Larry Burkett's videos were hugely popular when we watched them in the 1980's. He wore the same hideous brown suit for every video which we thought was funny but we also wondered if he only owned one suit to cut expenses. His teaching videos were about living debt-free and managing your money according to Biblical principles. He also said that our debt-based economy was shortsighted and would be short lived. A big recession was in the pipeline. And he was right. Larry referred to this coming recession as an earthquake. What we are experiencing now is not exactly the "earthquake" or meltdown that Larry predicted, but its not too far off either. You could say that this is Larry's recession. Larry Burkett died in 2003 but his legacy continues.
Larry is gone but there have been other influential teachers in my life such as Randy Alcorn and Ron Blue. More recently, a great online resource is the Generous Giving website which also has a page on what the Bible says about money.
For the past 25 years, I have tried to follow Larry's advice. Sometimes I slipped up and went my own way but I always came back. One of those principles was trying to live debt-free. Living with contentment rather than debt meant i had to drop out of Seminary when the money from selling our house ran out. I never did finish my degree. And I never owned a new car, or even a car newer than 6 years old. Most of the time, my cars have been between 12 and 20 years old but I owned them outright and didn't lose much depreciation from them, and I didn't have to waste money on interest. Thanks to Larry.
I am happy to say we have no debts (except a few household bills). We have no savings, either, however, and we own no property. But at least we are free to travel to wherever God is calling us to serve. Contentment with godliness is great gain. But the problem is deeper than overwhelming personal debt. It seems our whole society is dependent on debt to function which is sustainable only with easy credit – something no longer taken for granted when the banks are going down the toilet.
Another reason I believe the traditional church will go through the wringer in this recession is because much of traditional church ministry and training is based on easy credit and the normalcy of managing long-term debt. If this subject interests you, keep reading.
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Take traditional ministry training, for example. ETSFM estimates seminary costs at US$32,000 a year. The problem with this is that a lot of ministry graduates come out of seminary or university with a debt that some dear church or ministry needs to help clear. That means the graduate needs a decent salary. That means that they will probably not end up in the organic/house/emerging church scene where lay-led churches don't need a paid professional but rather in an older traditional church setting where paying a professional pastor is normative. So rather than pioneering new breakthrough ministries into unreached areas of their country, they often end up taking care of mature believer's spiritual needs. Apostles and evangelists end up as pastors to pay off their debts. The church strengthens its position but it doesn't advance.
I have seen a number of Seminary graduates come overseas to hang with us and to potentially find work in the "emerging church". After a short time, they have gone back to USA disappointed that there are no paid positions. Huge and wonderful opportunities . . . puny financial benefit. What did they teach those students about the emerging church? My guess is they pointed to a few cool mega-churches and said these were emerging. Wrong!
And what about traditional church ministry and its dependence on buildings? I heard a Desiring God podcast last week where one pastor claimed some of his churches in Texas were worth $150 million and $250 million. How is it possible to reproduce this model without incurring incredible levels of debt? And has anyone stopped to ask if buying a huge building is the best way to spend God's money?
How much does it cost to start a traditional church with a building and paid pastor? A million? Two million? A million dollars on the mission field could help launch a huge sprinkling of house churches that would saturate an area with small vibrant communities of faith where every believer is a minister. This is happening today and it is wonderful.
One of the reasons I believe the simple, organic/house/emerging church movement is continually gaining ground and in some countries, blossoming beyond expectations, is because it is sustainable and reproducible, just as the early church was. The ministry does not get put on hold when the money runs out or loans are inaccessible. Ministry does not have to wait for a building or a paid professional to come and run the show. This recession will speak to us, if we have ears to hear, and will highlight an alternative to the church system that has flourished under Western capitalism. It will spotlight simple and sustainable church planting as it worked in the beginning of the church, as it has advanced the church through the centuries, and as it is being played out today both overseas and under the radar in Western countries.
More on this later.
Related: Recession Busting Ideas for Global Mission