Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend about our faith (we are both Christians). I casually asked how the Sunday sermon had gone the week before. I was shocked by her reply:
"I don't go to church anymore," she told me ruefully, "because I can't afford it." I was shocked. I have known this woman for almost my entire life. For most of it, she had been a fixture in the South Carolina evangelical congregation that she grew up in. In fact, she had served in various Church leadership positions over the years -- as a deacon, church elder, Sunday school teacher, treasurer, usher, cook. Whatever role you can think of as far as commitment to the congregation, she had probably done it in some form or another.
Needless to say, I was perplexed. "What do you mean you can't afford to go to church anymore?" I could not fathom an answer. We had known the poorest of the poor in our rural South Carolina community, and even if they didn't have any Church clothes, they would borrow them from a relative. If they didn't have a car, they would arrange a ride to Church with a friend -- or in some cases, would even walk miles along a country road to get to a service. So I could not imagine that my friend couldn't actually afford to attend Church.
The real reason, which I began to discover during our conversation, turned out to be far more sinister. Over the last few years, the Church had begun to expand. First, it built a new structure, which was certainly needed; the old church building had faithfully served generations of parishioners, but it had broken rafters, a leaky roof that had been repaired countless times, rusty plumbing and carpets worn threadbare by the feet of the faithful. It was time for a change.
However, instead of merely replacing the old structure, the Church built an extravagant new building that rivaled some of the best architecture in town. Then, it built a Bible school in an adjacent lot; the school had to justify itself by holding classes every day of the week. Of course, along with those buildings, the Church then had to build an additional parking lot. As a result, with so much real estate in its possession, the Church had to hire full-time security to protect its assets. A few years later, the Church hired a famous preacher from Atlanta, wooing him with a generous salary, home rental and care allowance. I think you can see where this is going.
In other words, the Church had evolved from a place of worship into a place of business. I am a businessman, so I began to mentally tally the costs that the Church must have accrued over the last few years. Although it appeared that the congregation had also increased in number, considering the average income of its typical parishioners, it seemed difficult for the Church to afford all of its obligations on the standard 10% tithe.
And so, my friend explained, the Church began to pressure the congregation for offerings. First, it was merely an offering for the building fund. Then it was an offering for the new pastor. After that came the "first fruit" offering. Then there was an "evangelist" offering. With each offering, ushers would walk around the pews passing a bucket. Or even worse, the pastor would exhort members of the congregation to come to the front and drop their money (or valuables) into a large basket in front of the pulpit. It seemed as though every 15 minutes or so there would be a break in the service for an offering. It almost seemed choreographed -- like a well-planned bank heist but in "God's" name.
My friend, who had been a leader in the Church for decades, went along with it at first. She not only tithed but gave more. But when she went back and tallied her spending at the end of the month, she began to notice that the money she spent on "offerings" was taking a huge chunk out of her income. As a result, she started to deplete her savings. When she retired three years ago on a fixed income, her tithes went down, but the amounts she contributed in Church offerings continued to increase.
She felt enormous pressure as a Church leader to continue to support the Church, but the increasing contributions to the Church were beginning to crowd out other necessities -- such as food, gas and medical necessities. It reached a point where she would skip going some Sundays because she didn't feel she could pay what was expected of her. Gradually, she stopped going altogether. Church had become an expense she felt she could no longer afford. She continues to tithe but no longer attends services, as she is afraid to be seen by her peers as unsupportive of the Church's ever-expanding mission.
Sadly, my friend's experience is becoming the norm. Church attendance among millennials is at an all-time low for any generation in American history. Fewer congregants are supporting ever-increasing church budgets. Instead of employing volunteers to fulfill church functions, churches are hiring professionals -- musicians, choir directors, pastors and accountants. All of this is turning churches from places of refuge for the meek into wealthy enclaves where only the well heeled are welcome. This is exactly the opposite of what Christ intended.