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November 24, 2008

Oh, How Generous!

Over at Culture11, Clint Rainey writes about the "decline and fall of charity." He has a lot of interesting things to say, so read it. Please.

I was especially struck by this part:

Of course, even money given to churches doesn’t always find its way to the needy.

Americans gave an estimated $97 billion to churches in 2006, which is nearly one-third of that year’s $295 billion in total charitable contributions, according to Giving USA Foundation, but lots of churches are pocketing that scratch.

And it shows.

Megachurches are widely credited with getting a Third Awakening of sorts off the ground, with lots of excited members and fistfuls of money, but their wealth also makes them the worst charity offenders—and garish, besides. The average annual income for a megachurch is $5 million. Of that almost $100 billion given in 2006, three-quarters was banked by the original church or went to other churches or religious organizations.

Churches understandably want safe Christian atmospheres, but too many want cafés, skate parks, Xbox-jammed arcades, kids’ sports leagues, not one but four JumboTrons, booming THX sound capable of rattling the walls of the nearby AMC Theaters, staggeringly sophisticated Obi-Wan Kenobi hologram projections of the pastor at satellite campuses—the whole shebang . . .

I've often thought about this -- I've wondered how much actual good (not just material succor, but spiritual life and death as well if you take this past Sunday's Gospel reading as, well, Gospel) a lot of the money given to churches actually does, seeing as how much of it goes into sustaining  local churches' operations as opposed to meeting human needs.

This is one reason why the whole "compassionate conservatism," as articulated by Marvin Olasky and others, always struck me as half-baked. A lot of Christian giving isn't oriented towards what are called corporal works of mercy: feeding, clothing, housing people, treating their illnesses, etc.

Instead, in the Christian universe of giving, $5000 given to feed children in Africa or buy medicine is the moral equivalent of giving the same amount towards the purchase of a better sound system for the church or repaving the parking lot. ("Lord, when did we see your parking lot roughly paved?")

The reductio ad absurdum of this viewpoint is the countless times I've heard people argue that your entire tithe must go to the local church as opposed to spreading it around. They quote Malachi, to which I want to reply, "Okay, you prove the pastor's Levitical bloodline and I'll go along."

Hardly reassuring if you find yourself dependent on the kindness of strangers.

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Dan Gill

Speaking of reductio ad absurdum, maybe we should consider Rainey's article. Three-quarters of the money is banked or goes to other churches or religious organizations?

First of all, isn't all money banked before checks can be written? Do you expect the churches to endorse contribution checks over to people in need?

Second, the money goes to other churches or religious organizations? You mean like the organizations that actually give food, clothing, shelter, and job training to those in need? You mean like missionary societies? Perhaps like church plants?

The church I attend supports several separately-chartered organizations that feed the hungry, house women fleeing abuse, raise orphans, evangelize around the world, etc., etc. All of the money given to those organizations (and through them to fill needs) falls within the three-quarters noted in the quote from Rainey's article.




You're absolutely right, Dan, and yet...

I think there's definitely a place for collectively defending ourselves against inaccurate and potentially biased criticism, but there should also be a point of self-reflection. Is there any merit in a given piece of criticism, even if the bulk is off-base? Is there a nugget of truth here we should pay attention to? For example...what about those JumboTrons and holograms? What abou the two cents on the dollar to missions? Regardless of the answer, and regardless of the context in which they're asked, I think these are worthwhile questions that need serious consideration.


It's always an extra-special treat to hear from Roberto.

Here's an interesting response that has arisen from an emerging church in Oregon: http://www.adventconspiracy.org/

Rachel Coleman

My family recently experienced an uninsured medical crisis and incurred scary, huge bills. Our nondenominational home church raised money. A friend's church sponsored another fundraiser and churches all over town took part. That church's denomination matched every dollar.

Meanwhile, my adult, developmentally disabled daughter lives in a group home that's owned and operated through a church group. She relies on government funding, yes, but those dollars wouldn't stretch far without the denominational funding that keeps the agency afloat.

I'm sure my family stories are not uncommon. It's true the American church, like Americans in general, struggles mightily with materialism. But it seems to me the story by this Rainey fellow is more about his take on megachurches than anything.

Steve (SBK)

LQ, I was just directed to see some of those adventconspiracy related youtube videos on the weekend. Pretty powerful stuff.

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