3 Ways a Church Should Consider Spending Less

“You shall not steal” – Deut. 5:19

Back when Immanuel Church Nashville was first planted, Ray Ortlund made a case for spending money so people could have Starbucks brand coffee in the lobby. Setting aside the fact that Starbucks coffee by itself is not actually that good (it’s the blends), he made a good point. He said this while preaching on the parable of the dishonest manager (Lk 16:1-13), and I don’t think I’d ever really understood that passage until then.

Of course, I already understood that money was dangerous. After all, Jesus ends the parable with a warning about not being able to serve two masters. But then Jesus issues a confusing command in 16:9:

“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

Though it might surprise many of us, Jesus wants us to know the power of money. In other words, Jesus is saying, “Don’t be naïve.” The reason behind all the warnings against money is not that money itself is evil, but because money is so powerful. It can offer a ready-made, controllable and tangible replacement for God. Yet Jesus’ solution is not monastic renunciation of all earthly goods. The solution is to use the power of money for good. Win people to Christ, and use even money to do so.

I mention all this because it provides a theological backdrop to the mantra: “Ministry is inefficient.” Service to Christ cannot be reduced to a number-crunching bottom-line analysis. You can’t bring in Moneyball analytics to take your small market club to the next level. If you do ever find yourself in that sort of mentality, you can be sure that whatever you’re doing, it isn’t the work of the church.

When it comes to church budgeting, the “rights” and “wrongs” are rarely clear. But the elusiveness of measurable, quantitative results does not absolve us from the call to steward God’s resources well. When people give to the church, they believe they are giving to God’s work. Church leaders should feel the weight of this; they are accountable for how they discharge these resources, lest they be found stealing from God. 

Given the above, I’d like to look at three common areas in church budgeting that deserve careful consideration. 

1. Advertising

Particularly if you’re part of a big church, you might attract many visitors on Christmas or Easter through your neighborhood mailer, Facebook ad, or highway billboard. But what percentage of those people get plugged-in to your church, or any church for that matter? Does anyone have the numbers on that? Does that justify your advertising costs—your attendance celebration of that one service?

Survey after survey tells us that that the most meaningful and effective way of drawing new people into a church is the same way as it’s always been, since the days of Pentecost. Word of mouth. A personal invitation. Plus, there’s that sense that when your church flips into paying money for its own marketing, it is doing something distinctly corporate. What kind of message does that send about your members as ambassadors, or for that matter your product of the gospel, when you are paying to advertise? When was the last time you saw an advertisement for a homeless shelter, a park, a hospital, or a police station?

2. Nest Egg

There’s always a rainy day coming. If you don’t have an emergency fund, then mention “Dave Ramsey” some Sunday after service, and you’ll get it figured out. We need to be wise. We need to be prudent and protect the church from going under when the HVAC system needs to be replaced. In America, this is seldom the problem. And by the time it is a problem, chances are your church has more issues than its HVAC and its savings account.

On the contrary, I have seen churches whose “rainy day funds” weigh in at 3-4x its yearly budget. I have a feeling that’s going to be a tough one to explain when Jesus asks his managers what they’ve done with the talents he’s giving them (Mt 25:14-30). “Lord, look at this C.D.! Look at this building fund! Look at how confidently we could keep the lights on!” God wants churches, just as much as people, to step forward in faith. Faith doesn’t mean imprudence or recklessness, but as Wayne Gretzky (and Michael Scott) say, “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.”

3. Events

Events are good and necessary parts of church work. However, they also come with a double-edged danger. On the one hand, they can require massive amounts of human and financial resources; on the other, particularly for churches who are stagnating in their attendance and giving, they offer that precious glimmer of a measurable result we can point to and feel like we’ve done something.

The biggest threat of all, however, is that the relentless gear-up and tear-down of events obscures the one true, God-ordained event of the church: worship. If a church begins to become top-heavy on social gatherings, whether internal or community-outreach, it is an indication that it is losing confidence in the sufficiency of its weekly event of meeting with God.

Read previous articles in this series here.

Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. He blogs regularly at Time & Chance.