot for an administration office, rent halls for worship and services, and hold other meetings in homes? Instead of building a new building every time the congregation grows, should we not think of leasing or renting bigger convention halls or hotel ballrooms for worship services? In fact, many convention halls/ hotels offer audio-visual equipment and adequate parking facilities.


I have nothing against churches that have visions for multimillion-dollar building projects. I just hope they are aware that the fund-raising, work and taxing of their members may drain their resources and divert their attention from the more important task of building the Kingdom of God.


Our new church building is not up yet. We have not even submitted the plans to the council for approval. The most basic reason is that we do not have the funds and we have not reached the agreement stage where we as a leadership can present a firm (and realistically achievable) recommendation to the congregation for their prayerful consideration and later endorsement (or otherwise). So why even think about building? The are still so many hurdles that need to be leaped over.

Yet I feel at peace at this stage of the journey despite my tendency my to "worry" at times.
I am not saying they are "gospel truths" just that these are some of the reasons (they are inter -related) why I feel the way I do.

1. A godly leadership. Granted that we are still sinners, young and old, male and female alike, there is a peace that comes from knowing that we are all actively seeking to do what is right in God's eyes.

2. A consultative leadership. There is indeed active listening to what members have to say about the matter. And so far, it would seem that despite the recession, members are supportive.

3. "Kingdom of God" orientation. We have lost many key members over the last couple of years due to migration (a lot to do with the economic down turn). Yet I find that many of these members still think of us as "family", and keep in touch. I think this is a good sign of how we view "ministry". Regular on our prayer list are the well being of many who have long since left us. Relationships are important and we keep in touch even if these "associate members" do not contribute to the ministry of financial support of our church.

I find that leaders think the same way I do and have a wider "kingdom of God" mentality. While we would love all who have spent time with us to remain with us, we are not too bothered if they do not and in fact do our best to help those who cannot fit in with us find a home church where they can fit in. This warms my heart.

4. Mission emphasis. Despite difficult times and the fact that we are not a large church (and quite a few members have financial difficulties, our church leadership will not budge on at least 30% of our budget being set aside for missions. Paying the pastor does not come from this 30%. And we are praying about a possible 2nd staff member. Makes wanting to build a new building much tougher. But the point for us is (and thankfully our church members feel the same) - we want to build a new church building to add on because we are committed to ministry and people - which is the reason why we need additional space for ministry - in particular community work. It goes against this principle to cut back on missions to build a building. As Alex put it, How many missionaries and "full-time" workers suffer from a lack of finances while home churches are putting up "fine" buildings? The work of the gospel expands not through buildings, but through personal relationships and effective stewardship of financial resources. "

It was an affirmation that we had a guest speaker a few weeks ago (1st time in our church and not knowing any of our leaders or our church except myself - and only via recommendation) noted our brief financial update and commended us on our commitment to missions giving. His statement of comparison with other churches (and not just in NZ) was "flattering" but at the same time worrying ...

5. We are building for more facilities for ministry especially to the community. We could relocate out of our community and get another place with better facilities at a much cheaper cost. We have limited land where we are. But the consensus of leaders and members is that we need to be here for this community. There are so many opportunities but we do not have the space. Of course the question that we had to struggle with (and still do) is: Do we actually need more space? Again as Alex rightly highlighted, However, "not enough space" is a perpetual problem. I have never been to a church that has "enough space." When I was visiting Rick Warren’s church, the people I spoke to also complained of insufficient space. The solution to this lack may not lie in having new buildings, but in more creative use of existing space. We need to have a paradigm change in our thinking that regards a church as operating out of a single building. Can a church not have a small shop lot for an administration office, rent halls for worship and services, and hold other meetings in homes?

Right now we use a house to supplement meeting space (especially for Sunday School). We just have a narrow rectangular church worship hall, a small kitchen, two toilets and a fellowship hall that is about 50 years old (which was formerly a small primary school gym). Most we can manage is to squeeze in 2 table tennis tables and a fooseball table with a corner for the church library. I think we have gotten pretty creative in how we use our existing space ... even my office :-)

Lots of key meetings are held in homes.

6. Cost saving. Our plans for our church building is to maximise the space we have by building a new building (no frills one) that will still meet the basic council requirements, and keep our 50 year old worship and fellowship halls. I think that is something good. I agree with Alex on this,. Aesthetic buildings are good to look at but we should aim for functionality and multi-purpose usage. Then the building project will not cost so much. If the intention of building is for show, we need to rethink our priorities. This is our plan and hope. Though we would surely not want an ugly church interior! :-)

I am not sure when we will get our building up. But God knows.


One other thought. For me, it is a logical fallacy to assume that if we build a bigger church by "faith" if we have very little money, people will come in to fill up the church, and as more people join the church, we will have more money to pay up our loans etc.

The most obvious reason for me is that almost nothing "kills" a church family atmosphere than constant appeals and reminders of the financial needs and raising funds to pay up bank loans etc. To me, this is a great distraction to ministry and spiritual growth.

When I was younger I remember a situation where a group of churches endorsed a denominational based inter-church youth ministry's goals and plans for the year (they had elder representatives on a special board). But they decided they would not provide sufficient money to run the ministry. Instead they asked us (the ones doing the ground work) to raise the funds via a few big fund raising events. I know I could have responded more graciously (thought I still stand by the reason for my stance) but my response was basically: "looking at the money given to us, and the budget that was approved, my solution is simple, sack the worker, buy the materials to start the resource library (a church had agreed to host it) and forget about inter church youth ministry! I could see very little good coming out of hiring a worker to spend all her time raising funds for her salary.

And of course I think it is not a wise thing to do as Jesus illustrates in Luke 14: 28-30 (And yes, I do know the context is counting the cost of discipleship :-)
"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'

But here's my other main thought. I believe that with a new church building to add on to the facilities, we will have another hall to use. And God will hears our prayers and bless as we want to bless our community. But the catch is that most of the people we will be reaching out to will be those with many needs. So we will grow in numbers but these new numbers may not be able to contribute financially. Our giving will have to increase to meet these needs - but the giving will mostly have to come from people already giving sacrificially. But that's more than okay. God will take care of all our needs.

Matthew 6:33-34
33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Philippians 4:15-20
15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only;
16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need.
17 Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account.
18 I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.
19 And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
20 To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.






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