When money gets tight in our household, we start making tough choices. One decision we have already made is that we are only giving Christmas gifts this year to grandchildren under 21 years of age and not to adult children or grandchildren. (We have told them that we do not expect any gifts either.) Every time a renewal notice comes in the mail, we think twice before renewing. Although the cost of gasoline is down, we still give careful consideration to every trip, even if it is just across town. Food, clothing, shelter, insurance, and church tithe are necessities in our house. Beyond these, the basic question is, “Do we really need this?”
In a recent article on ethicsdaily.com, Robert Parham considers the long-term viability of religious organizations due to financial exigencies. He basically poses the question, “Are we moving into a survival-of-the-fittest scenario among local and national faith organizations?”
I think his question is very appropriate. As churches experience declining revenues, building maintenance concerns, increase staff costs, and local ministry needs, they will be asking the same question we do at our house: “Do we really need this?”
What does this mean for middle-level and national judicatories, mission boards, educational institutions, publishing houses, and “niche” ministries that both serve the churches and are dependent on the churches for their support? I think churches will be asking these questions:
1. What have you done for me lately? Church members, especially those who have grown up with denominational strife, do not believe that the state or national denominational structures are relevant to their needs or those of their churches. They are the generation “who know not Joseph” and the benefits that the denomination provided in the past. There is no “brand loyalty.”
2. Does it fit? The biggest challenge for most denominationally-based programs is that they are not contextualized for the local congregation. Due to the Starbucks experience, people realize that they can have their latte the way that they want it. They expect the same for church programs.
3. Are there strings attached? Does the church have to meet certain criteria to be in good standing with the organization that comes alongside to assist in the church’s ministry or will they accept us as we are—women deacons, liturgical worship, etc.?
4. Can I get it somewhere else cheaper? We may condemn this as a consumerist attitude, but when churches are struggling to keep the light bill paid, they have to ask this question.
5. Will you love me in the morning? After we have partnered with you, will you take our church for granted or will you seek to strengthen the relationship based on mutual respect and accountability?
Perhaps church members and clergy leaders will not be this blunt in the way they ask these questions, but they will ask these kinds of questions in the future. Those organizations that seek to minister alongside churches in the coming days will have to be caring, attentive partners who do not take the relationship for granted.