The Cost of Discipleship

… or how much money does it take to get a person to commit to Christ and grow in faith?

Article summary:  I was lead pastor of a megachurch for 25 years. We discovered a statistic that I have not heard addressed: the larger we became the more people gave per capita—and the more it cost per capita to do ministry.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote perhaps one of the 100 best Christian books of the 20th century: The Cost of Discipleship.  In simple summary, it’s about the enormous sacrifices a person must make to become a true disciple of Jesus.

Bonhoeffer, of course, was writing during the years of surging Nazi power in Europe, where it was becoming increasingly difficult to be a devoted follower of Christ. It’s been estimated that, during Hitler’s dictatorship, more than 6,000 clergymen were imprisoned or executed on the charge of treasonable activity.

Those who were not willing to pay the price of faithfulness were guilty, Bonhoeffer charged, of “cheap grace.” Grace is free. It can’t be earned, but it’s not cheap. St. Paul writes in Romans 6:1, “What shall we say? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?”

So how much does discipleship cost?

Giving “the cost of discipleship” an entirely different spin, church leaders should be asking themselves, “What is the per capita cost of doing church?”

I know, some folks want to ignore the financial elements of ministry, like, “How can you put put a price on saving a single soul?” Once at a meeting of our outreach team, I had the audacity to ask, “Are the people we’re supporting productive?”

Most of the people around the table were aghast. Some were offended. You know, we were sending money to such good and faithful people. I had to remind them that Jesus told us in John 15,

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful… If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples [emphasis mine].

Yes, disciples must be productive. It’s something God expects, because if we’re not maximizing our fruit-bearing potential, he will prune us in order to make us more fruitful.

As senior pastor  of a large church, I had to evaluate our staff. Our programs. Were they working? Where they growing? Were they worth the price we were paying? After all, thousands of people were giving their hard-earned money generously and sacrificially, so I believed that we had to be ruthlessly faithful with that money.

Years into the ministry, after three multi-million dollar capital stewardship campaigns for a 2000-seat worship center, auxiliary buildings and expanded parking, I was deeply troubled to discover that our cost to do ministry per capita had risen dramatically.

Every year, it seemed, our income and budget grew faster than the numbers of people attending the church. In fact, after two decades of attendance growth—from zero to over 4500 a weekend—we slowed down, leveled off, and began a slow decline. Remarkably, our financial growth continued for several years, even though our attendance numbers were going down.

More people, much more money

What does more income per person mean for a local church? I have several observations about this.

First, not long before I stepped aside as senior pastor, a ministry friend asked me what our average giving was per person. I told him proudly that was nearly $30 a week. He came right back at me and said, “You don’t have a lot new Christians. If you did, your per person giving would be a lot less.”

Ouch!

We had also prided ourselves in the numbers of people who had come to Christ in our services: thousands. And I’m not just talkin’ about people raising their hands and getting saved for the third or fourth time. We had over 4500 people attend our five-week new believer’s class! It was extraordinary.

Yet our giving per person was going up, and though we were continuing to see people make commitments to Christ, that number was in a slow, steady decline.

Best selling author, pastor and church planter extraordinaire Tim Keller, who leads a huge congregation in Manhattan, has shared publically that the older his church has become, the fewer people have met Christ each year through their ministry. So they made a huge commitment to invest in planting new urban churches.

Is your per capita giving going up? Praise the Lord! But this also means your cost of doing ministry per capita is also going up. If so, how are you spending that extra money? Maybe instead of hiring new staff or initiating new programs that are not resulting in new people coming to Christ, you explore Tim Keller’s model. Or invest in underfunded urban ministries, or in the community.

Second, our cost of ministry per person rose dramatically when we built new buildings. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but our new worship center in 1997 cost approximately $5 million, of which we financed about half.  Within two years, our weekend attendance grew by 150%, from about 3000 to 4500, but our ministry costs raced ahead of our attendance growth. They continued to increase even though our attendance leveled off.

As I mentioned earlier, 4500 seemed to be our attendance limit, for two reasons: (1) We never had enough parking for the facility, and (2) our socio-economic demographics changed over the decades. We morphed from being a small suburban city to the urban core of a network of cities east of Phoenix. Our zip code was/is: 85203. Next to us, 85204 became the most ethnically rich and economically depressed zip code in what we call the East Valley which has a population of nearly 1.5 million.

If I have a regret about our facilities, I wish we had constructed a worship center for 1200 or 1500, instead of 2000.  Even though my successor is grateful for the very large auditorium, because they do extraordinary conferences and concerts, a smaller venue would have been more manageable financially—and easier to pass on to the next generation of leadership.

My friend Jim Tomberlin, perhaps the most widely respected consultant on multi-site churches, fully agrees that smaller venues are more manageable for many reasons, not the least of which are financial concerns (mortgages and maintenance). Yet filling a huge building is also a challenge for future pastors.

Pastor Dale Galloway built an incredible church in Portland, Oregon, New Hope Community Church. In 1990, Elmer Towns of Liberty University identified New Hope as one of the top ten most innovative churches in America. At that time they had over 500 small groups.

Dale constructed a worship center high on a hill in east Portland. With a towering, lighted cross, the facility held 3000 worshippers. Yet their website today tells us that “New Hope launched in 1972 in a drive-in movie theater, with flashing headlights instead of applause and a congregation listening through speakers attached to car windows… and a message preached from the top of a Snack Shack. Thanks to the sovereign blessings of the Lord, we have continued to grow. Forty years later, New Hope is now reaching approximately 1,500 people each week.”

It’s still a great church, but the attendance is so much less. Not too long ago, Dale confessed to me that he should have built a smaller facility.

Third, the larger the church becomes, the more it costs per capita to do ministry because, and this is painful, churches institutionalize. This means that, as the years go by, great churches run the risk of becoming less vision-driven and more organization- bound.

In my experience, even though our church was no longer growing, it seemed we had a constant need for new staff. In my opinion, the larger and older the organization, the greater the risk of inertia. Or bureaucracy? In my view, the deeper the staffing, the less the staff on the lower levels of the organization are, in fact, leaders. Instead of recruiting and motivating volunteers serving a compelling vision, they tend to ask for more paid staff. This, of course, simply makes ministry bottom heavy and more costly.

What are you going to do about it?

Hindsight is always more clear than foresight. Looking back, I’m sorry to say that  I don’t know what we should have done differently. I do know, however, that during our flat years, I read a book by Reggie McNeal, The Present Future, which asks Christian leaders really tough questions about the nature and purpose of the church. I embraced it fully, hammering this nail:

We can no longer make incremental changes.

We have to make fundamental changes.

If your per capita giving is rising, it necessarily means that your per capita cost of doing ministry is also rising.

Why?

What does that mean in your context?

Financing? Too many on staff?

Are you OK with spending more and more money on the same people?

What fundamental changes are you willing to make?

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