Jon Oliver recently shared a pithy and brilliant bit about journalism that you can see here. Among other things, he talks about our increasing hesitation to pay for newspapers or news services. If we can get our news from Twitter or Huffington Post for free, why pay for a Washington Post or NY Times subscription? The video explains exactly why.
I’m writing this from my denomination’s conference on evangelism, new church plants and church redevelopment, and there is a lot of talk about creative spiritual communities. Often these new ideas involve community gardens or supper groups or Bible studies in cafes and bars. Church folks are out in the communities giving free bottles of water at farmers’ markets or handing out snow cones in parks. They are offering free community suppers. They are serving coffee at bus stops.
With new forms of being the church come new forms for funding them. Or not.
Decades ago, churches financed their ministry by renting their pews. The Smith Family rented the third pew. The Jones Family rented the fourth pew. And the free pews were in the balcony.
Later, churches adopted the pledge system. Family units tithed ten percent of their income to the ministry of their congregation or – more likely – they pledged a smaller percentage of their income. According to the Congregational Life Survey, church people contributed an average of $1,500 a year to their congregations in 2009. The average was lower in Roman Catholic congregations— about $727 a year — and among mainline Protestant churches the average was higher — about $1,627 a year. Online giving and automatic bank transfers have made it easier for members to make donations.
One of the issues with new worshiping communities that meet in gyms for “Cross Training” (get it?) or in yoga studios for group spiritual direction or in bars for Bible Studies involves paying for it – at least if the community wants a paid leader. New church plants often encourage fluidity in participation. And even in established congregations, participation is often fluid anyway, resulting in less regular financial giving.
We get what we pay for.
Actually many parishioners or participants receive more than they pay for. When HH and I were co-pastors sharing a single full time position, the church received more than one pastor. Many pastors who work for part-time pay work full time in reality. And many of us – in this culture of receiving many services for free – assume that others will cover church expenses. Or we simply cannot afford to contribute much in light of our personal financial debts.
But we pay for the things we value.
I very much value the work of smart, professional journalists and so I pay for it. It’s worth every penny to me to read the reports of Frank Bruni and Nick Kristoff and marvel over the photos of Doug Mills. I pay for Netflix because I very much appreciate the stories of Jenji Kohan and Beau Willimon. I pledge to my local NPR station because . . . NPR.
I value the work of the congregations I serve and I share with them what I can especially when I notice that they are doing God’s work well. Sometimes our church giving is transactional because of what we receive in return. But sometimes all we receive in return is that amazing feeling that we have participated in something holy and beautiful.
If you appreciate your spiritual community, I hope you participate in paying for it because it’s our calling to make disciples and promote social justice and offer a haven of healing for the neighborhood. Our leaders deserve to be paid well. It costs money to be the church if for no other reason than the fact that caring for each other has a price and sometimes it’s a monetary price.
As Jon Oliver said, “The longer that we get something for free, the less willing we are to pay for it.” But I hope we’ll consider paying for it, especially if it’s church.