No Money, Mo Problems

November 3, 2010

If you haven’t heard, Crystal Cathedral is bankrupt.

That’s the big glass church in California where good old Robert Schuller still teeters and totters around while some junior Schuller runs things.  They also put on The Hour of Power television show.  And now they’re broke.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a church filing for bankruptcy.  I’m sure it’s happened, but not to a church this big.  In a time when my neighborhood is littered with empty Blockbusters and Circuit City stores (the last one was built just six months before the company went down in flames) and other refuse and rubbish, and lots of churches are struggling with flagging tithes and shrinking budgets, this is ripe for commentary. 

Why the Crystal Cathedral is Bankrupt and Yours May Be Next

Happy Meal Marketing

A direct quote from The Hour of Power: "This glowing image of Christ brings warm assurance to any home."

Have you ever watched The Hour of Power?  I have.  It’s got everything you expect: music, prayer, a “sermon,” by some standards.  It’s a complete church service…if church were on the Home Shopping Network.  Seriously, half the show is dedicated to begging the audience (presumably averaging in their mid to late 110s) to buy a bunch of worthless trinkets and other Christian crap.  Every week, it’s some new “finely crafted” piece of clutter with a Bible verse stamped on it, meant to “inspire” someone whose life must be pretty depressing if a cheap inanimate object “inspires” them.  I’d be more inspired to give if the prize was an open mouthed kiss from Dr Schuller, rather than some of this junk.

Business strategy:  Christian crap costs $0.02 to make in overseas factory.  Octogenarian “donates” $20.00 for said crap.  Church makes huge profits.  Schuller personally chest bumps the month’s biggest benefactor.

This strategy worked for a long time, but it’s now not enough to keep them afloat.  Why?

Because I can go down to my local Christian crap store anytime I want to buy something tacky for a white elephant party.

Because financial strategies that target 90 year olds are not very sustainable. 

I call this whole thing “Happy Meal marketing.”  The problem with Happy Meal marketing is that kids eventually don’t care about worthless chunks of plastic.  They grow up, or in the Crystal Cathedral’s case, they die, and the kids have to decide who gets to feel guilty for throwing away Grandma’s collection of Jesus junk.

No Good Reason

If a church can’t give a dang good reason why people should support them, other than getting a new toy, then the church may not be worth supporting.

If you love your church and your pastor, you’re going to give money to support it, right?  If you believe in the church’s mission, and what it’s doing in the world, you’re going to be excited to support it.  If you think Harry Potter Part 27 is going to rock really hard, you’re going to plunk down $8.00 at the theater.  If it’s got Ben Stiller or Robin Williams, you’ll RedBox it.  People think PBS is worth something, because they keep giving money to it.  When people think something is valuable or important, it is its own reward, and they don’t need to be bribed with a shiny toy to help pay for it.

Look at your church.  Is it valuable?  If you would be more inclined to give money to your church if you were bribed with a snow globe, your church may not be that valuable.

Tithe and Spend!

What motivated a lot of Americans to vote yesterday?  Government spending.  People don’t like the government spending more than it has.

Look at the Crystal Cathedral.  Not only are they supporting a massive building, but a bunch of Shullers who don’t even work there!  (They recently all took a 50% pay cut.  Who are these people, the Bluth family?)  They’ve been spending a lot more than they have for a long time.  Their bankruptcy filing is long in coming.

As for the rest of us, most churches spend 80% of their budget on themselves because they’re enslaved to their building.  That’s even more absurd when you think about all the ugly churches out there.  I’m tired of churches being enslaved in debt to ugly, cheap looking buildings.  Most people wouldn’t live in a cinder block dorm room, but they’re cool with the church looking like one.  Many churches do not reflect the affluency of the members.  So church people are too cheap to build an attractive church, but they’ll happily pay double the money for a cheap looking building by being in debt for 30 years.

The rest of that 80% goes to support the pastors.  Pastors, if you’re dang good at your job and you’ve got people eating out of your hand on Sunday, you should tell them you are going to quit unless the budget expands so the church is only using 50% of its money on itself.  Then, put it in the church’s rules.  If the church uses more than 50% on itself, the budget is not balanced, and the church has to sell the building, because the members are too cheap to need a building, or the building was too opulent in the first place.

I bring this up because a church spending 80% of its income is pretty close to capacity.  If the people hit hard times and cut back on tithes, and the church has no breathing room in the budget, things can go south awfully fast.  If a church lives well below its means, (without buying an ugly building) it can’t go wrong.

What do you think?  How far in debt should churches go?  How much money should churches be spending outside their walls?  Is it just me, or are there a lot of cheap looking church buildings?

24 responses to No Money, Mo Problems

  1. You raise a good point matt. After 6 years,(I have been here 5 of the 6) the church I pastor just bought its first building that is, in reality, too small. We started with multiple services. It is an older church building that was totally unfurnished and had sat empty for over 5 years. For what we were renting in office space and a meeting place (old YMCA pole barn) we are paying to own. We have no plans to build a gaudy building nor do have any plans to go into debt that will choke a squirrel. WE plan to to pay cash for a new multi-purpose addition. Nothing big and fancy. We are also committed to spending outside the walls as God leads. we are currently involved in Operation Christmas child, Advent Conspiracy and clothing, etc for one or our local schools.

    Sidebar: he fired his son several months ago. his daughter is now in charge I believe.
    bill (cycleguy) recently posted..The Great Adventure

    • That’s great! I was part of a church for a while that wanted to buy the old church building they were renting. Being a bunch of young people, conventional wisdom would say they’d not be able to come up with $200,000. That number was reached in a weekend. Peoples’ pockets are always deeper than you think. Don’t protect peoples’ money for them. They’ll do that enough on their own…until something important comes along.

  2. Good morning, Matt,

    How they do spend money!

    Not at all sensibly like I do.

    As I recall, Jesus only commended one contributor–that crazy old lady who dropped her last two cents into the collection box of one of the most lavish religious buildings in history which was run by the very people who crucified Jesus a few days later.

    Really! She ought to have been put in a home.

    But Jesus seemed to think that the Lord God keeps tabs on not just how the recipient spends the donations, but also the mindset of the person who gives.

    Personally, I have an aversion to giving cash to anyone who makes more than I do. That sure limits the folks I donate to.

    Once my wife got pissed at something or another our church planned and felt we could not in good conscience support that project, so she began paying our tithe to the local zoo–Hey, ecology is also of the Lord.

    Appeals for donations besiege us. One week we had 18 requests for money to support religious stuff. One requester wanted money to send his mother-in-law to Bangladesh or someplace even father away and he did not even offer to send us a replica of John The Baptist’s head on a platter nightlight.

    I’ve even read an appeal recently for all Christians to make water on some other country.

    Poor God. He must be so broke and desperate. He must be in really bad shape to ask me for money.

    Oh, I was wrong. There was another donor Jesus commended beside the old lady with the two mites (my kids used to think she offered two mice instead of two lambs like the rich people) but Jesus also commended the whore who poured ointment out of an alabaster flask onto His feet. He said of her, “Leave her alone; she hath done what she could”.

    I wonder if He might ever say the same of me???

    Now, that’s a scary thought.

  3. My church is blessed with a pastor who does not believe in the church taking on debt and we’ve managed to do a good job of upgrading our facilities under his leadership and to spend money supporting local ministries and missions around the world. We’ve taken what was a clothing room and food pantry and expanded both the building and the ministry itself to serve many more people, just in time for the economic troubles to create much more need.

    As for the Crystal Cathedral, when you run a church as though it’s a family business – as in your own personal family and not the family of God – you’re asking for a heap of trouble.
    Single and Sane recently posted..I See Dead People

  4. Yeah, I hear you Matt. We Catholics have something I call catholicrap. Mother Angelica on EWTN is also flogging something to sell. Have you seen her church? There’s enough gold to blind you. My, what poverty! What charity! Not.

  5. The church I attend is paid for in full. It’s in an industrial park, and looks nice inside. But I am there for Jesus, not the building. The pastor seems to live about the same lifestyle as I do.

    I don’t know what’s in the budget and I don’t care. I am there for Jesus. They have outreaches and support local charities. I have heard the testimonies.

    I am not so sure being bean counters in terms of where funds go is always God. Sure, it costs money to send someone overseas. I have supported missions to Israel. Few if any come to the Lord. Conversely in parts Africa hundreds come to the Lord for the same dollars. We have to hear God on these issues.

    I am certainly not promoting fiscal irresponsibility or unreasoable debt. But we can’t rely on man’s wisdom either.

    I do have a Jesus snow globe that I love.

  6. I’ve attended services in an auto repair shop in Manila, a tiny store-front in Paris, and in our huge “worship center” here in Colorado. God seems willing to show up no matter what the building looks like, so why should we care?

    If we are focused on glorifying God, then we are sharing the gospel, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, caring for widows and orphans… and I suspect we wouldn’t have a single worry about dollars.

    I love the example of George Mueller — he’s the 19th century evangelist who prayed for resources to run his orphanage, rather than asking people for money. And God provided every single time.
    Leslie recently posted..Operation World- a Prayer Almanac

  7. I’m against debt. I don’t think it’s a good thing. Nor do I think a Christian should be in debt. Every time the bible talks about debt it isn’t a positive thing and it leads to a lot of problems and lives that are wrecked.

    Proverbs 22:7 says, “The borrower is slave to the lender,” and in Matthew 6:24 Jesus says, “You can’t serve both God and money.” So what does that mean to us as Christians? I think it’s contradictory to be in debt yet say, “I’m serving God with all I am.”

    On of the aspects of the fruit of the spirit is self control, that should be expressed in our handling of money. Churches don’t have money problems. Plain and simple, they don’t. They have spiritual problems that are expressed through the money.

    So I don’t think a church should borrow money. Save it and pay in cash. It takes awhile but the freedom of not having to worry about the quantity of tithes coming in or economic problems is priceless when you pay for something. The reason why churches and people don’t have money is because they’re in debt up to their eyeballs and it’s all going to the banks. If you don’t have any debt or payments, do you know what you have? Money!
    Jonathan Chang recently posted..234 This is not a post about election day

    • Sounds exactly like the common sense we’re learning in Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University!

      • The same thought came to mind for me as I was reading through the comment. Now I’m thinking that Ramsey needs to come out with a “church” version of the “Total Money Makeover” for churches who really and truly want to get out of debt and stay that way. It’d be an uphill battle to get our almost mega-church to all agree enough to actually successfully implement such drastic changes as I would expect us to need though.

        But it’d be an interesting concept. And I’d probably buy a set for our pastors and finance committee!
        Princess Leia recently posted..Day 2

  8. I agree with your article, at least most of it. I do take umbrance with saying a Christian store has crap. I work at Christian crap store (your words, not mine). The number of times that I have ministered to people just by being there and prayed with people is too numerous to count. Yes, there is cheesy stuff but we are supported by our community in this age of internet buying and we continue to hang in there and stay open. The use of the word ‘crap’ is offensive to those who work hard in a most competitive industry. Just thought I would let you know.

    • That’s great that you minister to people who come in your store. If you don’t think the cheesy stuff in your store is crap, then by all means, don’t let my opinion offend you, since I don’t even know what’s in your store.

  9. You know, my church meets in a middle school. There are many advantages of having our own space, but buying property is such a HUGE investment. Currently, we are debt free and have funds available for outreach and missions. I’m not a big believer in the “If you build it they will come” scenario for churches. I think we need to actually leave the building to reach people for Christ. Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with having a permanant meeting place. But a building is a tool, not the end game.
    katdish recently posted..The picture inside the picture Repost

  10. You should see some of the Christian Crap that is around here at the Garage sales down here in ORU Country!
    jay Sauser recently posted..…i noticed something…

  11. I always called that stuff “Jesus Junk”.
    And it’s A LOT harder to go bankrupt when you have NO DEBT!
    Our church building is paid for and we are still struggling. If we had a mortgage too, we’d be hosed.
    Todd recently posted..This Will Be Your Best and maybe last Chance To Take FPU!

  12. I’ve lived in Southern California more than half my life. Within 20 minutes of the CC. I was only there once, working a conference. I was not impressed with it (the little i saw). I have never been impressed with the Christmas & Easter pageants they put on each year, with tickets costing (at one time) as much as the entry fees to Knott’s Berry Farm or Disneyland.

    I’ve never been to “The Glory of Christmas” or the like, tho i’ve heard about them. A friend went. They use real animals, donkeys & camels. Her comment was, “The only thing they didn’t use, real, was the baby.” I guess i doll stands in for baby Jesus.

    Churches have been having Christmas pageants for years if not for centuries. Charging outrageously for it is rather new, however. I’m never impressed with a church that seems to value $$ above all & puts a lot of pressure on folks to provide them with that $$. Of course, i’m not impressed that our gov’t does the same thing & seems to have the same accountability problems, too.

    One of the mega preachers here in Southern California brags that his family practices “reverse tithing” – where they give 90% to God & live on the 10% left. That simply tells me that he makes too much money to begin with. Tell a single mother living at poverty scale that she needs to practice reverse tithing! Well, i’ve a lot more to say on that, but i’ll stop.
    Kathryn recently posted..Im Thankful

  13. I like the positive twist – at least the Crystal Cathedrals’ building doesn’t look like crap!

    I do have an issue with people giving even more to churches who need to pay off ridiculous debts for silly buildings, who are performing more than they are creating church community. To me the purpose of giving to the church is not to sustain itself. 50% going outward is too low, but now I sound like a legalist.
    Charlie’s Church of Christ recently posted..Turning Soldiers Into Spiritual Ones- Or More Lessons in Irony

    • Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t like ugly buildings. But I’d rather a church not build a building at all that go too deep in debt, (or go too cheap and build a lousy building.) More than 50% would be great, but just shooting for 50% would be a great goal for many churches.

  14. I used to live not too far from the Crystal Cathedrial… when they were trying to raise money for the big glass building I got a mailing from them that said that if I donated some money I could have my name engraved on a crystal star that would hang from the ceiling etc. I don’t ever remember seeing the stars in pics… they must have hung them in the bathroom or something.

    Around here we have a bunch of really large churches. A lot of them just moved into their new “campus.” Here we are in the middle of a horrible economic time where people are hurting… including many people in their churches and all of them have begged for more and more money from their people, causing a bunch of my friends at those churches to reevaluate where they worship. I can think of a lot of other things that could have been done with the 24 million one of the churches spent. Somehow I just don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.
    Linda B. recently posted..What I Think About Late at Night…

  15. A thought I have been chewing on lately is why do we build come to churches if Jesus preached a go ye gospel.
    Jason Cormier recently posted..Friday Funnny- Computer Prank

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