How Evangelicals Convince Themselves That What They Do Matters

fat sheep

I recently attended a sporting event for one of my grandchildren that brought me in close contact with a large group of Evangelicals. Over the course of ninety minutes, as I stood there photographing the game, I listened to these Evangelicals talk about their churches, other churches, summer missionary trips, and helping the poor, homeless, and downtrodden. I later told my son about my eavesdropping and how their discussions were very much like the discussions we would have had a decade or two ago. These Evangelicals spoke as if they and their churches were doing monumental works that were making tremendous differences in the lives of those they came in contact with. And from their seat in the pew, I’m quite sure it “seems” like they are doing things that matter, but when considered in a broader context, their mighty works for Jesus amount to little or nothing. Certainly, to the person given a meal or coat, their acts of charity made a difference, but when taken as a whole the charitable works performed by Evangelicals are little more than a drop of rain in the ocean. Within the Evangelical bubble, these acts of compassion often become larger-than-life. Evangelical teenagers raise money to take mission trips to third world countries. While no one would say that nothing good comes from these mission trips, when the work done is compared to the money spent, it becomes quite clear that money spent on travel, meals, and entertainment would be better spent by locals instead of Evangelical do-gooders from afar. The returning teens and adults have wondrous stories to share, but rarely will anyone bother to consider if any real, lasting good was done.

On the home front, Evangelical churches proudly speak of their ministries to those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.” Again, my purpose here is not to criticize Evangelicals for the good that they do, but I think is important to view their acts of charity in context and judge them according to overall church and ministry budgets. Jesus made clear in the Gospels that what Christians spend their money on shows what really matters to them. Matthew 6:19-21 states:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

And in Matthew 25:31-40, we find these words:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

While Evangelical churches have food pantries, clothing rooms, and ministries that help the poor and homeless, when the money spent on these programs is compared to the overall budgets, it becomes clear that what matters to Evangelicals the most is salaries, benefits, insurance, utilities, buildings, and programs geared towards keeping well-fed sheep comfortable, content, and happy. The overwhelming majority of budgeted money is spent within and not without the walls of the church. And this is fine if Evangelical churches are what I have long claimed they are — social clubs. However, most Evangelical churches, pastors, and congregants believe that the works they do in Jesus’ name are monumental in nature. So, because their works are often viewed as larger than life, it is fair for us to judge their actions in the larger context of how church offerings are spent. Churches are, by default, considered charitable, tax-exempt institutions. The difference, however, between churches and other charitable organizations is that churches are exempt from reporting requirements. When charitable groups are granted tax exemptions, we as taxpayers have a right to know whether they are actually spending most their money on acts of charity. Most people likely think that religious institutions spend most of their money helping out the downtrodden, but the fact is very little money actually goes towards caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, paying utility bills, or providing clothing and shelter to those in need. Over the years, I have touched on the issues raised in this post numerous times, often raising the hackles of offended Evangelicals. How dare you say that Evangelicals don’t do much for “the least of these.” Why, my church does ________________ . Fine, I say to them. Show me your church’s budget. Not the generic, one page summary. I want to see the entire budget, complete with statements of income and expenditures. I want to see exactly how much money is taken in and the percentage of that money that is spent doing actual works of mercy and charity outside of the four walls of the church. I’ve yet to have a church or a pastor provide me with these documents. Why?  Because they know, truth be told, that very little of their income actually goes towards helping those in need. The overwhelming majority of income keeps the machinery running. This is why it is laughable when Republican Evangelicals suggest that churches can take on meeting the needs of the poor. Cut taxes, they say, and let God’s people care for the sick, hungry, and impoverished. Imagine how much higher the poverty rate would be if it were left up to Evangelicals to take care of the welfare needs of others. They can’t even take care of their own, let alone those who live outside of their four walls.

Our local mall is in a steady state of decline, with store after store closing its doors or moving to cheaper locations. I told Polly that perhaps Evangelicals could get together and purchase the mall, turning it into a multi-denomination worship center. Every sect could have its own storefront. People visiting for the first time could choose from any of a number of ice cream flavors. Wouldn’t such a facility be a wonderful testimony to the unity that Christians are supposed to have? Expenses could be shared, and there would be no need to keep up one hundred separate buildings, each with its own pastor. Think of how much more money these churches would have to minister to the disadvantaged and marginalized. Yet, I know that having a one-stop church shopping center would never work. Why? Because every church thinks that they are special, and without them, bad things would happen in their communities. I have had more than a few Evangelicals argue that without churches, communities would become dens of iniquity and immorality. Churches are lighthouses in their communities, these Evangelical defenders say. I am convinced, however, that most churches could close their doors and no one outside of the membership would even notice. There are six churches within three miles or so of my home. These churches are filled with decent, kind, loving Midwestern farm folks, much like the people I mentioned at the start of this post. To them, their churches matter, but for those of us who sit outside of the church, we wonder what community good is being done by these churches? I suspect if these six nearby churches closed tomorrow, there would be no qualitative difference in the community in the weeks and months that follow.

For Evangelicals who stumble upon this post, I would ask them to be honest. Take a hard look at what your church does ministry-wise, and ask yourselves, are we doing anything that really matters? Are we doing anything outside of the four walls of our churches that justify us receiving a tax exemption and being financially supported by taxpayers? Well, indignant Evangelicals might say, our churches are focused on getting people saved. We don’t worry about temporal needs. Better to go to heaven hungry, then to hell with a full stomach. But even here, most Evangelical churches fail in their mission. Church baptismals are used to store Christmas decorations, with many churches rarely baptizing new converts. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest non-Catholic denomination in America — largely Evangelical — is known for its evangelistic efforts. Yet, most SBC churches baptize a few or no new converts. When new Evangelical churches are planted, most of their attendance growth comes, not from people getting saved, but by people leaving their churches and joining the new one. In nearby Defiance, there are several hot-to-trot Evangelical churches that are growing by leaps and bounds. Most of the people flooding into these churches come from nearby established congregations. We Americans are never satisfied with what we have. We are always looking for the latest and greatest whatever, and this applies to churches too. Bored Evangelicals seek out new thrills, using excuses such as “my needs are not being met” or “I’m not being fed” to justify their wanderlust. New churches grow, and established churches decline. While it seems that God is “moving “in these new churches, what’s really happening is that people are just changing pews.

While there certainly are a small number of churches that take seriously Christ’s command to minister to “the least of these,” most are social clubs that exist for the benefit of their membership. I don’t have a problem with this. People should be allowed to belong to whatever club they want. But I do object to taxpayer money being used to support these clubs. Churches should be required to fill out annual reporting forms that justify the tax exemption they receive. If most of their income is not being used for charitable means, then they should not be tax-exempt. Personally, I would like to see the Johnson amendment (please read The Johnson Amendment: I Agree With Donald Trump.) revoked. Churches and their ministers should be treated like any other business, with their income subject to taxation. Only congregations that can demonstrate that they exist for charitable purposes would be granted tax exemption. Like other charities, these churches would annually be required to justify their continued tax exemption. I suspect that less than ten percent of churches would qualify for tax exemption. Out of the almost three hundred churches in the Tri-County area where I live, I don’t know of one church that would qualify. No matter how many youth groups return from mission trips with stories of mighty works done for Jesus, and no matter how many “ministries” churches list on their website, the fact remains that most of the money collected goes toward making sure pastures are maintained and sheep are well fed.

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6 Comments

  1. anotherami

    This is one big reason I left organized religion– the fund-raising drive for new carpet was more important than whether the church was doing any sort of outreach at all. I can give a specific example.

    I joined the Social Concerns Committee at my local Quaker meeting. I soon learned it was only concerned about members who were missing the socializing on Sunday mornings. We had to make sure we sent cards and went to visit them, which was convenient for the other members, since most were the lifelong friends of the elderly women who made up the rest of the committee. (On a committee of 8, there were no men and I was the only member who did not have grey/white/blue hair. The committee chair was 89.)

    What went on in the local community wasn’t even on the radar past the quarterly “Jingle Sunday” save-your-change-for-this-mission projects (usually something like Heifer International or our local Rescue Mission). Which the Social Concerns Committee didn’t even have a say in, by the way. That was handled by the group known simply as “Quaker Men”. The women however had “United Friend’s Women’s Service” and several “Prayer Circles”, which were really just weekly coffee klatches held in their various homes so the ladies could show off their housekeeping/cooking/entertaining skills and new stuff. And none of them saw through the pretense, not even my grandmother who was the most saintly person I have ever known, but not in any of the prayer circles (she worked).

    After that experience, my “tithes and offerings” didn’t go to any church or charity. It went to my cousins in the form of under-market-value rent that was almost always behind or a loan of several hundred dollars I knew I would never see again. It went to giving people I knew a home when they were homeless. It goes to knowing that I have not once knowingly let a person be hungry unless I knew they were going to a meal already planned. It goes in $20 chunks to the mother of my granddaughter, ostensibly for new shoes or Robitussin, when I know the woman is a highly functional meth addict.

    I cannot shake my conviction that the Divine exists and is Love, nor can I shake the conviction that I am called to attempt to embody that Love in the world; in that sense I am His hands and feet to those I meet. But it’s not for anyone’s glory, not even God’s. It’s not because I’m “saved” or to try to stop them from going to hell. It’s because I’m trying to help them stop living there now. I do it just because it’s the human(e) thing to do. I’m trying to shout as loud as I can to whole fucking world that I still give a damn.

    Reply
  2. howitis

    This post reminds me of when I was reading my local paper a few years back (yes, I still get a newspaper; I was a journalism major once upon a time and old habits die hard) and there was an article about an up-and-coming fundie megachurch in my city, announcing that they were going to spend about $1.3 MILLION to vastly expand their campus. The planned upgrades included a 2,000-seat sanctuary with state-of-the-art sound, as well as a coffee house and a health club (because heaven forbid “good christians” should have to mix with all the heathens at Starbucks and Planet Fitness, I guess.) In the same issue of the newspaper was an article about a local homeless shelter facing closure and begging for help from government, civic and charitable organizations, because their building needed major repairs that they couldn’t afford. I couldn’t help thinking how the $1.3 million that megachurch was about to spend on things they frankly did not need, could have gone a long way toward saving that homeless shelter.

    Yes, churches often are little more than social clubs. Serving “the least of these,” my ass.

    Reply
  3. Trenton

    Here is what the evangelical church taught me, If you challenge the pastor, you will be forced out. If they dont follow their end of the contract, they sue you. You are saved by faith but faith without works is dead(still have not gotten a good answer on that one). If you are gay then jesus would love you to try being straight. Sex is bad. These are but a few of the things i saw and learned and this is what they said that actually mattered and had a lasting impression on millenials. Their actions spoke louder than their words about what they wanted and now they wonder why everyone is leaving. They can think their mission trips and coffee bars will have a lasting impact but it will all be dust in the wind one day. What evangelicals do matters, its just the things they think they do that matter dont actually do a damn thing and the rest is actually screwing everyone else over.

    Reply
  4. Joel

    My experience on the trustee board of a church with a significant budget was similar. I was appalled to learn that 70% of the revenues (not all from donations) was going towards staffing (salary, benefits, payroll taxes, etc.). Another 20% went towards the building, internal programs, utilities, and such. That left 10% for outreach. I think our benevolence fund was 3%, and 7% went to support missions work. Several other trustees shared my concerns. Anything beyond that 10% had to be funded through special fundraisers. I think over 3 years we were able to get the staffing portion down to 50% or so. But even that isn’t great. I kind of prefer the model of the Jehovah’s Witness, where (at the local level at least) there are no paid clergy. Everyone volunteers for ministry and laity roles to keep things running.

    Regarding the point of church taxation, perhaps I am mistaken, but it has always been my understanding that the basis for the exemption is due to separation of church and state, and not really anything to do with charitable status. The 1970 Supreme Court decision in Walz vs. Tax Commission of the City of New York seems to support this. It was reasoned that “the exemptions for religious organizations created only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state, and far less of an involvement than would be created by taxation of churches, and the effect of the exemptions was thus not an excessive government entanglement with religion. The grant of a tax exemption was not sponsorship of the organizations because the government did not transfer part of its revenue to churches but simply abstained from demanding that the churches support the state. The exemption created a more minimal and remote involvement between church and state than did taxation because it restricted the fiscal relationship between church and state and reinforced the desired separation insulating one from the other.”

    Even if the exemption was based on a church’s ‘activities’, it perhaps could still qualify under the IRS standard that:
    The organization “Must devote its net earnings exclusively to religious, charitable, scientific, literary, educational, or fraternal purposes.” That seems to me to be an extremely broad standard that could apply regardless of whether the proceeds are used to support merely “charitable” activities. I do understand though that there are solid arguments to the contrary.

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  5. Troy

    When I hear about teenagers taking these mission trips I feel a bit of outrage. Any benevolent work that is done is secondary to the mission as a character building trip for the teenager. This ends up with a double whammy. In the first place after all the transportation and meals is taken care of the minuscule amount of actual doing good deeds pales in comparison to the cost that was spent. The second reason for my outrage is that if they had just spent the money shamelessly on a student trip they could have actually done something fun. If you want to help people, there should be no shortage of people in ones own community that can benefit from young do gooders.

    (Perhaps someone knows the answer to this: Does the church and its officers benefit financially from these mission trips?)

    Reply
  6. Angiep

    “…when the work done is compared to the money spent, it becomes quite clear that money spent on travel, meals, and entertainment would be better spent by locals instead of Evangelical do-gooders from afar. The returning teens and adults have wondrous stories to share, but rarely will anyone bother to consider if any real, lasting good was done.” When I lived in Hawaii years ago, a group from one of our denomination’s mainland churches came on a “mission” trip to my church. It was basically a few families with teenagers who kept wrecking their rental cars. All they did was some cleaning and painting, which was nominal – it wasn’t as though our building was in bad shape. And they barely even tried to get to know the members of the congregation. I felt they just used the trip as an excuse for a cheap/free church-sponsored vacation. Their time would have been better spent by organizing work parties within our church, as we had plenty of able-bodied people who could have done the work. I just remember feeling very offended by the whole thing.

    Reply

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