Wasted Potential: Church Buildings and Charity

Over the last two months or so I’ve been attending a weekly Bible study with a group of men at my local coffee shop (Yes, they all know I’m an atheist) and one of the recurring themes we’ve been going over in our study is the purpose, structure, and call of the Christian Church as established and described in the New Testament Epistles.  Last week I mentioned to the group that it was worth noting that when Paul wrote an Epistle to a group of believers he wrote it to “THE Church at (Thessalonica, Phillipi, Collosae, etc)” as opposed to “The Second Baptist Church on 4th Avenue”.  I think this not only highlights a problem with the modern church when compared to the Church of the Bible – but also a slap in the face to the ideas of charity and caring for widows and orphans (James 1:17).

 

Please don’t misunderstand me, there aren’t very many things that I agree with in the Bible – but of the few things I find agreeable is the mandate that those that believe should provide ministry (or help) to those in need – the homeless, the poor, the widows, and the orphans.  Managing to forget for a moment all of the fire, brimstone, rape, and genocide – these initiatives are worthwhile and respectable – if not largely forgotten and considerably less possible considering the current state of the Christian body as a bloated and  inefficient bureaucracy.

The Reality

Dodge County Georgia, the county I live in, has 271 different Christian churches and according to the 2010 Census around 22,000 people.

Each pink dot is one church.

1:80 - the ratio of churches to people in Dodge County, GA

1:80 – that’s the ratio of churches to people in the county I live in. The poverty rate is %23.4.

Each of these churches has to take up monetary gifts from congregants to pay for electric bills, any loans on the buildings, taxes, various other expenses,  and staff. These things must be paid before a dime goes to charitable causes – for many smaller churches it’s nearly impossible to pay the monthly expenses alone, much less use any leftovers for the benefit of those that could use the assistance.

One of the most sickening things about the way these churches are organized is the fact that in large part there are “white” churches and there are “black” churches – the lines of segregation in the South are most well visualized by looking at church attendance. One instance that I find particularly infuriating is with two little country churches that I frequently pass by (one of which I attended when very young) – these Southern Baptist churches are less than 100 feet apart yet one has white attendees and the other has black attendees…this seems to me like insanity.  The church I left wasn’t like this, that much I’m glad for – we had people from all backgrounds; white, black, wealthy, poor,  and furthermore we – our tiny church – had one of the only food pantries available to the public in Dodge County at the time.

My point is that millions in potential aid are being wasted on overhead because the Christian Church is divided into so many fragments that achieving a worthy net benefit is nearly impossible.

The Fantasy

The Epistles of Paul and the book of Acts called for a unified church, a body of believers made up of different people holding only their faith in common – the churches he described were regional, efficient, and handled squabbling without splitting into a hundred different pieces. What was originally intended is unrecognizable in today’s church and I’ve been sure to point that out frequently at the Bible study I’ve been attending.  In the US Christians make up at least 60% of the population – most of whom believe that they should tithe 10% of their income to their church, the amount of money being raised by Christian churches in this country is staggering yet the potential net benefit of these numbers is far from achieved.

The Challenge

271 churches in Dodge County, GA should be able to ensure that every belly is full and every home is warm instead of  making sure that the church lights are on, the stained glass windows are clean, and the pastor is paid. 271 churches is supposed to be one church – or so I hear. Saying these things might upset a few, especially if you depend on a congregation to pay your salary – but I think that most Christians that have actually read the Bible know that I’m right in this…I just don’t know what anyone is willing to do about it  as the status quo seems to be comfortable and easiest to maintain.

If Secular Humanists had the type of money and influence that Christian churches do we’d be able and willing to do the things they aren’t – unfortunately we are but a few. I  think that poverty is on all of us and when writing something that condemns the lack of action of so many I must now point back at myself and ask why I’ve not done more with the little I have…and so I will.

I discussed the contents of this post with a friend of mine today over lunch, this friend is a pastor and he agreed with me on a lot of these points – it turns out that there are believers that recognize the problems within their faith and that really believe in the charge to care for those in need. I suggested to the pastor that given the opportunity I believe that many  atheists and Secular Humanists would be inclined to work with churches and ministries that were trying to meet these needs, I know that I would be glad to give my time and the funds I could spare to work with a church if I could be certain that the efforts were truly helping people in need. I believe that people who disagree over religious beliefs can work together to meet common goals, I think doing so is something to be desired and I’d like to see our two respective communities work together for the benefit of those around us. The challenge will be finding churches and believers willing to do that.

Discussion Questions: (comment below)

Christians:

Aside from telling me if you agree with what I’m saying here, would you personally be willing to work with non-believers for the good of your community? Would your church?
Also, I dare you to share this with your church or pastor!

Atheists/Secular Humanists/Non-believers:

Would you be willing to work with a church or Christian ministry that focused on feeding and clothing the poor in your community? What stipulations might you put on an organization before committing your time or money?

 

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  • I like your willingness to engage Christians on their own turf like this, Rev. This issue is something that has been bothering me for several years now. I wrote about it here, if anyone wants a more Christian perspective on the problem.
    http://joshuaforeman.blogspot.com/2007/01/heterod

    • Thanks Josh – and thanks for sharing your link …hipster

  • Daniel Silverman

    To answer your question (as a non-believer): I am not sure I would be willing to work along side believers even to feed and clothe the poor. Why? Because the believers will use the opportunity to spread their version of the Gospel. In other words, they would NOT necessarily be there SIMPLY for the sake of helping people with food and clothing. Instead, their PRIMARY goal would be to ensure that the Gospel goes out.

    Concerning the amount of money that goes into church buildings and resources: most church buildings are only used a few hours a week. The more fundamentalist churches will have services twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday. They may have a few more events during the week, such as a men's BIble study, etc. However, even at these active churches, the building is only being utilized about 10-20 hours out of the week (168 hours in a week). That means about 90% of the time the building is sitting dormant. So, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars (and, in some cases, millions of dollars) being spent on the building and property, they are severely under-utilized. The result is a colossal waste of money.

    This, to me, further demonstrates that, not only are many Christians unconcerned about helping others (such as the poor), but don't care that what they do give is being mostly wasted. The church building is often the biggest expense that any church has and, yet, it is hardly used.

    • I'd have to have lots of the same caveats to my willingness to participate…the goal would have to be solely to provide assistance to people that needed it.

      IF a church wants to feed people but requires first that people listen to a sermon or say a prayer then I'd find that act despicable…I don't mind making offers and I fully comprehend the desire to share your faith (we both know this quite well) but helping people should never be contingent on shared faith.

      Those willing and capable of doing this are going to be exceedingly rare.

  • I would be willing to help a church help my community, and I have. But I don't support the work of any church that makes indoctrination, conversion to their faith, or taking a bible class as a mandatory part of their outreach. Poor starving people shouldn't have to put up with that to get a meal.

    I do donate to a church run food pantry at a local Catholic church that doesn't require anything from the needy other than to be needy. They can come and get food without being preached to. They feed the poor, not just poor Catholics, and they don't use it as an opportunity to attempt to swell their ranks. They don't inquire about one's beliefs and will feed anyone, including atheists, without a hassle.

    • That's what I'd like to see happen..and I'd also like to see us use our differences to raise money and awareness…sponsored debates with the proceeds going to a food pantry? Why not?

  • As a believer, I agree with Daniel Silverman on one major point. While Christians are certainly commanded to minister to the poor, many denominations (including my own) believe that the primary purpose of the church is to bring the gospel to all nations. And if this is one's primary purpose, then it is also important that the correct gospel be proclaimed – which is why my denomination (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) got in a tizzy over our participation in an inter-faith 9/11 service.

    However, that need to spread the gospel does not negate the need to minister to the poor of any belief, as app103 notes.

    Daniel, regarding church building use – our church tries to keep the building in use 7 days a week, although here again, we do not want the building to be used for purposes contrary to our mission (no, we don't rent out rooms to Wiccans).

  • I would be willing to help a church and participate in a ministry that focused solely on helping feed and clothe people, keep their homes warm, their water and electricity on and things like that. I would help a church ministry that sent aid to disaster victims too. My only stipulation would be that the money be utilized only for necessities and not on things like Bibles, pamphlets or other religious documents.

    That said, I'm not opposed with them sharing their faith with others. I'm opposed to them sending Bibles to people who need food and blankets. If they go help a community that just had a tornado destroy it and someone says "why are you doing this?" I'm perfectly fine with them saying that they feel called to do those things to share Jesus with people.

  • Wendy

    you are really a very insightful man mr oxley. i agree with you 100%. i would work along side anyone regardless of race, religious preference, rich, poor, stinky, gay, straight, short, fat, tall or skinny. i find myself more and more disappointed in my so called fellow believers. thank you for calling it to the table!

  • What's the problem? I don't comprehend, this shouldn't be an issue. Any true Christian church would be willing to do this & we DO act on some things like this very similar to how you're explaining, as often as possible. It's only right. Being Christian involves unconditional love, compassion, unity, & giving- even if you don't really have anything to give. It would be awful being someone who knew of many Christian churches that aren't like this. Saying that this is rare is rather appalling.
    🙁

  • Daniel Silverman

    Having been involved in numerous churches both here in the USA and in some overseas, I have to say that, yes, it is a rare thing for churches to be actively involved in their communities by helping the poor, feeding the hungry, etc. But let me clarify this. It's not that these churches are doing nothing at all. Some are. Most seem to be involved in some program or other. But it all seems way out of proportion.

    For example, a church may have people who volunteer to help out (a few days a week) at the local rescue mission and they may actually pick up some of the people from the mission and bring them to church with them … but little else. And when you compare the time and money put into these programs as compared to the time and money put into the actual church building, the staff salaries, paying electricity, insurance (again, on staff), etc, then you can easily see the disproportion. And many times the people who are volunteering for such programs are doing it themselves … not as an official part of the church's program.

    And Christians rarely seem to show unconditional love. Especially those in leadership. The story in the Bible has Jesus giving himself to everyone, despite what they were, how they believed, what they had done, etc. But church leaders won't help certain people. I've seen it … seen the rejection. And the Jesus of the Bible gave himself to all and put the unbeliever first. However, most churches that I have witnessed give their congregations first place … take care of their own before the unsaved.

    There are commandments in the Bible to support the widow that cannot support herself and does not have family to fall back on. However, I have rarely ever seen a church that had a program to take care of the widow.

    What it comes down to is that there are BILLIONS (perhaps hundreds of billions) of dollars tied up in church buildings, the printing of Sunday morning worship service brochures, and more. What good could be done with this money other than having a fancy building that is only occupied about 10% of the time?

  • Daniel Silverman

    "Daniel, regarding church building use – our church tries to keep the building in use 7 days a week, although here again, we do not want the building to be used for purposes contrary to our mission (no, we don't rent out rooms to Wiccans). "

    Certainly, there are churches that do this (keep the building in use most days of the week), but even then how much time is it actually used? Out of a 24 hour day, how many of those hours is the church building in use? And on the days/hours that it is being used, how many people are occupying the building?

    For example, a know churches that are open 7 days a week, but most of those days it is the church staff that is there. And, by church staff, I mean the pastor and his secretary. So, here we have an entire million dollar building open, the heat or air running … FOR TWO PEOPLE. It takes a ton of money to heat those auditoriums where the congregation sits.

    And that brings up another pet peeve of mine: the structure of some church buildings. I was in a Baptist church that sat 1500 people. The ceiling was up in the clouds. They did this for the acoustics for their choir. I began to wonder how many tens of thousands of dollars could have been saved by lowering that ceiling by a mere 10 feet? Do congregations need to be so entertained that they have to have opera-quality acoustics?

  • No Matt…

    Should non-believers help out in the community? Hell ya! Should "Christians"? Of course silly!

    But that is not going to cure the problems you speak of.

    You are on the right track with James and Acts, but what was just quoted in that cartoon that Josh passed around?

    The modern day incarnation of the New Testament Church HAS to renounce "God Money". Damn you Matt, you know that is true! Christ was never more clear on an issue then He was with silver & gold.

    You want change, then get the damn ¢hri$tian$ off that broad road! They are pouring through that wide gate at max capacity…

  • Elderyl

    My mainline church does provide for many people on my community who don’t share out belief in God and may never will. We have a huge food pantry and feed more people than we have members in the church. The pantry invites participation from other churches because it is so big. We had to build a garage to store the food though we distribute it in our fellowship hall. Our building is open for use in the community every day. There are AA meetings there 6 nights a week. They take up nearly half of the Christian ed. wing and get first dibs on the space. We ask them if we can use it. We walk through crowds of AA members smoking on our steps as we walk into church. Nobody complains. We also have tutoring programs, with staff we pay for, to help at-risk kids in the local school. The pastor walks them over after school. I agree that the cost of maintaining a large building is often a ridiculous waste of money and counter to what we are

    N

    called to do, but I have no problem when the building is usedfreely

  • David

    I have never understood the need for multi-million dollar religious facilities – especially those incorporating a coffee shop and other "profit-making" amenities. Yes, we need a space to equip believers for service to the community. Unfortunately, too many serve as country clubs for their members. We had a food pantry for awhile at our church and probably half of the volunteers did not go to our church or any church. Our denomination does not have very many pastors making over $30K – in fact most of them work a full-time job because they cannot live off the church salary. They are not in it for the money or they would be with a different denomination or in a corporation somewhere and not involved in ministry. Sadly, many comments ring true. We have too many church members who forget where they came from and forget they, too, are sinners simply saved by grace. They are blind to their own faults because they are too busy judging everyone else.

  • Hello. It is priority number one in our church to reach the lost (I know you disagree but this isn't my main point so that's ok) at any cost.
    Point 1. It's difficult to hear that Jesus loves me if his representitive can watch me starve. Our church has partnered with over 20 churches in the detroit metro area to feed people that need it. No strings, just food.
    Point 2. None of those churches belong to our 'fellowship', meaning none of them are our flavor of Christianity. We also have many contributions from local businesses who don't nessesariley believe in any kind of anything.
    Point 3. You are absolutely correct. It doesn't take a degree of any kind to see the disconnect between what Jesus said (and did) and what many congregations are saying and doing. I wish it wasn't like that.

    I'm reading (disagreeing) your stuff and appreciate your respectful approach to people who don't always deserve it.

    Laurence

    • Thanks for your comment Laurence.

      On your first sentence, I understand the priorities of your church intimately – and though i disagree with them I can't blame you for having the priorities you have. My hope is that those priorities will lead you more into a life that cares for other people in real physical ways.

      I'm glad to know your church is active and doing good things for the community around it, were this the case everywhere that the Church is largely present perhaps I'd not need to write about things like this.

  • a jenkin

    What is wrong with all youall comments is I didn`t see no one saying anything about salvation .You are trying to put the buggy before horse.See to people needs.Then if they need that hold fill in. then witness to them whether they think they don`t want to hear it or not. We all got a longing in side of us.God made us ,so He wants to fill it.

  • Morgan

    Interesting point about how so much money is being wasted on churches… I'd never put two and two together on that. I also agree on the fact that we need to help the poor more. I'm young and uneducated on many subjects, so I don't pretend to have an opinion or a strict stance on many things. I do believe, however, that helping others is more important than your own personal morality. The Christian church focuses too much these days on telling people to never commit sin. It doesn't really have many positive character building activities. If we were to serve others more, I'd like to think that we'd build up our character in the process, and the whole personal morality problem will take care of itself with time. So maybe, if we stopped worrying about how exactly to go about giving the money to the poor and what strings to attach, etc., and just gave it, it would work itself out and we'd grow as people a little bit in the process. Also, have you written anything about the church's obsession with personal morality (If so, I'd like to read it)? Do you think they're going about things backwards, as I do?

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!