One third of the churches in the U.S. are in the red this year.1 Some of these will close. According to Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird (2020), who wrote the book Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work, just over 25% of the churches in America are somewhere between death and life support. These churches are simply not sure if they will be able to keep the doors open much longer. The COVID pandemic exposed the financial weaknesses of many churches. As a result, the pandemic served to accelerate the existing trajectory – they were struggling with finances before the pandemic and this simply was the last straw to put some churches over the edge.2
Church planting teams often have a similar problem. They are passionate about their vision but after several months of difficult fundraising, it is not uncommon for the team leader to silently ask, “Will we ever raise the money that we need to get this church started?” Common church planting financial models ask the planting team to raise money up front for the first three years’ budget prior to planting – that amounts to $300,000 – $500,000 on average for a church plant in the U.S.3 How many teams can raise this amount of money? Even more critical, how many more churches could be planted if this limitation was eliminated?
Church leaders are searching for answers to address the financial decline as well as decline in missional effectiveness of their churches/church plants.
Both examples are all too common in the North American church context. Church leaders are searching for answers to address the financial decline as well as decline in missional effectiveness of their churches/church plants. Fortunately, some church planters are leading the way to demonstrate alternate financial models that do not rely solely upon tithes and offerings. To provide some “good thinking” to address the need for alternate financial models for existing churches and church plants, Asbury Theological Seminary and the Leadership Network initiated a research project in 2022. Both financial viability and missional vibrancy are of great concern to describe an alternate ‘operating system’ for the church moving into the future.
The goal of the research project was to understand the opportunities and obstacles for alternate financial models of churches. To reach this goal, the following objectives were identified:
- Understand the main financial issues churches are facing and how these affect the churches’ missional impact.
- Describe alternate financial models that are presently used effectively.
- Evaluate the results of these alternate financial models to provide both financial viability and missional vibrancy for churches/church plants.
- Discover the questions that are still outstanding that need to be addressed with further research.
The research approach was a qualitative study in three phases, using mixed methods as follows:
Phase I. Questionnaire/Interviews: an open-ended questionnaire was emailed to 59 practitioners of alternate financial models for their churches. Some were followed up with phone interviews. Eleven responses were then recorded and the responses were collated for phase II.
Phase II. Focus Group/Innovation lab: 25 practitioners gathered at Asbury Theological Seminar for 24 hours to discuss the initial Phase I results, provide additional insight, and develop questions for further research.
Phase III. Site visits: A team of seminary students and I visited six different sites that are using alternate financial models for their church/church plant. The site visits included tours of the facilities/neighborhoods and interviews with 14 church leaders that are seasoned practitioners.
- Financial Trends are making it harder to depend upon tithes & offerings alone.
- Alternate financial models allow the church to have a large missional impact in the community.
- Alternate Financial Approaches provide surprising benefits to the community.
- Alternate Financial Approaches also have challenges.
- Several Alternate financial approaches are being used effectively to include:
- Monetizing underutilized assets (e.g., renting space),
- Incubating new businesses (e.g., short term rental, business collaboration),
- Non-profits form mission arms of the church,
- Co-vocational leadership opens multiple income streams,
- Entrepreneurial churches locate church in the marketplace (e.g., coffee shop, café)
- Decentralized churches do not require large church attendance
Questions for further research
- Reframing: How do church planters/pastors reframe their mission field and ministry?4
- Sustainability: Are these approaches financially and missionally sustainable?5
- Organization: How are churches with alternate financial models best organized (roles, timing, legality, network)?6
- Practice: What are some best operational practices for churches/church plants to practice alternate financial models?
Several churches in this study have been using alternate financial approaches for several years. Many explained, “Our church would have closed long ago if we did not try these approaches.” The churches have remained both financially viable and also missionally vibrant. All of the church planters consider themselves to have a call to mission in their community. As a result, these churches are having a large impact in the surrounding community. These alternate financial models provide a breath of fresh air to the church planting movement.
1 Based on a recent seminar led by Capin-Crouse, an accounting firm that engages many churches.
2 Andy Crouch predicts that every organization (including church) is now in startup mode since the COVID 19 pandemic has created a new ecosystem, similar to a small ‘ice age.’ If churches simply try to get ‘back to normal,’ they will likely not survive since the ecosystem has changed so quickly. See: https://journal.praxislabs.org/leading-beyond-the-blizzard-why-every-organization-is-now-a-startup-b7f32fb278ff. Accessed 03/16/2021.
3 I heard this figure from a presentation made by a representative of Stadia (one of the largest church planting networks in the U.S.) at the Exponential church planting conference in Orlando, FL in March, 2018. Another representative of Stadia recently informed me in April, 2021 that the figure is likely even more now.
4 This discussion summary from this subgroup was submitted by Dee Stokes, Ed.D.
5 The discussion summary from this subgroup was submitted by Ethan Fernhaber.
6 The discussion summary from this subgroup was submitted by Cy Hudson.