Methodist House Churches: Economics

January 17th, 2019

The following article is part nine of a ten-part series exploring all aspects of organizing, worshipping, and growing as a house church community. Read the previous parts here

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Before I talk about how house churches can be economically viable, I need to talk about church economics as a whole.

I am skeptical about the dominant narrative about the decline of church participation in North America, which usually blames politics and theology for lower attendance and increasing numbers of unaffiliated young adults. Liberals tend to blame the rise of the religious right in America, and religious fundamentalism world-wide, which have turned off people to organized religion. Conservatives tend to blame pluralism and changing moral norms.

While both of these may play a role in individuals’ attitudes, these explanations tend to locate the source of big social changes in people’s brains. I take a more practical and less individualistic view: I think the decline in church participation has a lot to do with money.

Robert Wuthnow, in his book After the Baby Boomers, points out that the strongest predictor of church attendance is whether someone is married and has children. Previous generations married earlier and had more children; many could afford a house on one income, tended to work in the same career their entire lives, and retired with a pension. Today, people marry later (if at all), have fewer children (if any), and are seldom settled in a career or secure in retirement.

In other words, the rise of the church in the last century paralleled the rise of the middle class. The decline of the church in North America has accompanied stagnating income and growing wealth inequality. The graph of participation in labor unions and churches since the late 1960’s is almost an identical drop. The church has been in decline ever since the real wages of regular Americans stopped rising with GDP. For good AND ill, the North American church tied its identity to the white middle class, and so its fortunes have followed the same path.

I believe all of these economic factors affect how and why house churches are increasingly necessary and viable. We are returning to the kinds of economic inequality in the Middle Ages and the Roman Empire.

(It’s also important to note that the dominant narrative of decline is mostly concerned with white churches. David Scott explains that this story obscures the huge growth among non-white churches.)

Our social inequality is reflected in the church. Small churches are closing, unable to maintain ancient buildings built for larger congregations. Meanwhile, mega-churches continue to grow even while the total number of Christians in our country declines. Seminaries increasingly rely on part-time faculty, and churches likewise cannot afford full-time professional clergy.  

How House Churches Are Different

I don’t believe that these crises should lead us to throw up our hands in despair. I believe they present an opportunity to reclaim a discipleship-oriented, missional model of church. If the church has tied its identity to the white middle class, how can we go about untying it? If the church has become a place where married families “settle down,” how can we make it a place where young people or those without kids “launch?” House churches offer one such alternative, but using this model means thinking about ministry and teamwork differently.

According to research on healthy churches, a conventional church needs about 150 attendees to be economically viable. A house church network’s numbers are not as high, but I would estimate that a house church network still needs about 70-100 active people in order to sustain a full-time clergy person.

Unlike a conventional church, house churches do not have to spend upwards of twenty or thirty percent of their budget on a building. These savings could (theoretically) lead to more resources to put toward missions and ministry in the community.

The big economic challenges to the house church are a) a small giving congregation and b) a pastor’s compensation. As a pastor, I am the most expensive piece of our church’s budget. The Annual Conference sets a minimum salary for full-time clergy, and requires participation in our health care plan. My health insurance premiums (including family) are around $1400 a month. This makes it impossible for a small congregation to employ a full-time pastor.

My high price tag is set by our clergy guild: the Board of Ordained Ministry. I am grateful to The United Methodist Church and the Board, which in many ways protect clergy from being exploited or abused by unhealthy congregations. At the same time, our rules make it difficult for clergy and congregations to innovate. It is “safer” for a new church to focus on recruiting settled middle class or wealthy families with children than on migratory young adults, unmarried folks, or poor folks.

But Methodism came up with an answer to this problem hundreds of years ago: the Licensed Local Pastor. A Licensed Local Pastor is not required to go to seminary and accrue tens of thousands of dollars of student debt. They are more likely to be bi-vocational.

And they often grow churches faster than their seminary-degreed colleagues.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I value higher education. I have a Ph.D in homiletics and ethics. I think the church is harmed by pastors who teach bad theology or lack the clinical pastoral skills to counsel parishioners. But research by Christian Schwartz indicates that church growth tends to be inversely proportional to the educational level of the pastor.

House Churches and the Gig Economy

Anyone who has been following economic and demographic trends recognizes what I’m talking about: the “gig economy” has come to the church. Pastoral ministry is not exempt from the same forces that produced Lyft and AirBNB. There are things to lament and celebrate about these changes, but the church needs to understand the weather if it is to sail turbulent seas.

I believe what we need is a mind-shift in the way we understand church planting and economic viability. The vision of church planting constantly sold to denominational bodies is that churches are an economic engine, the purpose of which is to support full-time professional ministry. As long as we buy into this vision, we perpetuate a consumerist theology of success that only benefits big-box, Wal-Mart style churches.

My goal is to reach people who are not likely to be in church, and to organize those communities into a church that can sustain itself. I believe this means creating a team of smart, entrepreneurial, bi-vocational local pastors who function as a team. A part-time local pastor or dedicated lay minister can effectively lead two house churches. A network of ten house churches, for example, would need a pastoral staff of four or five pastors. Each house church needs one consistent pastor, plus a team that can rotate in.

In this model, a full- or part-time ordained elder becomes a trainer of pastors. An ordained “elder” really functions as an elder—one who guides and trains others to be pastors.

Making the Numbers Work

I don’t want to make it sound as if I have this figured out. Every church I’ve served, from small to large, survives economically by the skin of their teeth. As people who follow God, we use nearly every penny of the gifts we are given, because we have this radical notion that God will provide for our future if we are faithful in the present.

For the last three years, member giving has made up about eighty percent of our church’s income. A mixture of grants and fundraising has covered the remainder. I am hopeful that we will reach the self-sustainability tipping point in the near future, when all of our budget will be covered by member giving, and we will be able to expand our missional giving to twenty percent of our budget. After all, we won’t be spending it on a building.

But budgets only reflect the official economic picture. The fact is that the tight-knit, real-life social networks fostered by house churches help people economically in way that can’t be conveyed by a mission budget. One mother in chronic poverty gets driven to the grocery store when her food stamps come in, and the folks who drive her marvel at the way she can stretch a dollar. Our church vehicle isn’t a van, but a beat-up pickup truck that we use to help members move or get second-hand furniture. These stories are not unusual in conventional churches, but in house churches people are physically closer to acts of ministry.

Making house churches work economically is not just about the next year, but about the long-term. Our eyes have to be open to the way our world and our economy is changing, both for individual households and for society as a whole. I believe house churches are a way for us to faithfully proclaim the gospel in a world of growing inequality and environmental crisis.

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