Making a Living versus Having a Life

“A faithful man will abound with blessings, but he who makes haste to be rich will not go unpunished.” – Solomon

We live in a society that measures worldly success based on money, fame, position and accomplishments. In fact, typical Americans spend nearly 50 percent of their waking hours working. There is a thin line between owning our possessions and being owned by them. While we need money to meet our obligations, the Bible warns against “building our treasures” here on earth. The love of money can be a hindrance to our faith. Like the rich young ruler, our possessions can keep us from entering Heaven.

There are approximately 700 direct and 1,000 indirect references in the Bible regarding money. Remember Lazarus and the Rich Man? Lazarus was a beggar and the rich man never offered to help Lazarus. The rich man was full of greed and pride, weaknesses Satan loves to use to keep us from God. The rich man died and went to Hell. He begged God to have Lazarus come down from Heaven to give him some water. The Bible says the great gulf between Heaven and Hell prevented Lazarus from delivering the water.

When John D. Rockefeller died in 1937, it was estimated he controlled 2% of the U.S. economy and was the richest man in the world. When asked if he had enough money, he said he wanted, “just a little bit more.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, we see people like Corrie Ten Boom. As a child facing death every day in a concentration camp during WWII, she and a friend decided to find peace and contentment with their faith in God and his Word.

The truth of the matter is that our value is not based on our position, power or possessions (Luke 12). When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, Satan offered him both power and money. As Christians, most of us are confident that money and possessions would not tempt us, yet the Bible warns us that “pride comes before a fall.” One needs only to look at Christians with money, power, position, and success to find many examples of problems. Most of us are attracted to money and authority. The challenge is if we get them, we need to remember God is the source of everything. If we love money more than God, then He will take it away to help clear the path for us to get to Heaven.

Lotteries: The Quest For Riches

Satan uses the same deck of cards to tempt us. He just reshuffles every now and then. The lottery is one of the best examples of our desire to “get rich quick.” Lotteries and casinos are promoted today as good for the community. They generate “revenue” to help cover the cost of government. They create jobs for people. Lotteries are supposed to balance budgets and improve education yet none of this is happening today. While the lotteries bring in tremendous amounts of money, the government rarely uses it to solve the problems for which they were built to resolve. Here in Michigan the lottery was fought for many years until the politicians “promised” to “fix” education with the money. Even when the money is used appropriately, there is no biblical justification for lotteries.

Those who can least afford to play tend to buy the most tickets. The economic term for this is “regressive,” which basically means it hurts society more than it helps. Playing the lottery violates biblical principles and exposes our society to all kinds of problems. Like cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and pornography, gambling is highly addictive and can become a form of idol worship. Yet, we rationalize gambling under the guise that it’s “for the children.” Some Christians justify playing with the logic, “If I win, I’ll give half to the church.” We shouldn’t justify violating God’s Word by offering Him a bribe!

Under the surface, organized crime is involved with illegal lotteries. Ironically, the odds of winning an illegal lottery are better than winning a legal one. 80-85% of funds go to the winners of illegal lotteries. Ironically, the odds of winning an illegal lottery are better than a legal one. 80-85% of funds go to winners of illegal lotteries, compared to 50% or less for state lotteries.

Like cigarette and alcohol taxes, the money spent on gambling is a form of regressive tax on the poor. One storeowner said lotteries are a tax imposed on those willing to trade their own stability today for a spark of hope tomorrow. They believe someday their number will turn up, despite odds as high as 150 million to 1.

In addition to better odds, illegal lotteries are also tax-free. The winnings are not reported to the IRS. Many people buy lottery tickets with credit cards, thus adding to their debt. Winning numbers on TV are often the winning numbers for most illegal lotteries, making it easy to notify the winners.

We like to think that civilization has improved over time, but remember how the Roman soldiers gambled for Jesus’ garments at the foot of the cross. Gambling was a sin then and remains one today. It is in direct conflict with biblical teaching. The Bible teaches us to work and warns against coveting. The Bible also tells us to be content with what we have.

Are We Fleecing The Flock?

“Many deceivers subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.”

This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith; they profess that they know God; but in works they deny Him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate (Titus 1:11-16).

Just as societies swing from freedom to bondage and back over time, Christianity in America today is swinging. Christianity can be traced back to Israel in Jesus’ day. When Christianity moved to Greece, popular Christian teaching became more philosophical. When it reached Rome, it became a part of politics and civil power. In Europe it became a culture. Today in America, capitalism has turned most churches into a business. What will be the next phase?

Mega Churches are considered the best “business” model for churches in America today, yet the blessing of size is also a curse. The pastors, even with a staff of 5-10, cannot minister to and disciple 2,000 people. Jesus said a good shepherd knows his sheep and calls them all by name (John 10:3). This does not mean mega churches aren’t effective. In fact, the first mega church may have been Charles Spurgeon’s Baptist Metropolitan Tabernacle in London in the late 19th century where 5,000+ attended weekly.

Although attendance and contributions are often viewed as measures of success, they have little to do with preaching the Word and shepherding the flock. People can come and go in an hour without talking to anyone, or without becoming true Disciples of Christ as outlined in God’s Word. If the mega church model is so effective, how do we reconcile the turnover rates as high as 90% every 2 to 3 years?

While there is nothing wrong with spreading the gospel efficiently, should our churches be run like businesses? In the past, churches would share their successes with others for free. Today, some churches charge a franchise fee plus ongoing “revenue” sharing. The practice is justified as a way to reach more people for God. Does the practice please God? When some say it costs as much as $1,000,000 to see someone saved in America today versus less than $1 in Africa, should we not at least ponder the possibility that American churches are not operating efficiently or effectively?

Church leaders are vulnerable to sin just like anyone else. Church leaders are prized targets of Satan, since he can use their failure to keep many others out of church and away from God. Christian or not, it is possible that some of our building programs, budgets, music expenses, and outreaches are more rooted in a worldly business plan than living out the Great Commission. In Matthew 21, Jesus threw out the moneychangers in the temple. Why? Jesus was not happy to see the temple of God being used as a source of profit.

Churches should never put people on a “guilt trip” in order to squeeze a few more bucks out of them. Why would a pastor coerce members with “It’s of the Lord,” or other popular rhetoric? I was once referred to as a “giving unit” in my own church. Where did that term even come from?

In II Peter 2, we are warned of false prophets speaking heresy and taking advantage of people financially. As church denominations become nothing more than brand names like Target or Lowe’s, what is the message being communicated in the communities where we live? Some pastors tell their church members that God wants all Christians to be rich. A few pastors teach that if you aren’t rich, then you must have unconfessed sin in your life. Some warn if you don’t give to God, then He won’t bless you. The Bible does not teach that having no money means you are doing something wrong or don’t have enough faith. Applying this logic would suggest the majority of churches today do not have enough faith.

Financial wealth is not an automatic promise for Christians. In fact, the Bible teaches that until the Lord returns, the poor will be with us. Contrary to popular preaching today which says we deserve to be pampered, spoiled, and wealthy, Jesus said we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross, forsake all, humble ourselves, and follow Him.

Giving is between the individual and God. The Bible says God’s house is to be a place of worship and prayer, not a place where we squeeze the people in the pews for money. Proverbs 22:16 says, “He that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want.”

Churches in America are naturally drawn to the healthy and wealthy rather than the sick, poor and troubled. After all, someone has to pay the bills! Yet, Jesus was in the streets every day sharing the good news with the sick, poor and troubled. Which is more appropriate; being like Christ or following the business model we learned about at the pastor’s retreat? It’s very tempting to be “successful.”

In Mark 1, Simon and other followers told Jesus that everyone was looking for Him, but Jesus wasn’t interested in popularity or scale. He wanted to minister to the people who needed and wanted help. Many of today’s churches are looking for crowds. In the book of Revelation, God told the Laodicean church that they thought they had need of nothing; in reality they were poor and naked. Could it be that this passage also refers to us today? Watered down sermons in an attempt to not offend anyone? Comfortable pews? Coffee bars? Some churches are removing crosses, the pulpit and other traditional Christian symbols. Many don’t use words such as sin, Heaven or Hell. What about churches that preach that salvation can be obtained through faith in things other than Jesus?

Thankfully, there is movement among God’s people today to return to simplicity in our own lives, as well as in the churches we attend. Perhaps the mega church era will come to an end. Some Christians have tired of the routine and are returning to the small and intimate house churches. They want God and His Word above all else. This is what God created us for. Perhaps all the large churches won’t disappear, but anything not focused on Jesus Christ and Him crucified cannot last forever. Similar to the first church in Acts, lay leadership can run house churches.

What about the fruit in a small church (less than 150) versus a mega church (2,000+)? Is it more lasting? Smaller churches are more intimate. The debate should continue. People attending smaller churches know everyone, as opposed to the typical mega church where the majority of attendants come and go without knowing anyone.

Debt: Are We Sending Mixed Signals?

How we handle our money is a visible indicator of our often hidden spiritual condition. We don’t get into debt overnight. Nor do we get out of debt quickly. How many church members would be living within their means if biblical principles regarding money were taught in church or visibly practiced by the church leaders? How many of their friends and neighbors would be living differently if they watched and learned Christian finances as opposed to current traditions that violate biblical principles?

There is no question that a church needs a financial plan. While some may not agree, the Bible teaches us to be good stewards (Luke 14:28-30). Operating a church is no exception. In biblical times, the money needed to build the temples was provided up front (Exodus 25:1-2). Today, virtually all church building programs are financed with debt. Many churches have become nothing more than buildings where leaders are consumed with filling the pews to try and pay for everything. What about the needs of the committed members coming to worship every Sunday? Are we ministering in these situations, or simply building castles like the man in the Bible building bigger barns for tomorrow?

The leaders of the first century church risked their lives to spread the gospel. Building a church was not even part of the plan. Unfortunately, many of our churches today operate like the government instead of by what is taught in the Bible. Is spending millions of dollars a year on overhead and mortgage payments a better use of God’s funds than the $50,000 budget to operate a small church? What if the lender requires the pastor to sign a contract promising he will not leave until the debt is paid? What if a life insurance policy is required? Are these practices a form of “surety” which the Bible says to avoid?

Jesus referred to us as sheep for good reason. Churches are just as vulnerable to financial mistakes as anyone else. Are we following the traditions of men instead of the commandments of God? After all, “Why wait for the new gym or worship center when we can have it today?” It was the most popular route until the latest financial collapse. For the most part, individuals have learned their lesson. The only debt we should have, if necessary, is the mortgage on our home and we should be paying it off early.

We must remember God guides and directs by closing doors, as well as by opening them. It is very difficult to take a biblical approach to borrowing money while asking the congregation to not only approve a loan, but also to pay it off. If the majority in the church is against borrowing money, and it usually is, then the majority should rule.

If the church truly needs a new building or to improve the existing one, why does it have to be done immediately through a loan? What if God wants to teach us patience or to trust Him instead of placing hope in a loan from the bank? What if He wants us to plant a new church instead of making room for everyone under one roof? What if God wants us to simply witness in the park a few times a week? Back in 1963, Janet Lacey, Director of the Inter-Church Aid and Refugee Service for the British Council of Churches, questioned the priorities of the Anglican Congress in Toronto. She questioned, “Do we need new churches? Are there not several half-empty, little used buildings of all denominations in one town?” Are we not in the same situation today in America? It’s certainly the case in my community, yet some continue to borrow and build new churches. Is this the best use of limited funds, especially in communities where neighbors and others are struggling? How much time and money is lost that could be used witnessing to the lost or in discipling new believers?

Perhaps most multi-million dollar buildings are erected out of the desire to compete with the new church down the street. As most pastors will tell you when they meet with other pastors, the first question is “How many are you running,” i.e., how many people attend your church each Sunday?

While many sincere and mature Christians have challenged this pattern for years, it is difficult to “trust God” when the church down the street is breaking ground for their latest expansion.

Debt is not evil in and of itself, but the Bible refers to it in a negative context and urges us to avoid it. Some argue the Bible’s warnings aren’t valid because debt wasn’t a normal practice during biblical times. If that is the case, then why did Solomon write so much about it? Solomon said to “deliver ourselves” from the “bondage” of debt or “surety.” Psalms 127:2 says, “It is vanity for you to rise early, or labor late, in search of riches. For the Lord gives to his faithful even while they sleep.”

The Bible teaches we are called to a higher standard. This includes how we handle money (I Timothy 3). The Bible teaches us that Christ will build His church. We’ve gotten away from that and become too focused on trying to do it ourselves. We track weekly attendance, giving patterns and have more confidence in modern day business models than God and His Word.

Most churches repay their debts, but many have to cut back to keep the mortgage payments current. When the financial pressure builds, members begin to leave. Like government with tax revenue projections, churches often make the mistake of assuming giving always increases, or that members will fund a special project if “it’s of the Lord.” Consider the Crystal Cathedral’s recent bankruptcy. This church was built 50 years ago. They had money pouring in for decades. What happened to all of it?

Picture the widows coming and going, faithfully supporting their church as they have all of their lives. Like Jesus’ parable regarding the widow’s mite, some widows give 20% or more of their modest incomes. How can a church leader rationalize handing this sacrificial giving to the bank? If we stood before God today, would we be comfortable showing him the financials for our church?

A church in the Detroit area went bankrupt. The judge ruled that widows and others who gave their life savings to the church would receive 25 cents on the dollar over 6-10 years. This is a sad example of how poor stewardship and violating biblical principles harms not just you, but those around you.

Borrowing money as a church sends a message that debt is okay and God is unable to provide without the bank’s help. Yet, we preach on how God performs miracles, healings, and special blessings. If God doesn’t meet the church’s financial needs, how can He do the other? Perhaps this is why so few pastors preach about money. When churches go under, it is a terrible testimony to the members and community. Non-Christians sometimes use this as an excuse to reject God.

Here in Detroit, MI, we have been in a financial recession/depression for more than 10 years. Many continue to lose their jobs and homes. More people than ever in our area are hungry, homeless, suffering and struggling. Churches are doing their best to provide food, clothing and shelter, but we wonder what could be happening if many of the churches in the area weren’t struggling to cover their mortgage payments and other expenses? Given the massive needs of others here and all over the world, does building bigger and better churches make sense today? Picture someone from the neighborhood who has lost his job and is about to lose his house. He decides to go to church one Sunday looking for answers to his financial problems, only to listen to the pastor pleading for money before the offering. There’s a note in the bulletin asking for money and the pastor mentions the situation again during the closing prayer. What does this man think as he leaves?

Proverbs 22:7; “The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.” This principle is being reconfirmed right before our very eyes, not just at the local level, but also in Washington, in our churches, and all over the world. There are 7+ billion people on earth today. One billion live in total poverty. Two billion people live on less than two dollars per day. Half of humanity struggles each day to find food, water, clothing and shelter. Twenty-six thousand children die every day from poverty. The bible says this will be the case until the Lord returns, but should it not cause us to pause and reconsider our priorities when it comes to how we manage our churches?

“But my God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19).