There is a conversation that church plants and established churches need to have.
It isn’t happening. And this is a problem.
Over three posts, I’m going to unpack some uncomfortable truths about the relationship between old and new churches, about effective resourcing of mission and about the dark side of the minister’s heart.
Many Christians have had a conversation with their pastor, and it goes like this.
It starts when the Christian informs their pastor that they are thinking of changing churches. There are all sorts of reasons church members may change churches. The apostle Paul travelled to Jerusalem to evangelise the Jews, to Tarsus for safety, to Antioch to help out Barnabas and to the world to proclaim Christ. For many of us, the causes are more prosaic.
At my church, St Barnabas Broadway, most people move away from the church because of either career or housing costs. We send people all over the world in order that they may become leaders in their field. And we send people all over Sydney because real estate in the inner city is apparently made out of solid gold.
And so the conversation happens. The minister impresses upon his brother or sister how there is a profound implied covenant within the life of the church. He earnestly argues that we need excellent – no, unimpeachable – reasons if we are to change churches. He sternly invokes words like faithfulness, partnership and perseverance.
There is much truth in all this. If you want hear the confronting way the Bible speaks to our decisions about church, check out my recent sermon video, ‘Why you should leave your church.’
However, I want to show you that there are other genuine issues, about which we have complicated and mixed feelings, that come into play here. Many of these issues don’t feel like they should make a difference. When we talk about them, it doesn’t really sound anything like the vital and organic missional community life that we would like to think of in connection with our church and the gospel of grace.
But they are real issues, and here is where we begin – with two kinds of cost.
Two kinds of cost
Churches have costs.
1. Fixed relative to the individual but variable relative to the overall church
The classic example of this kind of cost is staff.
Different staffing models produce different staff-to-church-member ratios. However, within a particular model, as a church grows or shrinks, two things are true.
Firstly, the staff-to-church-member cost tends to remain static. The church may employ one staff member for the first 100 people. When they grow to 200, they employ a second member of staff. It is true that these are ‘stepped’ increases, but the steps can be made more linear and gradual by employing part-time staff. The staff costs per church member remain more-or-less static, while the staff costs in relation to the overall church (or ‘in total’) are highly variable.
Secondly, the great advantage of this kind of cost is flexibility. At various stages in its life cycle, the church can adjust to ensure that the cost-per-member remains constant.
2. Fixed relative to the overall church but variable relative to the individual
The major form of this other kind of cost is church facilities.
No matter how many people turn up to church, the same number of lights need to be turned on. The bank doesn’t change its interest rate if you drop below 500 members. The roof doesn’t last longer if it shelters a smaller congregation.
These costs are fixed in relation to the overall church (yes, there may be additional wear-and-tear, but that’s usually a marginal issue). If your maintenance budget is $50,000 p.a., then it will still be $50,000 when your congregation doubles and $50,000 when it spirals into terminal decline.
However, these costs are variable relative to the individual church member. If a church with a $50,000 p.a. maintenance budget has 500 financial partners (giving members), they will each need to cover $100 p.a., or about $2 per week. If your church declines to 50 members, then they will each need to cover $20 per week. That’s pretty much the total average weekly giving per person in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.
Not every example of this kind of costs is as impersonal as a building, either. The needs of the unemployed single mother in the congregation, or of the local public school, or of the elderly shut-in around the corner, don’t change as your budget changes.
[As a side note: this is why churches that cannot use their resources effectively to see kingdom growth are a self-indulgent and wasteful exercise. This is true of the congregation of 16 saints who refuse to allow a church plant to have the run of their space for fear that things might be changed around. It is equally true of the church plant that rents its own funky space, produces its own website and collateral, and yet fails to result in conversion growth that wouldn’t have happened anyway. We need to be shrewd with our funds, and not waste mission resources for the experience of a few. Far better for staid Builders and funky Hipsters to groan together in a thoroughly middle-of-the-road church service, and give the extra funds to the poor or the local missionary society.]
Costs are nothing new
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this problem has only arisen from the institutionalisation (and calcification) of the church. From the beginning, churches depended on financial commitments. When the early church met in the temple courts, someone had to pay for a place to gather (in those days, of course, it was through the temple tax). Someone had to supply the needs of those on the widows’ list.
NEXT WEEK: Sunk costs and church plants