Do Megachurches Hurt the Poor?

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If anyone knows how to ride out a scandal, it’s the Catholic Church; after all they’ve been at it longer than anyone else. This is not to diminish the remarkable contribution of Roman Catholics to both the history and current mission of the Church. But perhaps evangelicals could learn a few things from both Catholic successes and failures in this area.

The latest criticism to be leveled at Rome is that it doesn’t really care about the poor. It’s an odd accusation given the Roman Catholic Church has possibly done more for the poor than any organization in history. Still, no one can deny that the Roman Catholic Church likes gold-gilded furniture (almost as much as classic Bond villain Auric Goldfinger and the folks at Trinity Broadcasting Network). The Catholic eye for opulence has sparked this popular meme:


No sane man would defend the personal hoarding of wealth, especially not among clergymen. But when the man outside of the Church bemoans the unsold wealth of the Church, he’s not thinking of crooked cardinals or Popes parading as Renaissance princes. He is thinking of the cathedrals and the basilicas, the thrones and tabernacles of gold, the chalices of sliver and the jewel-encrusted robes, the pomp and pageantry of the largest human institution in the world. To summarize the modern axiom: The Catholic Church has gold and refuses to sell it, thus the Church lets the poor starve.
A post at the Bad Catholic blog has responded to the accusation with a defense of “nice churches.” First, the author identifies the complaint:

Bad Catholic goes on to respond with three points which I synthesize here in my own words.
1. The church does not take from the poor; the poor give freely to the church.
2. The facilities built by the church are for the benefit of the poor.
3. The leaders of the church are not wealthy.

On this last point the writer notes that the average priest receives only $20k per year in takehome pay. “And if you’re the Pope, not only does your salary suck, but you don’t get it until you’re dead. Popes get one gold, silver and copper coin for each year of service placed on their coffin. Blessed John Paul II received about $141 dollars.” Of

course he doesn’t factor papal benefits like the palace, jet, servants, and popemobile (a vehicle so dope it inspired the cable program “Pope My Ride” which later changed its name to appeal to non-Catholics).

How does this criticism and defense of the Catholic Church relate to evangelicals? Well, first, evangelical churches have gotten much larger and far more elaborate in recent decades. American evangelicalism, which ironically traces its heritage back to the austere Puritans and transient Methodists, has become dominated by megachurches. These facilities cost tens of millions of dollars to build, and while none can match the beauty of the Sistine Chapel or Notre Dame Cathedral, their elaborate multimedia auditoriums and amusement park like children’s areas certainly qualify as opulent.

Combine this fact with the growing value of social justice and concern for the poor among younger evangelicals, and you’ve got the makings of a critique not unlike the one facing Catholics: How can evangelical church leaders justify spending millions and millions of dollars on facilities and salaries while the poor suffer?

Adding to the challenge for evangelicals is the fact that any defense won’t be as simple as the one articulated by Bad Catholic. For example, Bad Catholic says the opulent facilities erected by the Catholic Church are for the benefit of all including the poor. Now one might argue that a poor person does not need flying buttresses or stained glass as much as fresh bread and a glass of water, but that does not negate Bad Catholic’s argument. The Catholic Church employs a parish model of ministry, meaning a facility is intended to serve all the people within a geographic area–rich and poor alike.

Most evangelical mega/gigachurches, on the other hand, are designed to serve a sociographic rather then geographic community. In the 1980s and 90s Willow Creek pioneered this approach by describing their target audience with the fictitious upper middle class, white, suburban couple “unchurched Harry and Mary.” While I am unaware of any megachurch that actively turns away the poor, it’s more challenging to make the case that their facilities were designed specifically for them. Yes, I know megachurches that do really wonderful things to help the underserved and poor, but given the fact that most megachurches exists in the wealthy collar counties around large cities, it’s not as easy to make the case that they are designed “for the poor.”

Also unlike the leaders of the Catholic Church, pastors of megachurches have not taken a vow of poverty. A recent survey found that the average senior pastor of a megachurch takes home $147,000 before benefits. The research also found that the average megachurch is suburban, with a budget over $5 million, and employs more than 50 full-time staff.

So, I’ll throw the question back at you. Given our culture’s growing sensitivity to economic injustice, including among younger evangelicals, how would you respond to accusations of hypocrisy against megachurches with costly facilities? I may write my own response based on your feedback in the coming days.

  • http://joshcrain.com Josh Crain

    I think this is a question we should always be wrestling with as church leaders. I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts.

    I’ve been on pastoral staff at six different churches: I served as youth/college pastor at 3 established churches in Texas, I helped plant a church in Chicago, and my wife and I planted a church where I served as lead pastor in Springfield, Missouri. Our two church plants were filled with young adults who took social justice seriously.

    I’m currently the lead preaching pastor at a church of 1,400 in Pennsylvania. It’s not quite a “mega” church, but it’s large. I would call our facility neither extravagant nor cheap. Our children’s department isn’t a theme park, but it’s nice. However, because of our size we are able to spend a much larger percentage of our budget (almost 40%) on missions and social justice than at either of my church plants (usually around 5%).

    In addition to that, we’re recognizing there are some people that our church simply doesn’t reach well because of how large and established it is. We’ve been able to partner with a couple of church plants in the area who were facing constant financial struggles because of the people they were more easily able to minister to: lower socio-economic backgrounds, those with zero church background, college students, etc. In a typical church-planting model, these churches would have been given 3 years to become fully self-sustainging. We have begun to realize that there will be some churches that will simply never be financially self-sustaining; not because they aren’t reaching people, but because of the demographic that they reach.

    There are a lot of unique financial needs and partnerships that large, suburban, middle-class churches can partake in if they make it a priority to do so. But they’ll have to constantly be looking past their own four walls; if they refuse to do that they can absolutely hurt the poor.

  • w brian ferry jr.

    The argument that money ought to have been spent on the poor rather than whatever someone is taking aim at (be it plasma flatscreens or fancy coffee, a new sound system or new pipe organ) smacks a lot of Judas’ critique. He complains that the money that was wasted on ointment poured at Jesus’ feet could have been used to help the poor. He calls it a waste.

    Jesus doesn’t argue that it wasn’t wasteful. Essentially he replies that it’s a BEAUTIFUL waste.

    A beautiful waste squandered on Jesus isn’t a bad thing. According to Jesus it’s laudable and worth retelling.

    Ultimately, though, this seems to come down to motivation. Like much of our actions the outside could look exactly the same, i.e. purchasing flat screen plasma screens, while the motivation could be laudable (to honor God with excellence) or diseased (so that people know we’re the hippest church in town). Same “waste” one for Christ, one for pride.

    So difficult to make hard and fast rules. So easy to criticize another church’s use of funds.

  • http://carolesmithturner.com Carole Turner

    I wonder how many evangelical pastors their would be if they were all required to take a vow of poverty?

  • http://www.smorgasblurb.com Chris Horst

    Skye – Terrific post. David Greusel recently wrote a terrific article at Cardus about the theology of architecture, which is tangential to your post, but certainly worth exploring to enrich this conversation (http://www.cardus.ca/blog/2010/07/gods-trailer). A snippet: “Some churches I pass by as I travel from town to town in the Midwestern United States could be mistaken for storage sheds, pole barns, or discount tobacco stores, to which they bear an uncanny resemblance at times.”

    In many respects, I think the question you articulated: Is your church building more like a private club to the church insiders or like a parish-based resource to the community? If the building is truly the latter, I think the cost of the asset is a less significant question. And the alternative uses for those funds (e.g., giving to the poor) become less significant because the parish has a protective and appreciative view of the building itself.

  • http://www.advigila.com Jeffry Butter

    Skye, your post (& the comments) are thoughtful and worthy of discussion. I offer one thought .. what I call “kingdom math”. It’s the story of the poor widow’s offering (Luke 21:1-4), along with 2 Corinthians 9:10-15, Malachi 3:10 and Luke 12:29-34. Our Father uses quantity in different ways than we do. I don’t know if you can factor those ideas in — I leave it to you. Blessings to you and yours!

  • Andreas Sher

    Skye,

    I think that we are missing the point here! It is not a matter of feeding the poor, but “Feeding” the “poor in spirit”, if you get my point (sorry to twist the Word). We are called to go out and reach and try to save all people. How can we do that? By showing God’s love to those around us. That may mean giving food to those who are hungry, but we can’t leave it at that. We also need to tell them about God’s love. It also means reaching out to the drug addicts, gang members, messed up teen, single mums, and others that are hurting . . . in our community. Provide them with what they need (safe houses, a loving environment, an understanding ear, a job, whatever) as a way to reach them, show them God’s love, and a way to salvation. The money is a resource, a way to achieve what we were told to do. let us use that resource effectively!

    Carole, wouldn’t it be ironic for a pastor on $147,000 a year(?) to preach on the reliance of God’s provision? I remember hearing stories of pastors/missionaries that literally had no food to eat for the day, praying and hearing a knock on the door and having a Christian neighbour say God told them to to bring them some food.

  • Andreas Sher

    Apropos megachurches, I wonder if any studies have been done on church size vs. outreach (effectiveness?) and the relevance of Dunbar’s number (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number). Can we learn anything from Dunbar’s studies with regard to having more effective churches?

  • http://vinylpoet.tumblr.com Tish

    I wonder how many pastors would actually accept the “calling” if they had to take a vow of poverty. Or even if their salary were just say “average” and around $45,000 a year…

    I ask the same about politicians. Who would really serve if the salary were lower and perk weren’t the same..

    The poor suffer when it comes to church…period. They are just as willing to tithe to a church on income they may not even have, but being just as faithful as their “better off” brethren, they in turn need more from the church in terms of “help”.

    I don’t think the church realizes that and it just keeps taking and taking and taking…without giving back to those that so freely give and whom really need the blessings back.

    Big and opulent as the churches may be, the mission needs to focus on those that can’t give, or who give and can’t really, and placing it back in their hands as well.

  • http://compost-blog.com Leslie

    I started to write a response, and ended up writing an entire blog post instead: http://compost-blog.com/2012/09/21/megachurch/. While I agree with you that much money is spent unwisely, our megachurch pastors gave us several “justifications” for spending millions on our facility. I had to stop and realize that there is an economy of scale here… our building and pastors cost less per church member than you would find in a smaller church, for example. We also put on two huge productions every year, at Christmas and Easter, which bring in thousands of unchurched visitors from our community. Hundreds give their lives to Christ.

    There are definitely pros and cons to having megachurches. I’d prefer to be in a smaller congregation, but this is where God has us at the moment. It’s an eye-opener.

  • http://thefriendlyhome.blogspot.com Hillary

    Hey, Skye. I go to the same church as Leslie, the commenter above. I agree with everything she wrote about in her response. I also have a few of my own thoughts. My husband was raised Catholic and when we started dating, it was difficult for him to adjust even to smaller evangelical churches (we started out at the Cincy Vineyard before we moved here to Colorado Springs). He saw the screens, the productions, the salaries all as wasteful. But eventually we both came to an agreement that the money that was being spent was an investment with a huge return, both financially and spiritually. When you bring in the kind of money that a megachurch does, you can do huge things for the kingdom. Our church might be an uncomfortable place for the poor and the homeless to attend but, frankly, any church can be uncomfortable for a lot of people for a lot of reasons, none of which necessarily have to do with socioeconomic status.

    The end result of our church (and I guess most megachurches) is good — we might not have homeless people and hungry people sleeping and eating in our halls, but we’re still feeding and housing them and also nurturing their spirits.

  • Pat in Texas

    I’m not sure about “economic injustice”. The church is supposed to help the poor, and the church I attend does in very tangible ways. However, everyone in this country, including illegal aliens, has the right to free education through high school. There are also grants to help with college costs designed specifically for low income people. Even in this time of economic recession, a person with an education can still find a job. I don’t think it is “economic injustice” if a person comes from a family with a history of living off welfare. I believe in helping people help themselves, but I don’t believe in enabling people to continue the cycle of poverty or the feeling of entitlement. I come, not from poverty, but from very humble roots, and with only two years of Junior College education have created a life which includes the three bedroom, two bath brick house in a nice enough mixed-race neighborhood.

    I still have fond childhood memories of attending church in an old wooden building with creaky floors and just a few small class rooms. It had that nice musty library smell and had fans with funeral home advertisements on wooden sticks stuck in pockets on the backs of the pews. Any of the farm folks would have felt at home in that building. The church I attend now meets in a very nice fairly new building with plenty of large class rooms, but it is not a mega-church. I don’t think it is wrong to have a nice enough facility or paid staff. Our church helps fund and staff several different ministries to the poor here in this city, as well as sponsoring missionaries abroad.

    “Economic justice”, just like “social justice” is afforded everyone here in this country, but you don’t get it by waiting to have someone else give it to you. It is possible to get so poverty stricken, such as homelessness, that a helping hand is the only way out, and the church should help those people. But people who have worked to become middle class, or higher, shouldn’t be robbed of what they have earned in the name of “economic justice”.

    There are some people in the church I attend who worry about the people from North My-City not having the opportunity to live in the more affluent South My-City. I have noticed the people who are most vocal about that “social justice” issue live in neighborhoods I can’t afford. But, it is a moot point because the law says that anyone who can afford a house can buy that house no matter which neighborhood it is in, so all the pious sounding talk is just that. I am a cheerful, generous giver, but think that “economic justice” is either the latest religious sounding buzzword or it is the beginnings of socialism, which is even more economically unjust.

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  • Dave

    Why is the question addressed only to Megachurches? Don’t most [suburban] churches need to to wrestle with this question?

  • http://www.thegiftoffaith.blogspot.com Miguel

    In order for an institution to be of any help to the poor, it must exist. In order to exist in any tangible sort of way, local congregations need facilities (even house churches: your home). Larger congregations tend to need larger facilities. There is nothing wrong about this. They can even be beautiful. I’m more concerned with the intentionality towards generosity: Ask, how much (percent) of the budget is going to what? Is a church paying interest on facilities they went into debt for? This could potentially be considered robbing the poor. Often the drive is to go bigger even when it isn’t exactly necessary. I’m cool with ornate, but size should be scaled to accomodate need, not to facilitate growth, otherwise if you get strapped into, say, 65 million in debt, then it becomes difficult to prioritize budgeting in a way that reflects the teaching of Christ.

    Salaries are a completely different question. Most pastors making over $100k/yr. also make big bucks on the itinerant circuit, book sales, and miscellaneous cottage industry. I won’t judge here for everybody, but personally I look to how a pastor manages his own finances as a prime indicator of his character and whether or not he is worth hearing. People in your congregation are struggling to pay rent; have some doggone compassion.

  • Mark

    I like Miguel’s comments – and question of allocation – what is the church’s priority to the poor as demonstrated both by budget line item as well as staff time investment. The real indicator though isn’t the building or the budget – it’s the impact of the congregation on the poor they serve. It’s in the increased willingness, eagerness to to show up for and donate to mobile food pantries, coat drives. I know this is an area for me to work on – I’m more willing to give than show up

  • amy

    A pastor can only fill a Megachurch by watering down the Word and giving “itchy” ears what they want to hear. All Christians that feel it is okay to fund new, bigger, fancier churches need to go spend some time in 3rd world countries among “the least of these.” You will come SICK with grief and despair over how you have given to fund new, bigger, fancier buildings. Most Christians don’t study their Bible independent of the pastor or some “celebrity” Bible teacher, if they did, they would see that Jesus didn’t condone this. To those that think it is okay, my thought is one day you may hear: get away from me, I never knew you, depart from me.