June 19, 2017

Healthy Churches: Mission in the Margins

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A Note from Luminex: This morning’s blog post is the fourth in a 10-week series on “Healthy Churches.” Each week, one of our stable of leaders/bloggers will share thoughts on a significant aspect of healthy churches. Enjoy!

The church in North America has a biblical crisis, and it likely isn’t what you think it is.

The culture of money, generosity, and stewardship is one of the most thoroughly addressed in scripture, and yet it is arguably the area of faithful living where we are most out of alignment.  We don’t talk about money openly, our budgeting and fundraising practices are often irresponsible, and most of all we complain about not having the funds to support the work that we believe God is calling us to do.

A member of my church, after a conversation about our “Current Reality,” commented that “while it might be true that we have lived paycheck to paycheck for most of our century-long history, we always make it, don’t we? What’s so bad about that?”

I wish I had a thoughtful response in the moment, but it wasn’t until having time to think about his question that things became more clear.  We’ve lived paycheck to paycheck, but it has worn staff down as they worry about whether or not we’ll make payroll.  We’ve lived paycheck to paycheck, but we haven’t been open to the idea of hiring a Children’s minister for our rapidly growing population of kids – because there’s not enough money to consider it.  We’ve lived paycheck to paycheck, but much of our stewardship focus has been about meeting the bare-bones budget for our faith community, without much thought to investing beyond our walls. The connection is simple – poor financial health is a direct cause of poor missional engagement.

You see, you can’t talk about mission without talking about money – including best practices, real numbers, and open and honest conversations within the faith community about generosity.

Here’s a moment where we stopped living paycheck to paycheck: A faithful member passed away, leaving the church 10% of his estate. An unrestricted gift.  It wasn’t huge by any means, but it gave us something we didn’t have for some time – a three-month emergency financial cushion in the bank account – a goal we had for some time but weren’t able to meet. Shortly after, we embarked on one of the riskier missional endeavors we had done in quite a while. We hosted the first annual Ada Chili and Beer Festival, an opportunity to gather our community together, while fostering deeper relationships and meaningful community.  It was a blessing for the community, a shot of missional adrenaline for our congregation, and it never would have happened if we didn’t have some breathing room in our bank account.

However we understand our specific mission, it is fueled by our gifts – time, talent, and not the least of these – treasure.  And the irony is that the majority of churches are notorious for ignoring best practices in financial health, and then use financial infirmity as an excuse for not living radically into their sense of mission.

Does this quote by author and philanthropist Kerry Alys Robinson resonate with you?

“There is often an insistence on raising money first and then advancing the mission of the organization. While a case can be made for why this approach is fiscally responsible, it all too often is used as an excuse for inertia, maintenance, avoiding innovation, stagnant thinking and continued mediocrity.”

This describes most of the churches I’ve worked with who are in financial strain.  But Robinson goes on to write this:

“The most successful, dynamic, well-funded nonprofits always begin by living out of mission, so that rather than just talk about their mission, they can show donors how they are acting on that mission.”

The objective data from successful churches and nonprofits show very clearly that money follows mission.

It is impossible to separate the mission conversation from the money conversation.  The two are intertwined. If a faith community isn’t clear about and compelled by its mission, it will fail to find funds to support it. And if the church fails to have open, honest, and faithful conversation about money, the mission will fail as a result.

We also know this about mission – passionate and faithful following of Jesus comes from something deep within your heart that changes.  Conversion is one word for it.  It’s when our purpose and way of being become very different from what it once was.  Fostering a place where people can learn to be generous, a place where they can see how generosity begets more generosity, that is the type of conversion that can save the world. That’s an environment where mission will really thrive.

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