“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” — Charlie Munger
“We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.” — Charlie Munger
Sage advice. Real, professional opinions don’t come quickly.
Bart Barber’s excellent post on “a bloated Baptist bureaucracy we could do without” bumps against an issue that isn’t discussed much: are American churches, like other American institutions, locked into more programs, real estate and employees that they can really afford?
We easily talk about our American problem with spending. For most Americans, inflation-adjusted wages have been stagnant since the 1970s. We felt richer because our house values kept rising, and wives started working. But a significant part of that “growth” turned out to be debt-fueled. We kept planning for future growth to pay for the debt – until, today, nearly 40 cents of every government-spent dollar is borrowed.
It is easy to grouse about the businessmen and politicians who made decisions in those years that were so obviously wrong. But we seldom admit that those same people and ideas went to church.
And at church, we demanded larger facilities and more personnel to meet the “expected” growth of our cities and suburbs. Looking at the average Baptists’ finances, I wonder how much of their giving came out of borrowed money — and how much churches have borrowed on top of that?
Today, as Bart’s post notes, we seem to have too many megachurches (with great real estate) and too many little churches (with low minister to member ratios), at least in the South. Those reflect, to some extent, the same problem: we’ve promised ourselves churches that suit us, whether or not they are affordable.
I’m not saying churches get “too much” — a tithe off ‘healthy’ finances would be far greater than actual receipts. And I think churches were more conservative than many businesses and governments.
But I wonder how much we’ve overpromised, particularly in non-core activities — and it it will hurt our ability to adjust to the real world.
Arguably, care of the elderly and poor is a “core” church activity. And right now, we are facing a wave of poor and elderly, who will need expensive care, at exactly the time the government must cut back on retirement, poverty and medical benefits. Churches that cannot afford their present staff or programs may find it hard to meet those needs.
I’ve seen lots of discussion about Cooperative Program giving and inflation, but couldn’t find any numbers or charts. So I made this one (click it for a larger version), covering 1973 to 2009:
The green line is “nominal” Cooperative Program giving to the SBC (i.e., the amount forwarded to the SBC). “Real” giving is shown in the red and blue lines, priced in dollars from the year 2000. The red line uses inflation measured by GDP, while the blue line uses inflation measured by CPI. Those are two slightly different, but common measures.
So, interestingly, there really was significant growth in the 1970s, even though you might have expected inflation to have chipped the growth during that period. There was an even bigger increase during the Regan boom (and the Conservative Resurgence). But surprisingly (at least to me), the highpoint was 1987-1988 — well before the 1992 recession. We lost a lot of ground during the Clinton years, and again after 2001. But the “purchasing power” of these ministries has been flat for quite awhile (2009, adjusted for inflation, wasn’t much different from 1982).
Sources: CP Giving: History of CP distribution between the SBC and ALL State Conventions (combined) http://www.cpmissions.net/2003/pdf/HistoryDivisionCooperativeProgramFunds.pdf
GDP deflators came from the “Historical U.S. GDP deflator figures from the federal budget (table 10.1),” via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GDP_deflator.
CPI Deflators came from http://finance-data.com, and were adjusted so that the index corresponded to the year 2000; I used the January data for the next year (so 1973 is measured in the purchasing power of January 1974 — the closest to 12/31 I could get).
(I’m a perfectly amateur economist, so I’ll post my data: SBC and inflation; critique away).
FYI: the hipsters are already hating on your church of the future.
I spent far too much time laughing at http://www.stuffchristianculturelikes.com/ and http://stufffchristianslike.blogspot.com/ this week.
But only after the sting wore off. Jumbotrons? Leading worship barefoot? Coffeehouses? Bono? That stuff signaled a quality church in 1999, when I was in college.
And Twitter? Apparently, only old people twitter — which is a low blow to someone who started Twittering this year.
All that to say, it strikes me that my generation has reached the point of put up or shut-up about relevance. Are we better at putting the gospel in current context? Or just part of demographic destiny? Because it sure seems a lot of energy goes into criticizing old people, and claiming some kind of victory when they die or retire.
Is today’s church better at being relevant? Mostly in the sense that teens who drank deeply of Nirvana’s angst, recoiled from the failings of Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell, and saw John Piper on a jumbotron at a Passion Conference are now five years past Seminary. They merely replaced a decade of Kennedy-era seminarians.
So please — please! — don’t spend too much time debating whether tomorrow’s churches should be Purpose Driven or Acts 29. It’s a generational fight, one that Boomers will lose by about fifteen years. Churches for disco fans are nearly incomprehensible to fans of U2, and the younger ones will have the pleasure of the last laugh.
But I have some bad news for all my aging friends in flannel: you’re doomed to lead churches full of Backstreet Boys and Hannah Montana fans. You will be judged on your ability to interact with that culture, while the winner of the battle between the church of the 90s and the church of the 70s will still be a decade (or more) behind. The only worthwhile fight is one that helps churches live out the gospel, together, in their own communities, at the edge of the present.
I hope history shows that we did it better, not that we just came later.
Do congregations make good decisions? Rick Warren says, no, we’ve just imposed American democracy on church:
“what do the words committees, elections, majority rule, boards, board members, parliamentary procedures, voting, and vote have in common? None of these words are found in the New Testament! We have imposed an American form of government on the church and, as a result, most churches are as bogged down in bureaucracy as our government is.”
Maybe you’d respond like Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But political democracy isn’t all that encouraging, is it?
In his book, the Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan argues that systematic bias means democracies have little hope of making “optimal” or wise decisions. Popular misconceptions, irrational beliefs, emotions, and personal biases combine to make voters consistently wrong about some issues, and they elect leaders who share those views. So democracy will do what voters want, but when the question involves biases, the bias will win out over wisdom.
If congregationalism is just “church democracy,” and if democracy makes the wrong decisions, why do we hold to congregationalism?
Toward a Great Commission Resurgence identifies six “distinctives” of Baptist churches : regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, the priesthood of all believers, congregational church polity, local church autonomy, and liberty of conscience.
One of these, I note, is almost never debated in Convention life. “Your church membership is unregenerate” is a real insult. The lines of “autonomy” and “liberty of conscience” are hot topics. “Your church lacks congregational polity” seems to be the reason Dr. Mohler allows for more levels of theological triage; truly tertiary topics are cheapened by the comparison.
But let’s stop and think about the basic idea. “Congregational polity” implies that a congregation makes decisions. And by elevating it to “distinctive,” Baptists appear to say that a congregation makes better decisions.
But is that true? Do congregations make better decisions? Do they even make good decisions?
I just finished the 2nd of 3 annual conventions as a member of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Committee on Order of Business. The Committee is charged with setting a schedule for the Convention, and handling motions made by the Messengers. Unpacking the whole convention will take weeks or years, but here are few thoughts:
It’s a battleship, not a race car. The annual Convention is the largest parliamentary deliberative assembly in the world. After a hundred years of Baptist fights, for theological and practical reasons, it’s designed to prevent emotional, quick decisions that could be permanent. The messengers can do almost anything, but the bigger the change, the harder it is to do it at a single Convention. The power to act quickly has been given to trustees and agencies in their own spheres. It’s a feature, not a bug.
Read more »
The Wall Street Journal has this interesting article about church “franchises,” based on “brand” models — the pastor is at one location, and appears at the franchises through DVD or video-link. The focus of the article is Flamingo Road Church, in Florida (f/k/a Flamingo Road Baptist Church), “loosely affiliated with the Baptists.” Flamingo Road hopes to have 50 churches and a $150,000,000 budget. That would be equal to the entire 2008 Lottie Moon offering given by 42,000 SBC churches.
We’ve discussed this model before, but this article focuses on international franchises. Are we on the verge of a global, branded evangelicalism? Is that a good or bad thing?
A new study finds that $40 billion is being stolen from charities each year, on the order of 13%. Most likely culprit? “A female employee with no criminal record who earned less than $50,000 a year.” On average, she steals less than $40,ooo.
The most costly embezzler? Male executives earning $100,000 to $149,000 a year.
But won’t your audit catch it? No. “Most of these things are not caught by routine audits,” said Gary Snyder, who tracks nonprofit fraud in his newsletter, Nonprofit Imperative. “They’re usually done by someone in the financial area — the treasurer, the bookkeeper, the signer of checks — who knows how to avoid getting caught.”
If your members can’t trust the books, they won’t give — for good reason. Good stewardship means understanding that audits aren’t enough to form a basis for the kind of trust that propels an effective ministry.
Caelan Cross, son of SBC-blogger Alan Cross, will be having a lymph biopsy this week. Please pray that it is not a return of cancer. More here.
Update: Cancer free! Hallelujah!