“I don’t go to church anymore,” she told me ruefully, “because I can’t afford it.” I was shocked. I have known this woman for almost my entire life and for most of it she had been a fixture in the South Carolina evangelical congregation that she grew up in. In fact, she had served in various church leadership positions over the years as a deacon, church elder, Sunday school teacher, treasurer, usher, cook, whatever role you can think of as far as commitment to the congregation, she had probably done it in some form or other.
Needless to say, I was perplexed. “What do you mean you can’t afford to go to church anymore?” I could not fathom an answer. We had known the poorest of the poor in our rural South Carolina community and even if they didn’t have any church clothes, they would borrow them from a relative. If they didn’t have a car, they would arrange a ride to church with a friend or in some cases would even walk miles along a country road to get to a service. So, I could not imagine that my friend couldn’t actually afford to attend church.
The real reason, which I began to discover during our conversation, turned out to be far more sinister. Over the past few years, the church had begun to expand. First it built a new structure, which was certainly needed; the old church building had faithfully served generations of parishioners but had broken rafters, a leaky roof that had been repaired countless times, rusty plumbing, and carpets worn threadbare by the feet of the faithful. It was time for a change.
However, instead of merely replacing the old structure, the church built an extravagant new building that rivaled some of the best architecture in town. Then, it built a Bible school in an adjacent lot; the school had to justify itself by holding classes every day of the week. Of course, along with those buildings, it then had to build an additional parking lot. As a result, with so much real estate in its possession, the church had to hire a full-time security to protect its assets. A few years later, the church hired a famous preacher from Atlanta, wooing him with a generous salary, home rental and care allowance…I think you can see where this is going.
In other words, the church had evolved from a place of worship into a place of business. I am a businessman, so I began to mentally tally the costs that the church must have accrued over the past few years. Although it appeared that the congregation had also increased in number, with the standard tithe at the average income of its typical parishioner, it seemed that it would be difficult for the church to afford all of its obligations on 10 percent of its congregants’ income.
And so, my friend, explained, the church began to pressure the congregation for offerings. First it was merely an offering for the building fund. Then it became an offering for the new pastor. After that came the “first fruit” offering. Then there was an “evangelist” offering. With each offering, ushers would walk around the pews passing a bucket; or even worse, the pastor would exhort members of the congregation to come to the front and drop their money (or valuables) into a large basket just in front of the pulpit. It seemed as though every 15 minutes or so there would be a break in the service for an offering. It almost seemed choreographed—like a well-planned bank heist, but in “God’s” name.
My friend, who had been a leader in the church for decades, went along with it, at first. She not only tithed but gave more. But when she went back and tallied her spending at the end of the month, she began to notice that the money she spent on offerings was taking a huge chunk out of her income. As a result, she started to deplete her savings. When she retired three years ago on a fixed income, her tithes went down, but the amounts she contributed in church offerings continued to increase.
She felt enormous pressure as a church leader to continue to support the church, but the increasing contributions to the church were beginning to crowd out other necessities—like food, gas and medical necessities. It reached a point where she would skip going some Sundays because she didn’t feel like she could pay what was expected of her. Gradually, she stopped going altogether. Church had become an expense she felt she could no longer afford. She continues to tithe, but no longer attends services because she is afraid to be seen by her peers as unsupportive of the church’s ever-expanding mission.
Mr. Williams is manager/sole owner of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the year.