Church life: Laws of God, laws of economics

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”

-Luke 14:28-30

In the passage above, Jesus was urging people to count the cost of being his disciple. For ministers preaching the Gospel of prosperity (become a believer, have an easy life), this section of Scripture alone should be enough to call their message into question. The Christian life isn’t about receiving material wealth and having an easy life. Instead, it’s about service and the growth and maturity that come with being tested and facing adversity. Spiritual maturity is the product of a solid Christian life; happiness is an occasional byproduct.

It appears that many congregations in the U.S. forgot this basic lesson of counting the cost. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal points out that nearly 200 religious facilities have been foreclosed on by banks since 2008, up from eight during the previous two years and virtually none in the decade before that. Congregations that preach about the laws of God (and the Gospel, I hope) are learning that they’re not immune from the laws of economics.

Catholic parishes and Jewish synagogues have experienced some problems, but most of the properties in trouble are concentrated among independent churches. As an independent congregation starts growing, it wants to build a facility that will handle both current demands and projected growth. Optimism and ambition often lead to taking on more building and more debt than are prudent, especially when times get tough and parishioners’ contributions shrink.

The Journal tells the story of Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Sacramento, which borrowed $1.9 million in 2004 to buy an 18,000-square-foot property that included a church building and two retail spaces. The plan was to have the retail rent pay most of the $17,000 monthly payment, which worked well until one of the retailers went bankrupt and another tenant couldn’t be found. Eventually, the church couldn’t make its payments and lost its property.

The pastor, Johnny Zapara, said: “A building does not a church make. We will find a way to continue.”

In the end, a congregation is about people and how God interacts with them to bring new life among them and out to the world. Congregations can devote maximum resources to that purpose if they don’t overbuild and let their reach exceed their grasp. Or, as Jesus said, if they count the cost and think seriously about what they’re getting into.

It’s understandable that congregations want to build. They need a place to worship and serve the needs of members for education and fellowship. Many, however, get carried away, and their buildings weigh their ministries down instead of pushing them forward. Congregations need to be nimble, responsive and caring, and being shouldered with big buildings and big debt can get in the way of doing so.

What do you think? How much is too much when it comes to a congregation’s physical assets?

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