ncle Sam tells me I can deduct my church contributions from my income tax, because my church is a charitable organization. I feel this is rather noble of Uncle Sam, and have never lost a night's sleep worrying about it. But sometimes I wonder why Uncle Sam hasn't noticed all this tax-free money passing under his nose.
I live in a town of about 65,000 people. In the local newspaper's Friday edition is a church directory, listing 65 separate congregations, almost all of them Christian. Now if each of those congregations takes up a weekly contribution of just $750 dollars, that adds up to $48,750 dollars a week, or $2,535,000 annually. These of course are very conservative estimates. Some of the larger congregations undoubtedly take up five times that much, which would more than make up for any shortages by some of the smaller groups.
This is not a statistical analysis, but it shouldn't take an MIT graduate to see that we're talking about BIG money here. The question that sticks in my mind is not why so much money, but where is it all going? Churches are, after all, supposed to be "charitable" organizations. So who is the main recipient of all this money? Well it sure ain't widows and orphans.
Nearly all the congregations in the directory list a pastor, or preacher of some sort. Some list more than one (a youth or music minister for ex.). If we assume that 60 of the 65 congregations have a professional minister making the paltry sum of $25,000 a year, then $1,500,000 of the contributions are going to pay salaries. That's about 60% of our estimated contributions.
Now let's say each of those congregations pays $250 a month for "operating expenses." This includes rent, utilities, propaganda material, etc. Again, this is probably a VERY conservative estimate, but still, it adds up to $16,250 a month of $195,000 annually about 7% of the estimated contributions.
These two line items now comprise 67% of the estimated contributions, a full 2/3rds. Would you normally send your money to a charity that spends 2/3rds of its contribution on salaries and operating expenses. Now be honest. Does this sound like a charity or a business? Judging from these figures the main financial function of the churches m my hometown is to keep about five dozen preachers off the street.
If there is any truth to the idea of churches being charitable, I think it is this: We (the members of a congregation) view ourselves as the charity. And as a charity, our main need seems to be a full time minister. Then we, as a congregation, take up sizable amounts of money to pay somebody to do all those things a preacher does.
What the preacher does for us is considerable. We certainly shouldn't consider him a freeloader. The job of professional minister is not an enviable one. Despite the good hours, it is a highly demanding job, requiring a variety of skills, along with an amount of public scrutiny associated with few other occupations. Foremost, one needs to be a very good communicator, both publically and in private. The minister also must be adept at counseling, clerical skills, writing and editing, and public relations. Add to that the fact that the individual must be philosophically aligned with the group whom he intends to work for, and you have a formidable job description. That means that this medium sized town in which I reside has a demand for about 60 of these supermen.
In the business world, supply and demand is supposed to balance everything out. When demand exceeds supply, prices go up. First those already in production reap large profits, as there is more than one buyer for every product. But soon others appear in the market, trying to cash in on the profits. Ideally, the market will reach equilibrium. Unfortunately however, in some instances supply can never keep up with demand such as with gold. This is when things get sticky. And this is where the professional minister comes in.
In my opinion the net result has been that most of us have been stuck with brass, wishing we could get our hands on some real gold. Supply greatly exceeds demand. Not willing to go without we settle for what we can get. Some of us even learn to like brass. Settling for less, after all, is usually considered a virtue. With such a constant demand, who can blame so many young men (and women in some cases) for getting "the call?" I have sat through more lousy sermons than I could count. And I have eaten meals with preachers colder than the iced tea. It appears to me that supply and demand just isn't working out.
Before going any farther let's look at what the New Testament can tell us about professional preachers. Was there any such thing as a professional clergyman in the 1st century? The answer is a definite yes, but with a definite distinction. More on the distinction later.
In Matthew 10, as Christ sends the apostles out on the limited commission, he tells them, "do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his hire." Here, before the church has even been established, Jesus has already placed in the apostles' minds the fact that they deserved to be supported by others while they were busy with their ministry. Paul repeats this principle to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 9:3-14: "If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we should reap material things from you?" he asks. He concludes, "so also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel."
The New Testament is filled with the names of "professional clergymen" - Paul, Barnabas, Titus, Timothy, Silas, just to name a few. So what seems to be the problem? Aren't all these modern preachers proclaiming the gospel? And as such aren't they worthy of their hire. Well, to hear them tell it they sure are. Now about that distinction.
You've probably heard that good old capitalist phrase, "he could sell ice cream to an Eskimo." The apostle Paul was that sort of fellow.. He believed so strongly in his product that he was willing to go anywhere and teach anyone. He was a restless sort, and was constantly on the move to some new place, where he felt his message might be received. In the period of a few decades, he and a handful of other professional preachers managed to spread the gospel to the entire Mediterranean region. Judging from the results of the preachers around here, I don't think they could sell ice cream in Arabia, let alone Alaska. But why is that? Are they really all that bad? Well some of them are, but I don't really think that's the problem. I think the problem is us. The us in the pews.
I haven't forgotten about that distinction I mentioned. But before we get to that let's remember one important fact. Despite the fact that some view the preacher as the chief villain in this scenario, let's not forget that WE pay for him, and if he doesn't act the way WE think he should, WE can fire him and hire another one. Remind you of some scripture? How about II Timothy 4:3-4? Judging from all the "fine sermon" comments I hear, either most Christians are getting what they want from their preachers, or they are pathological liars.
But the problem is that we're not paying them to do what they're supposed to be doing. Now about that distinction.
In the early days of the church, a problem arose, because certain widows weren't being taken care of. The disciples asked the apostles for help concerning this matter. Their reply was, "it is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables." Now imagine a modern preacher telling his congregation, "I don't have time to visit the old folks home because I need to be preaching." Many preachers pride themselves on their scholarship, or their ability to debate. Yet Paul told Titus to "shun foolish controversies, and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law; for they are unprofitable and worthless.." (Titus 3:9) And maybe I'm overlooking something but I can't recall Paul performing any wedding ceremonies or funeral services either.
The picture I see of the professional preacher in the first century is quite different from the one I see now. One thing which sticks out rather prominently is that 1st century preachers were not generally aligned with any specific group of Christians. Though one might stay in one place for a period of months, or rarely even years, it seemed to be mutually understood that "located" preachers were the exception and not the rule. Secondly, the primary function of preachers was spreading the gospel, NOT presenting sermons to a pampered clientele who was footing the bill. And certainly not the doing of benevolent work. That's OUR JOB. Somehow we've gotten the idea that preachers are supposed to do more benevolent work than the average Christian, when from what I can tell by studying the New Testament, he was to do LESS. As far as his responsibility to local churches, if Titus and Timothy can be considered as good models, the main functions of professional ministers seemed to be the appointment of leaders, and edification. It is in this area alone that modern clergymen even remotely resemble their predecessors. And even here we still have the primary responsibility. It is our responsibility as brothers and sisters to edify one another. No one man can have that charge laid at his feet. (cf. I Cor. 14:26, I Thess. 5:11).
So what can we do? Since most churches seem to be run more like businesses than charities, perhaps some lessons from the private sector might be of help. One of the tenets of capitalism is that as long as there is a demand, someone will attempt to supply that demand. Most experts agree for example, that the United States will never be able to stop the importation of illegal drugs as long as there is such a strong demand for them. Likewise, as long as Christians feel they need a personal preacher, there will be men waiting to fill that need. And I fear for many the need for a preacher is almost as strong as the addict's need for his drug. I remember a time not too long ago, when the congregation where I attend was "between preachers." The members took turns giving sermons and teaching classes. Meanwhile, the contributions continued to pour in, giving the group a good surplus of funds in a very short period of time. But this boon seemed to be lost on most. Soon a replacement preacher was found. "I sure feel better now that we have a preacher," one member commented. Those standing around nodded knowingly. For some reason a preacher seems to be a sort of security blanket for many Christians. Take him away and you take away their security. You don't suppose they're worried about having to do more work do you?
Another aspect of business is the productivity factor. If a salesman doesn't sell, he doesn't have a job. The boss may be patient for awhile, but if the salesman just can't bring in the business he has to be let go, probably with the suggestion that the poor fellow look into another line of work. Now try applying THAT principle to the clergy. I've known of "missionaries" who have struggled for years and years in some remote place, and can't show you two dozen converts for their efforts. I don't seem to recall Paul ever having such problems. If Paul didn't have luck convening people in a certain locale, he "kicked the dust from his feet" and moved on. Despite the best of intentions, few men are cut out to be missionaries. I fear we are wasting our money and their time by refusing to be realistic about what is expected of them. The gospel ix far too valuable a product to be placed in the hands of "amateurs," when it comes to missionary work.
And on the local level things often aren't much better. How many true outsiders (not children or relatives of members) has your preacher or pastor con-vetted over the previous year? Is it less than ten? Less than five? Less than two? Think about it.
In this world there are men that have a great zeal for the Lord, combined with a great God-given talent. And by all means, those men deserve to be supported full-time in their efforts to teach. But those men are few and far between. God never meant for every congregation to have its own personal "pastor". In my opinion there is a great deal of chaff in the modern clergy. But as long as people demand it, they will get it. That's just the nature of the business. Unfortunately, that is not the nature of Christianity. Until we come to understand the difference, we will never be able to effectively do the work that IS the business of Christianity.