Larry’s Recession and the Debt-Dependent Church

LarryburkettLarry 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.

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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.

L 700001 WringerAnother 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?

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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

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name “Precious” :-)

30 Comments

  • Good points! Paul gave us a good example and maybe he was also wearing the same brown suit for many years… Sorry for this long quote, but I think we need to listen to these words again:
    “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.” 1 Cor. 4:8-13

  • i love that passage. thanks. i often thought of it when colleagues of mine were getting well off in ministry, and building their real estate portfolios, while many of us were just trying to put food on the table.

  • The cost of seminary has been has been prohibitive to me as well. An exception is Liberty University’s Seminary. My brother graduated from there with an MDiv and, if I remember correctly, a semester’s tuition was under $2,000 USD.

  • thats great. and i went to an affordable bible college in australia that utilized volunteer teachers. it can be done.
    and of course there are plenty of non-seminary non-residential means of training for ministry which is the route most people choose.

  • Excellent post. It is such a dangerous cycle. We increase costly educational requirements for new pastors, who in turn must take jobs at big church, which in turn encourages the larger church models, which in turn requires even bigger buildings, which in turn make exclusively/largely attractional approaches to ministry necessary, which in turn decreases the perceived need for and ultimate cost of church planting. This pattern is well and truly a reality where we are.
    Wile this model has a negative impact on the whole church, we are seeing especially devastating to our indigenous churches (i.e. First Nations aka “Native Canadians”), whose leaders find this system nearly impossible to navigate and whose congregations cannot sustain.
    Planting and pastoring an inner city house church this past year (for no money) has made these dynamics very real to us. Temptations are always there. Thanks for this reminder.
    Peace,
    Jamie

  • Do you know of any house churches that use another church’s internet campus (LifeChurch.tv) as a weekly worship/teaching gathering? Might be an interesting melding of the two models.

  • good question brian. i will try and remember to ask bobby G of lifechurch.tv at next months cyberchurch symposium in london.
    but i think a lot of groups use generic campus space. i know we have used the 3d space at habbo hotel before.

  • I am one of those recent graduates who is now having to look for a ministry position that will allow me to pay of student loans. The feeling is extremely enslaving. My desire is to be able to drop everything at a moment’s notice and go wherever God might be leading me to, but until I am debt free it is impossible for me to leave.
    Thank you for sharing this wisdom.

  • Andrew,
    A great article. We are just getting ready to do another brainstorming session of recession readiness here in Seattle. We are a little frustrated by how little traditional churches are doing. Many definitely have their heads in the sand and reading your article I understand why – they are so dependent on the system as it is and so into the same debt as their parishioners that they really do not know how to respond. And as for student loans that is something that we have been trying to help seminaries think about for years with very little success. We certainly need some new models

  • Larry Burkett was around way before Dave Ramsey got popular… in fact Larry was dispensing wise financial advice when Dave Ramsey was still into risky real estate speculation and going bankrupt. Funny how Ramsey gets all the attention now. We also followed Burkett’s advice since the late 80’s and I can say that at this point of economic turmoil, it’s great to be completely out of debt and have enough of an emergency fund to live on for a couple of years if we lose our jobs.

  • This is just great to read. The whole economic basis of the western world / church (is there a distinction?) is so suspect. What a time for an alternative third way. Keep the wisdom flowing.

  • Recession or not, I think a groundswell is afoot. I am a part of two year old church plant. We’re renting art gallery space on Sunday mornings, focusing our resources in the community during the week, and I’m couldn’t be more content with my part-time salary.
    After five years of frustration (and a big salary) in a megachurch, I feel like I have seen the light…

  • Great post Andrew, I’m just going to add my voice to the chorus calling for another way. It’s not good enough for people to ‘fund’ ministry through practises which enslave others economically. The challenge for those of us willing to take it on is to live differently from those around us, and yes that means no savings, no debts, no house, no security… lots of God.

  • Some interesting thoughts Andrew – I can see where you are coming from but I don’t think I would be quite as extreme. Here are some of my observations and experiences:
    The people that I know who went to Bible college did not get church jobs when they graduated but did other things such as teach.
    The building that our church brought cheaply and did up is too small for whole church meetings but we are beginning to use it for community projects.
    I bought my first flat mainly because it was cheaper to pay the mortgage than it was to pay the rent on the room where I lived.
    Likewise I got a car loan because it was probably cheaper than buying an old banger and paying a fortune on repairs.
    I saw a very interesting Money Program on the BBC last year that put forward a case that renting made more sense than buying, especially in today’s economic climate. I think there may be something in the idea.

  • “one pastor claimed some of his churches in Texas were worth $150 million and $250 million”
    Okay. I might be in the minority here. But I just can’t see how it’s okay to amass this kind of outrageous wealth for our own programs and comfort, when so many of our brothers and sisters are starving to death. Or can’t afford elementary education. Or shoes. Or any healthcare.

  • Yeah mate – we think we need a certain lifestyle and then we need an income to sustain that lifestyle so the chances of us risking our ‘lifestyle’ for the sake of the gospel reduces greatly.
    The presumption towards middle class affluence has probably cost us a lot of decent pioneers – but then to be honest ‘where your heart is…’ They probably wouldn’t have made it anyway…

  • Hard, good words Andrew. The higher education system is the same way unfortunately. I want to teach at university. I’m currently working on two Masters (OT & NT) at a non-denom. seminary in the US. 3 year program. tuition is 14,000 per year. Then living expenses for my wife and 2 (soon to be 3) girls. (We are taking loans, but by God’s grace, that’s the only debt we have). If I go on (big if) to pursue PhD work, that’s another 3+ years of similar tuition and living expenses. The old educational structure to equip the Church’s leaders doesn’t work in some capacity because by the time I would get to a full time collegiate teaching position, I will have spent over $100,000 (loan or not) to do so. Prohibitive for most to say the least.
    p.s. My wife can’t believe how big your kids are. Any time you mentioned their ages, she feels old. She remembers watching them in Sunday school (GCC in WA). 🙂

  • Allen – nice to hear from you. GCC is Glenwood Community Church, Vancouver WA, where i was an associate pastor in the late 80’s. blessings on the church and on your studies.
    Tyler – re: “what to do?”
    probably nothing right now. we need long term solutions rather than an exodus from the old to the new that disrupts our current system.
    David – it may sound “extreme” but then i am often in the position of approaching foundations and trusts for funding for mission projects. These people hate to waste money and they like to see their investment reap exponential benefits for the Kingdom. I cant in good confidence recommend heavy investment in the old system when I know there are more economic, efficient and sustainable ways of doing ministry.

  • I fully endorse doing things in economic, efficient and sustainable ways. I agree that it is right to critique systems that don’t. I just think that there may be places for borrowing that make financial sense. A building obtained at a modest price and renovated by volunteers may be useful for doing community projects for instance.
    Also I think that there is a biblical precedent for paying people to work for the church in some circumstances.
    Perhaps you sound extreme to me because you are reacting against extreme abuse of credit, whereas I come from a background that is more modest in this respect?

  • david – you probably know that i am a big fan of micro-business loans overseas and have been promoting them as part of social enterprise and fourth sector projects. In fact, we did a small version of micro-lending last year ourselves to kick off some enterprises here. these are small, short-term, based on relational trust and economically sustainable. but this is quite different from the system that supports church and minstry as we know it in the west.
    question for you.
    if a middle eastern country had a sudden movement of Christianity [which is true for some of them] and you and i were called in to suggest a system to train its church and mission leaders, would we suggest that america export its debt -based, high salaried, seminary system even though it cant support itself at the present moment and will probably suffer much more in the near future, or would we go back to the drawing board and find a better way?
    would we really insist that all new Churches borrow funds to buy a building for 3 hours on a sunday or would we rethink the allocation of the churches resources?

  • Of course churches do not need buildings nor do they need to support full time workers. The idea of initiatives funded wisely involving prudent borrowing from ethical sources sounds really good. I actually think we are very close in our understanding.
    I can appreciate that you live without using credit such as loans and mortgages and think that is brilliant. But I just wanted to register that a lot of us use these in comparative moderation and feel that this is wise use of our money.

  • wisely and moderation are great words. i try also to use money and short term loans in this manner.
    in fact, ask my friends and they will tell you how i am always borrowing a 20 or paying them back a 20.
    hey – check out my next post – on the culture of debt.

  • I think John Piper’s church has an in-house seminary/bible college now. but that’s nothing new. Many affiliations have in house pastor preparation programs or relatively inexpensive bible colleges. Calvary Chapel comes to mind. They offer a bible certificate. One can take it at their home church via video and mailed in papers and proctored tests. But those certificates only carry authority within the movement. However, the costs are very low. Is it true in this example you get what you pay for?
    God is good
    jpu

  • kia ora, Andrew. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    As of late, I’ve been in limbo over the question of finishing the remaining 30 hours of my MDiv. AFter 2 1/2 years of seminary, I’ve landed a sweet gig with an emerging church that I love, and they pay me a good salary. So I realize that I am the exception. And I’m questioning now whether or not I can afford the remainder of the MDiv, and if I’ll actually need it as I progress toward more organic forms of church.
    I’m slowly paying off the school loans. What bothers me about the current seminary model in the West (the graduate school) is how it takes its cues from the rest of the graduate school fields–even its financial cues. At Abilene Christian U, my MDiv schooling costs the same amount as someone getting their MBA, and you know who’s going to be sucking hind teat when we graduate (at least financially speaking).
    What would be brilliant is a workshop for missional folks who are stuck in institutions who would like to learn a tent-making trade. Some vocational guidance, organic church training, and really just space to dream up what could be.

  • I’m a little late to the game on this one, but what a great post. Money seems to drive so much of ministry. It would be great to see a day when money wasn’t a top factor in making decisions about what God is leading us to do.
    In the meantime, what advice do we give to those who are bound by debt and limited in their options because of past mistakes and financial commitments?
    Is the only option to dig themselves out of debt work multiple jobs and neglecting family until they are out from under those obligations?

  • Good points … I should have probaby opted out of seminary when the time came were I couldn’t manage to pay the fee anymore. Now I owe the seminary over EUR 6000. And I’m in the missionfield, having to work fulltime in a regular job (which turned out to be THE missionfield… hehe), but I’m still hardly able to pay anything off. Thank God they have patience with me. But I don’t feel like I’m honouring them with keeping them waiting…. Tough situation…
    Thans for your well timed message.
    Tom

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