A Profit-Making Nonprofit

In last month’s e-teaching I shot a sacred cow about tithing to the local church. I pulled the trigger with fear and trepidation.

My fears, however, proved to be baseless, as most of the feedback I received was very positive. We emailed that e-teaching to 9,000 subscribers. We also posted it on our website here, where about 4,500 people have since read it. 888 Facebook subscribers “liked” it and 529 of them “shared” it. That made it our most popular e-teaching ever.

Looking back, I don’t know what I was so afraid of. Did I really expect pastors to write and say, “The Bible does teach that Christians should tithe to the local church!”? Of course no pastor wrote such sentiments, because no pastor could produce any biblical support for such a view. (Yet the idea of tithing to the local church is contained within many churches’ doctrinal statements.)

Did I really think that someone would write and say, “Putting money in my church’s offering plate—most of which is used to benefit me and my family—is just as virtuous in God’s eyes as giving to an orphan or widow!”?

Did I really think that anyone would disagree that the goats of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 25:31-46 are the ultimate God-robbers, considering the fact that they let Jesus go hungry, thirsty and homeless?

Of course, not all the feedback was positive. I did receive one very negative response that is too lengthly to quote in full, but here are a few excerpts:

I find it extremely disturbing that this article on tithing basically encourages people to give into their natural greed and keep their money for themselves….

I strongly disagree with so much of your latest teaching…. Why anyone would think that the bills that a church has are less legitimate needs than the bills an orphanage has is beyond me.

Beyond my disagreement with your theology, I have issues with how this robs the people. As far as I’m concerned, a person truly is more blessed when they give than when they receive. By basically telling people to keep their money (and, seriously, that’s what I got out of your message), you rob them of that blessing. Who cares what charity, whether a local church, or a ‘save the spotted owl’ fund, when the issue at hand is a person’s attitude toward God and their money?….

I feel that this ministry has been subtly moving farther and farther from the Bible and more and more into something that stops focusing on Christ and more into Pastoral-centered-cultish beliefs. Will you next start saying that abortion is okay and that Jesus ‘isn’t *really* divine, but just a good man’? So this is the last time I’ll be reading anything from this ministry. I’m sure you don’t care since one reader is hardly important. In any case, good-bye.

Just for the record, I didn’t think that reader gave my teaching a fair appraisal. And I don’t agree with many of her perceptions. But she may have been having a bad day. (If you haven’t read that e-teaching or if you’d like to read it again, click here.)

On a More Postive Note…

Perhaps the most interesting conversation I had regarding that teaching was with a local pastor who is a good friend of mine. Pastor Bob’s church supports Heaven’s Family, although from my perspective, his church doesn’t really need our ministry, which I will explain momentarily. Bob has encouraged his flock to tithe, but not because his church needs their money.

During our conversation, Bob affirmed that he has publicly told his flock that their church could continue existing without receiving any offerings. As I inquired further, I learned that the church’s profits from its daycare ministry, sports ministry, dance classes, musical instrument classes, and gymnasium and softball field rental could pay for all the church’s operating expenses. So no offerings need be taken. But with the combination of business profits and offerings, the church is able to significantly fund ministries that promote the gospel outside the church and benefit the “least of these.”

For example, Bob’s church has purchased two homes in El Salvador that he refers to as “Houses of Hope.” One is a home for young women who’ve been trafficked and/or sexually abused—all rescued from the streets. The church employs a house mother and a professional therapist on their behalf, and the young women are receiving skills training and education in a godly environment. Some are now operating cottage businesses.

The other home provides shelter for a family of ten headed by a disabled father. The church has set them up with a micro-enterprise to help them become self-sustaining.

Two more Houses of Hope are in the plans—intended for young girls and boys to save them from neighborhood gangs. And the church has other outreaches in El Salvador as well. That is why I said earlier that his church doesn’t really need Heaven’s Family. They are doing a great job stewarding their resources without Heaven’s Family as their “link to the ‘least of these.'”

I might add that the church’s profit-making businesses are not the only reason that a large percentage of its income can be used for ministries that don’t benefit the people who give the money. For example, the church is out of debt, which required discipline.

Also, the staff is lean. Pastor Bob does not believe that the church needs scores of assistant pastors to care for parishioners or feed his ego, but that his job is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” (Honestly, for example, if a church has been in existence for five or ten years, and there isn’t a single Christian couple in that church that is qualified to do marriage counseling, what is wrong?)

While so many church buildings sit idle most of the week, Bob’s church building and grounds are being used almost every day to provide services to local families, furnish jobs for caretakers, teachers and leaders, and make a profit that is ultimately a profit for the kingdom of God. Hindu, Muslim, atheist and nominal Christian parents have daily contact with believers when they drop off and pick up their children and when they participate in the church’s various sports programs. Concerning the daycare center, all parents have signed a form upon enrollment acknowledging that they understand that their children will be hearing Bible stories and learning Christian songs. “Customers” are paying for themselves and their children to be evangelized!

(I must add parentheticlly that I encourage Christian parents to not put their children in daycare, but to care for their own children if possible, and to make sacrifices if needed to that end. But most all the children at Bob’s church’s daycare would be in daycare somewhere else if his church did not offer the service.)

More Sacred Cows that Need to Die…

Many churches could imitate at least some of what pastor Bob’s church is doing. But there may be some other sacred cows that first have to be shot. One is, “The church should not be engaged in business, especially businesses that exploit people by making a profit!”

Now think about that. All churches exist and continue to exist because the parishioners are all involved in businesses that make profits…by which parishioners are earning money…and by which they financially support their churches. We all like to say (and rightfully so) that the church is not a building, but the believers who gather. Thus, all churches are engaged in profit-making business every day. So if “the church should not be engaged in business,” then all Christians should quit their jobs, sit around all day and try to disprove the ancient Chinese proverb that says, “Man wait long time for roast duck to fly into mouth.”

So let’s face up to the truth: It is profit-making people engaged in business who make all the ministry of the church possible. (Which makes their work just as important and holy as the work of the pastor.)

Second, the idea that people are exploited when a profit is made from them is nonsense when there are free markets. If I buy a widget, it is because I wanted a widget. No one is exploiting me. If the price is too high, I simply won’t buy a widget.

All those who sell widgets have to compete for my business, which drives quality up and prices down. And they all must make a profit to survive. Perhaps you have seen the cartoon in which a customer is angrily complaining to a store owner, “I would be buying these same items much cheaper at the store down the street, but they went out of business!”

If I expect widget makers to sell their widgets at no profit, then not only am I very stupid, but I’m violating the most fundamental moral principal of the Bible. I’m not loving my neighbor as myself. I’m not treating others like I want to be treated. I’m expecting others to work for me for free. (Even slaves at least receive a little profit for their labor!)

The Myth of Free

I’m convinced that the anti-business and “freebie mentality” that is so pervasive in much of the church around the world reveals a basic misunderstanding of the teachings of Christ. For example, Heaven’s Family sometimes receives critical communications from Christians who believe we should not sell our books or videos, but that we should give them away freely “because that is what Christ commanded.” It is difficult to know what to say to those people. What they are really saying is that other people should work, earn money, and give money to Heaven’s Family so that they can get free books and videos. I wonder, do such people go to work each day for free? Do they refuse their paychecks because Jesus said, “Freely you have received, freely give?”

The truth is, nothing is ever free. Someone has to pay. So when we expect free stuff, we’re actually expecting other people to pay for us. We’re expecting them to work, earn money, and then give their money to us so that we don’t have to work. And the Bible condemns that kind of lazy, selfish attitude:

If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either (2 Th. 3:10).

“Salvation is free!” someone will say. But, no, actually it is not. Our salvation cost Jesus death on a cross. And after we benefit from God’s gift of salvation, God expects us to pay whatever price is necessary to follow Him.

Pastor Bob was telling me about a former attendee to his church who complained that free coffee wasn’t available before church services. Again, the freebie mentality. Of course, there is no such thing as free coffee. Bob expressed that if he ever offers coffee before church, he’s more likely to sell it. And think about the potential! No competition! A corner on the market! Volunteer labor that would help generate margins that would make Starbucks jealous. Honestly, selling coffee at church on Sunday mornings could be a cash cow.

So let’s shoot the sacred cows to make room for cash cows. Business can be a wonderful expression of the golden rule. It gives us an opportunity to all serve one another by working hard to provide valuable goods and services that can be freely exchanged through the medium of money—always a win-win. That is a much more accurate picture of what biblical Christianity looks like than the lopsided picture of the hardworking people who give all their possessions to the lazy people. Remember, the Good Samaritan didn’t pay the innkeeper enough to take care of the man who had been robbed for the rest of his life!

And pastors, if you have a church building like my friend Bob, you may be sitting on a potential profit center for the kingdom. Has God entrusted you with a “talent” that you’ve buried?

Perhaps you have no business ability. (I tend to think that you actually do, since running a church is so much like running a business. You have a “product” that you “sell” to “customers” whom you have to attract through some type of “advertising” and whom you need to “retain” by “serving.” You have “assets,” “liabilities,” “income” and “expenses,” and you must make a “profit” to keep the doors open.) But if you actually have no business ability, is there no one in your church who could figure out ways to use your church’s assets and human resources, and at the same time engage with nonbelievers before whom your church members could let their lights shine?

And pastor, can you imagine saying to your congregation, “By stewarding the time, talent and treasures that God has given you, and by loving your neighbor as yourself through providing valuable goods and services for which your neighbors are willing to pay a fair price, you are able to give to today’s offering. And by the entire church stewarding what God has given to us collectively, and by loving our neighbor as ourselves through providing valuable goods and services for which people are willing to pay a fair price, I’m happy to tell you this morning that 100% of what you place in the offering will be invested in kingdom business outside the four walls of this church. With this offering, we will send the gospel to the lost and care for Christ incarnated in the ‘least of these.’ This offering will be untainted with selfishness, as it will not benefit us at all…at least until we stand before Jesus to be rewarded by Him!”?

— David