How Churches Are Finding Abundance in Hard Economic Times

Facing declining tithes and offerings, some churches are discovering the power of their theological imagination.

Recent years have been hard economically for churches, especially small ones. Many churches are cutting staff and programs or even closing because of lack of resources. But while all of these cost-cutting measures deal with the expense side of the ledger, some creative churches, are finding abundance by imagining and then implementing ways of increasing their income.

The success of these churches hinges on a fundamental shift from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance. Scarcity is one of the basic axioms of all major economic systems (especially capitalism); we are trained to live and act as if there are not enough resources to go around. Abundance, on the other hand, is the conviction that that the world has enough resources to sustain itself. In the Christian tradition, abundance is a theological conviction that God provides for creation to flourish in the manner for which it was created.

Imagining abundance

Speaking of scarcity or abundance in this way is an assumption about the nature of the entire universe, not particular places within it. Specific places do experience real abundance or real scarcity, and such experiences do not necessarily disprove our convictions about the nature of the whole universe. For Christians who believe in abundance, situations of scarcity are striking reminders that the world is not functioning as God intended and that evils such as greed and injustice persist. Noted theologian Walter Brueggemann has said, “[The conviction of scarcity] ends in despair. It gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed and brutality. . . . It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves — and it is the prevailing creed of American society.”

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For churches, the distinction between living in abundance and living in scarcity often revolves around the practice of gratitude — or lack thereof. Are we thankful for the gifts that God has given us in our members, our facilities, our land, our neighbors and the institutions and other assets of our neighborhoods? And are we gratefully seeking ways in which these gifts could be offered willingly toward the health and flourishing of our congregation and the neighborhood? Theologian and social activist Mary Jo Leddy asserts in her important book Radical Gratitude that the “choice to affirm that there is enough for all is the beginning of social community, peace, and justice. The option to assume that there is enough frees the imagination to think of new political and economic possibilities.”

Indeed, new economic possibilities are much needed in many churches today, and some are beginning to trust in the abundance of God’s provision for creation.

Implementing abundance

In Luther Snow’s The Power of Asset-Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts, he tells a compelling story of a suburban congregation that increased its income by 50 percent one year by revitalizing its stewardship committee. This committee had been all but dead; no one would volunteer for it. But as the congregation began to map out the assets that they had available to them, a new, re-energized committee emerged. Leveraging their assets included growing and selling vegetables on their land and making space in their building available for neighborhood groups. One leader of this church said:

There’s so much going on, and we keep finding new connections to make things happen. Everybody is helping each other out or piggybacking one thing with another. We have worked together on lots of little fundraisers to fill in the gaps. One day we had a gathering of a bunch of the leaders to share our news and plans and ideas. Somebody said we should meet regularly. Somebody else said, “Right, and we should cooperate on a larger fundraising campaign to save time.”

The group assembled for this meeting became the church’s new and re-energized stewardship committee.

Englewood Christian Church, the church to which I belong on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis, has for the last two decades been seeking to imagine a life together that is rooted in abundance. Even though we are largely a blue-collar congregation and are located in a neighborhood that would seem to most people to be impoverished, we have found that we have been given an abundance of gifts.

In the early 1970s, we were a very large church, and although we are much smaller today (about 200 people), having a building that is much bigger than we need has been a huge asset. We have used the gift of this large building to rent space to other non-profits, host meetings for many neighborhood groups and even other churches, start a daycare that has become one of the most-recognized faith-based daycares in Central Indiana, and provide office and work space for a wide range of our own businesses and ministries.

Some shelves in Englewood’s bookstore.

The various initiatives we began followed from the gifts and skills of our members. For instance, when my wife and I came to Englewood in 2003, I was dabbling part-time in publishing and bookselling. The church had its own tiny bookstore, and they encouraged me to coordinate the bookstore and to combine it with the work I was already doing. These book-related ventures grew until I was able to devote myself full-time to them, and eventually gave rise to The Englewood Review of Books.

Similar stories have unfolded with our community development, bookkeeping, childcare, gardening and recreation ventures, among others. For the last several years, these ventures have contributed to annual economic activity in the millions of dollars, but only a very small portion of this activity has come through the church’s offering plate.

As Christians, we believe that God is the creator and sustainer of all life; the challenge for our churches is to live into this calling. What resources has God provided for the sustenance of God’s people in this place? Persistently seeking this question, I believe, will transform our economic imaginations from the prevailing Western mindset of scarcity to one of abundance.

Lead image by Shutterstock.

  • Living Liminal

    I love the idea of thinking beyond our limited, Western perspective. There’s something in this that echoes the culture(s) of the New Testament.