Having been a student of the church for as long as I can remember, I feel qualified to make a simple observation about what is currently happening. My focus will be narrowed only to consider financial ramifications, a subject that I feel uniquely qualified to explore. At one time, any stewardship or finance material produced by the Southern Baptist Convention either had my name on it or was influenced by my DNA. I even received an award for being the “Stewardship Professional of the Year” by an independent organization. What I say might be wrong, but it’s not out of ignorance.
I believe the social distancing we are experiencing is going to bring about significant change to the American church. That is a bold statement, and in six months, you might throw it back in my face and accuse me of being an idiot. But for today, I’m sticking with it, so let me explain.
My prediction has nothing to do with church/state matters of whether or not we should allow the government to dictate our religious practices. Also, it has nothing to do with reckless pastors encouraging their people to congregate and trust God. My prediction is all about money.
One of the primary things I learned from working with hundreds of churches is that the most significant determiner of church income is attendance. Obviously, larger churches have more money than smaller churches. However, even within the same church, high weekly attendance will produce larger offerings than a Sunday with low attendance. We don’t see it much in the warmer climate of Texas, but churches in areas where they have to cancel because of bad weather know this to be true. It takes a long time to make up for the offering that is missed when a Sunday morning service is canceled.
Every church has a group of people who will give whether they can attend or not, and they are crucial for survival. The disruption today will not affect their gifts, but they are a small minority. Even with electronic giving, offerings will be significantly reduced when people are not able to attend.
This reality is especially important with the primary model for doing church today. The approach of gathering in large groups for professional quality productions is costly. Most churches spend 20-30% of the budget on facilities and 50-60% on staff salaries (even higher for large churches). This means that 70-90% is locked in each week.
I have no idea how damaging the quarantine will be on church offerings, but it will not be surprising if income is less than 50% and even worse if we go for two months without gatherings. Not only do people not give when they don’t attend, but even those who continue giving will also have less money.
I’ll be the first to admit that I can be cynical, but it makes me wonder if financial factors are the motive for some of these folks insisting the church continue to meet even when it is dangerous and foolish. They know they are only a couple of Sundays away from defaulting on a bank loan or from losing their own salary. Yes, many churches are like families, living on the financial edge.
Although I don’t feel as qualified to speak on the impact of video conferencing in place of physical presence, I anticipate it will also have some influence on the way church is done in the coming days. People will discover that what they value in being part of a church is the relationships, not the entertainment. Relationships don’t require large expenditures.
The bottom line is that hopefully, churches will realize it does not require huge amounts of money to be the church. The current model of attracting large groups of people by professional quality music and dynamic preaching has never been financially sustainable. The irony is that the purpose of drawing masses of people together is to encourage them to break up into small home groups where they can develop relationships. Home groups utilize what people already possess, so any money collected can be used for sharing with the needy.
Many church leaders are concerned about how long they can survive under today’s conditions. I suggest the answer will not be found by trying to replicate the Sunday morning performance on video for people to watch at home. The solution will be learned when we are able to help church families connect with one another without the Sunday event.