Long ago, a crowd convincingly spread the word about Jesus Christ:
“Now the crowd that was with him [Jesus] when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word...So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him [Jesus]!” (John 12: 17-19; NIV).
This random crowd has set a lofty standard for missional church congregations of today that claim to obey Jesus’ well-known command:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matt. 28: 19-20; NIV).
How effective is the Church’s witness today?
Using research data, PEW Research Center says, “Since the 1990s, large numbers of Americans have left Christianity to join the growing ranks of U.S. adults who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.'”
In a recent National Review article titled “Against the New Paganism,” Jack Butler said, “Over the past few decades, Christianity has both retreated from the public square and from mass culture and been pushed from them. Its once-venerable pillars in this country have atrophied.” He is right.
In addition, the International Mission Board (2023) of the Southern Baptist Convention estimates that “59% of the world today is considered unreached — meaning Jesus is largely unknown among 4.6 billion people.” There is a lot of mission work still waiting to be undertaken. The foregoing accounts tell us something is holding back our missionally-minded churches. What could be holding our churches back?
Missions and the role of church budgets
While worshipping in seven evangelical churches in the US in six different states during the last 50 years, I became interested in our churches’ claims of missional emphasis and its implementation. Years ago, I asked one lead pastor, “What percent of your church’s budget goes to missions?” He replied, “It is about 11% of our budget.”
I responded with another question: “What is the chance the church would devote 50% of its budget for missions?” His response was very animated (meaning, my question was unexpected) and he excitedly said something to the effect, “I love to see our budget for missions reach that level, but I cannot do much about it, it is in the hands of the governing board of the church. But I assure you, I am working to push up the percentage of the total budget allocated to missions. First, I am working towards a target of 20% of the budget for missions.” I could tell, he meant every word he said. By 2023, this church’s missional giving plus missional expenses have exceeded 25% of the budget.
Speaking of church budgets, tiny churches often struggle with a meager income. For such churches, allocating half the church’s budget for missions may be impractical.
However, today, God has blessed many American churches with generous budgets. But how the churches use their budgets is another matter.
The bad news about church budgets
In the article “How Churches Spend Their Money,” Mathew Branaugh says, that an average church spends about 10% of its budget on missions; local and international missions combined. Further, Prof. Troy Gibson in his critical blog, Church Budgets: Shame on American Evangelicals, quotes Prof. Gene Veith:
“Of every dollar given to a [US] Protestant church, the average amount that goes to overseas missions is two cents [=2%]. In contrast, of every dollar Antioch Presbyterian Church in Chonju, Korea, takes in, 70 cents [=70%] goes to missions …”
I consulted a friend, actively engaged in international missions, and previously associated with a large missionary-minded church in another city. That church was well-known for its missional work. My friend revealed to me that he was the church's missions director for many years before retiring. He said the church operated with a missional budget that was around 52% of the total church budget. This came as a surprise to me as I was beginning to wonder if it was unreasonable for me to suggest that missional churches devote 50% of their church budgets to missions.
His message to me was, “Paul, it can be done, it has been done; for decades I have been a part of the church that did so, and I was blessed to participate in the use of those funds in support of the church’s missional efforts inside and outside the US for decades.”
Later it came to my attention that Matt Svoboda also proposed the idea of 50% of a church’s budget going to missions in SBC Voices.
For the sake of clarity, it may be useful to distinguish between the terms “ministries” and “missions” in the context of church budgets. I read somewhere, “... all missions are ministry, but not all ministries are missions.” Therefore, church budgets may support several ministries of the church today without supporting missions or being a witness to the world.
One purpose of church missions is to enable people in every nation to identify with these words in Acts 2:11, “... We hear them [i.e., modern churches and their missionaries] telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” They are waiting.
What church budgeting can learn from corporate budgeting
Church budgets enable or hinder a church’s missional purpose. Having once worked as a manager in the private sector, and having taught business management for over three decades, it occurred to me that churches could learn a thing or two from businesses regarding budgets.
When profit-making businesses change their highest corporate priority from one thing to another, to make the change take immediate and permanent effect, they re-allocate the budget to ensure that the new corporate priority is backed by their revised budget; in other words, they put their money where their mouth is.
Once the corporate budget is reallocated to pursue a new priority, the new corporate priority receives enhanced funding for: 1. increased staffing 2. relevant investments and 3. targeted expenditures.
Similarly, church budgets can be used as active enablers of the stated missional purpose of the church by adequately funding missional work in local, national, and international mission fields.
Without adequate budgetary support, a church’s stated missional purpose may be no more than idle words.
Inputs from pastors
I sought input from several American pastors on this idea of 50% of a missional church's budget going for missions — one of them supported the idea and excitedly said that church members may become more generous in giving to the church when members realize 50% of their church contributions will go to missions work — churches should welcome his insight.
The biggest challenge that other pastors expressed to me is summarized by this quote, “It is difficult to reallocate our budget as suggested.” History shows an expression of “difficulty” is the typical starting point before changes occur.
Paul Swamidass, PhD, is Professor Emeritus, Harbert College of Business, Auburn University, Auburn, AL, USA. He retired from Auburn University in 2016. Two of his many books are: Engineering Entrepreneurship from Idea to Business Plan, Cambridge University Press, 2016; and Greater Things: Qualifications of a Biblical Leader, Vide Press, 2020. LinkedIn