Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Book Review (#62 of 2014) The Debt-Free Church by Jeff Berg and Jim Burgess

The Debt-Free Church: Experiencing Financial Freedom While Growing Your Ministry
At the time of publishing (1994), Berg was a "marketing communications coordinator for a financial software firm" and Burgess was pastoring Fellowship Bible Church in Dalton, GA... he now pastors Fellowship of the United Arab Emirates which I bet is a good story. They both have apparently worked with Larry Burkett of Crown Financial.

To write this book, the authors interviewed people from hundreds of churches who saw varying results in their building plans. There are a lot of horror stories from churches who fell apart or went bankrupt after taking on debt, and triumphant stories of churches who chose to raise funds before they built, or be more creative about their current resources.

The authors' main thesis is that while borrowing is not a sin, it is always cautioned against in Scripture. The biblical examples of building programs (the Tabernacle, the Temples, caring for those displaced in Jerusalem after Pentecost, funding Paul's ministry, and funding the Jersualem church after the famine) model sacrificial given by God's people until the right amount was raised-- before the work was established. Once enough was gathered, it was put to use-- and not before.

The authors attempt to address some of the counterarguments churches give in defense of borrowing. My favorite counterargument they demolish is that "borrowing is an act of faith," perhaps even greater than patiently saving up to build.  Berg and Burgess respond (p. 102, italics their own):

"It is not faith to test God's goodness with presumption...but borrowing usually does reflect presumption-- believing we know God's will in the future without proof of God's provision in the present...Some say, 'But when you wait until you have all the money in hand before you proceed, that's not walking by faith--it's walking by sight.' This argument ignores the clear teaching of the scriptural examples...Accumulating funds in advance of ministry is God's very own method! In stark contrast to the principle of trusing God to supply through His people, the concept of trusting God to help repay loans has no scriptural support whatsoever...Ministering without borrowing...neither obligates God nor presumes on an ideal future. If borrowing is truly a way of trusting God, why do churches that borrow sometimes end up in bankruptcy? Has God failed?"

The authors list some strategies for congregations who wish to become debt-free, and for members who wish to keep their church debt-free. They also exhort individual church members, and especially leadership, adopt sound financial practices and model them.

"We believe that the church of Jesus Christ will not be truly financially free until the individuals members of the church are financially free" (p. 181).

I agree with the authors that "in the final analysis, godly ministry is not a question of what 'works.' Rather, the question to ask is, 'Are we consistently conforming ourselves to biblical principles"  (p. 202). Giving by church members is an indication of their spiritual condition (p. 154). The best way to improve the spiritual condition of believers is for their pastors and elders to preach the Word and disciple them properly--which includes modeling financial discipline. You don't want your members giving to a program or something that's man-made; you want them giving sacrificially because they desire to be obedient to God in doing so.

"Unless your people are enthusiastically demonstrating sincere love for Christ by their current levels of generous giving, there is little reason to assume they will rise to the occasion in support of paying off a loan"  (p. 154)

I found myself relatively discouraged about believing any church that trumpets "God's will" for a particular growth plan. This book tells the story of too many churches who were growing rapidly and borrowed to expand, when in Year Five of a Ten Year Plan the pastor "accepts a calling" to a different church, members then leave (some following the pastor to his new church) and the financial situation devolves rapidly into crisis and bankruptcy. People claimed "God's will" every step of the way; because the attendance and financial picture seemed to be strong evidence. Until it rapidly deteriorated. I have been a part of a similar church story, the church still groans under the stress of having borrowed to build a new facility when it had double the attendance it currently has.

A weakness of the book is in not detailing what patterns, if any, could be discerned among the debt and debt-free churches in regards to budget decisions. I would have liked to have known more from their surveys of churches what churches were doing with their assets while they were accumulating. How many were keeping it in savings accounts vs. how many were investing? I would also have enjoyed reading more about some of the more creative uses of funds churches were demonstrating. But their focus is narrow and their task relatively well-accomplished. I give the book 3.5 stars out of 5.

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