I generally try not to take up too much space in this blog on strictly Church of God issues, but MissionalCOG’s recent post on the impending reallocation of resources compels me to say something on this subject. (Before you start, read the Terms and Conditions of this site.)
For those of you who are a) new and/or b) unfamiliar with my church structure: the Church of God is presently taking a hard look at how much its local churches (the COG, unlike TEC, is a true centralised church) are required to send to its state/regional (diocesan) offices and to its International Offices in Cleveland, TN. This has been an ongoing process; the church has formed a special select committee to review the issue and, as the MissionalCOG piece states, that committee has its next plenary session in April 2009. So, in plain terms, something is about to happen.
The central reality of that “something” is that, combining the reduction in the percentage of local church tithes being sent up with the current state of the economy, the income of the general church will decrease from US$25,000,000/year to US$15,000,000/year. That’s a 40% decrease, a hefty drop by any standard. There will be hard decisions to make and there will be pain. At this level, both are unavoidable. Having spent most of my working career in an industries which are wildly cyclical, I am to some extent prepared for this kind of swing, but for those who are not this is coming as a rude jolt.
Working in that kind of environment convinced me of two things.
The first was that diversification of financial sources and resources is important. It’s great to ride something straight up until it goes straight down; just ask anyone with real estate in South Florida. The second was that it’s important to “travel light,” i.e. work and live with as little fixed overhead as possible. Ideally ones expenses should be in a constant direct proportion to income, but that’s not realistic in this life. So one must minimise the fixed component.
That’s significant to the present situation of our church because much of the difficulty we face is the result of a high fixed overhead, especially in physical plant. The church is taking positive steps to rectify this situation (like this), and its ability to operate in the reduced funding environment will depend in no small measure on the success of these steps.
But that leads me to the next point: the general church’s tendency to expand physical plant past what is economically sensible isn’t a phenomenon restricted to the central church. We see this in local churches as well, the same local churches which will economically benefit by the reduction in the “tithe on tithe” (which will become a true 10% if things go as anticipated.) It’s simply unrealistic for a local church to invest in the kinds of physical plants we have seen so many of lately that are as underutilised as they are. And it would be a tragedy for churches to reduce their contribution to the general church only to repeat the same mistakes at a local level. (It’s also worthy of note that non-profits in general tend to overbuild their physical plants, be they parachurch ministries, country clubs, charitable organisations, and that great non-profit colossus, the government.)
Part of the reason for this is here; beyond that, Anglo churches in the U.S. operate in a high-maintenance culture, and feel constrained to keep up with that culture. Depending on our future economic course, the culture’s propensity for “champagne taste and beer pocketbook” may change also, which would assist the church if it’s ready to operate in that environment. If we got to the point where we could use cell groups to spawn churches, the propagation of the gospel in this country could be revolutionised. (If the Muslims can elect imams from small groups, where’s our limitation?)
Beyond that, the most critical question any denomination must ask is this: who needs us the most? There are two answers to that question.
The first is small and medium size local churches. Large churches, whether they have a denominational “covering” (to use that infamous 1970’s term) or not, are in reality worlds unto themselves. Small and medium size churches need the services of a denomination the most. Any reallocation of resources needs to take this into consideration.
The second is that a denomination–especially a centralised one–is a source of strength in a time of persecution and attack. Given the course of our country, all of us will need that strength in the coming times. This too needs to be accounted for in our structure.
As far as missions are concerned, since the centre of Christianity is shifting to the Third World, it makes sense that the church’s structure reflect this. I’ve kept up with this re the Anglicans; part of the reason I do that is that I hope that my Pentecostal and Evangelical bretheren will take the hint.
Finally, last week we said goodbye to John Nichols, whose life left few of us in the Church of God untouched. In his moving farewell video, he thanked the church for giving him the opportunity to do the ministry that he had done. That sentiment doesn’t get expressed very often, but I feel the same way. I am grateful for the opportunity that this church has given me the last twelve years working in Laity Ministries.
Now we have uncertainty hanging over our heads. Many who have more invested in this church that I do stand to lose more, and this is sad. But ultimately, beyond the vicissitudes of ecclesiastical polity and politics, our eternal objective–and our work to facilitate that in others–is why we are here and do the things we do. As my Facebook visitors read for my quote:
“And so Jesus, also, to purify the People by his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go out to him ‘outside the camp,’ bearing the same reproaches as he; for here we have no permanent city, but are looking for the City that is to be.” Hebrews 13:12-14, TCNT.