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3 Suggestions for the Shifting Economy of Church

It is an interesting time for churches in Canada. My sense is that after decades of slow decline we are at a liminal point in our trajectory. This is not a doom and gloom scenario that I see on the horizon but instead a point of reflection and change that can help the larger church move into her emerging role in a post-christian Canada.

There is much to be said about this transition and the lessons we will need to learn as we move forward but I’d like to highlight one particular area from my perspective as a church planter; the economics of church.

I tend to approach church from within the framework I was handed in the Evangelical tradition. Though I have learned greatly from the mainline perspectives in the past decade many of the concepts I see perpetuated in the church planting movement today tend to rely on the economic models that have been enjoyed in evangelicalism for the past several decades. That is, a built-in presumption of generosity that is funnelled primarily through the church. This has allowed churches to build around program-heavy, staff-resourced, facility-driven models. One study from Christianity Today in 2013 found that the average North American Evangelical church consumes 97% of all their resources on internal programming such as personnel and facility.

Today’s millennials are, in my experience, no less generous than the previous generation but there are two factors that dramatically impact their financial relationship with churches.

First, millennials do not see the church as the default recipient for their generosity. They are willing to contribute to communities they are a part of but that does not mean that their church community will be the sole beneficiary of what they may see as their spiritual, humanitarian, and civic donations. Church will be, one of many outlets for generosity. Compounding this is a built skepticism that many hold toward the church, or even charities, in general. Millennials expect a level of transparency that many churches are simply not ready to provide. A church that does not appear generous in their use of resources will probably have a tough time attracting the generosity of millennials.

Secondly, millennials are facing an economic climate over the next few decades where traditional sources of wealth creation will likely not provide the same returns. The housing market, where many boomers have considerable wealth invested, probably cannot sustain the same trajectory it has enjoyed since the 1950s. This means churches will need to survive off of generosity funded through disposable income rather than accumulated wealth.

None of this serves as a death knell–resources will still be there for churches who can adapt–it is simply part of the economic reality of church today. Churches who build from traditional expectations about giving patterns will have a tough time becoming sustainable in the long term and church planting networks would do well to not perpetuate these models by pumping in large infusions of cash early in the planting cycle.

A few suggestions:

1. Church plants will need to have long term rental plans or partnership strategies where they work with existing churches. Capital heavy facility plans are probably not realistic in this climate. One of the most compelling opportunities we have in Canada is to see churches that reach end-of-life, partner with emerging communities to provide facility resources.

2. Churches will need to focus on becoming decentralized with a community volunteer focus taking precedence over staffing. Bi-vocational models have long been employed in the church and a return is likely necessary in many cases. Churches who envision themselves as small organic communities serving less than a hundred people in a tight community can be powerful pockets of kingdom life but the resources of full-time staff may not be realistic in those environments. Plans will need to adapt accordingly. Even larger churches will need to think about shifting resources toward empowering community ministry over programmatic models that require a heavy staff presence.

3. Churches will need to have clear generosity initiatives where they model the kind of sacrificial giving that they want to teach their communities. The kind of kingdom generosity that makes church possible is no longer going to be powered by social pressure the way it has been in the past. This means that teaching–primarily through demonstration rather than talking points–will be a necessary element of our discipleship.

Eugene Peterson is fond of saying that, “The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.” He is on to something here. However, as I see it, what he is taking aim at is not the result of the kind of analysis I’m proposing. His critique is the result of trying to maintain the status quo in a shifting economic environment. When we can only think of doing church with the massive financial resources we have become accustomed to, we are forced to turn church into a business model designed to raise capital. When we can honestly evaluate the local economy around us and dream up sustainable models that work naturally within that context, we can get back to doing the work of ministry without having to focus on propping up our bottom line.

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