Last fall Christianity Today published an article called “Here Come the Skinny Cows.” The authors present several cautions as well as valuable reminders as they look at trends in the church and culture. However, I admit I struggle with their concluding assessment, “To position our churches for long-term sustainability we must avoid unnecessary fears and the intrinsic limitations of a scarcity mindset.” The question for me is: what are unnecessary fears and what are realistic concerns?
I agree we can’t just hunker down and only do the bare minimum of ministry to try to make funds last. We always need to exercise faith in the One who gives us all things. But at the same time, we need to be good stewards of what He has already given us. Just as Joseph helped Egypt conserve grain for seven years before the seven years of famine came, we need to plan carefully for what seems likely to come. God put Joseph in that position for that very reason (Genesis 50:20).
Jesus, in His parable, commended the steward “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (Matthew 25:21 ESV). The servant who was chastised was the one who buried his talent in the ground so it couldn’t be lost or used for anything. He wasn’t willing to try something and risk failing.
At another time, Jesus said, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28). While it is tempting to claim this as a divine mandate for strategic planning, that is to ignore the greater context of counting the cost of discipleship. “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple… So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that He has cannot be My disciple” (27, 33). Perhaps then our planning needs to take the form of reminding church members that what they have is not their own.
The early church was fully invested in following their Savior as a united body. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). The “rugged individualism” of America today makes this seem like an impossibility. In many cases our churches are funded by what’s left, not what’s first. We are reluctant to surrender any of our comforts or advantages in order to follow Christ wholeheartedly and contribute freely to the ministry He has given us. It’s hard to even get church members to give of their time to assist in the functions of the church, much less contribute sacrificially.
If the “skinny cows” are indeed coming in the near future, we as leaders need to begin preparing now by clearly teaching the cost of discipleship and all that means for our tithes and offerings, our time and talents, and our daily priorities. If members aren’t willing to commit to their church body while things are easy, what will they do as our culture continues to turn away from Christian values? In some countries around the world the decision to be a Christian is a choice of life or death, not a choice of whether to go to church or to the kid’s ballgame. We’ve had it easy for a very long time when compared to the majority of church history.
I believe the other tangible step that we as churches and denominations can take is to assess the true needs for ministry in our communities. Do we need to have church buildings, land, and parsonages that require maintenance? Do we need to purchase Sunday school materials and bulletins? Do we need as many paid staff members? Are there things we should be doing that we aren’t? Are there less expensive ways to do what we believe God has called us to do? We should count the cost, not just in dollars and cents, but in obedience to the One we claim as our Savior and Lord. If we are not following His lead both individually and collectively, we are not being faithful stewards.
Even as we see the trends and evaluate where we are, we can find hope and peace in the fact that God will build His church “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Our favor with culture may disappear entirely, but God’s purposes will prevail. We may lose everything else, but no one can take us out of the Father’s hand (John 10:29). If we continue to plant and water by faith, God will give the growth as He has determined (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
© 2020 Dawn Rutan. Images copyright free from pixabay.com. The opinions stated do not necessarily reflect the views of my church or employer.