To start charities or not to start charities, is that the Christian question?
During my research and writing of HWJDB How Would Jesus Do Business? at Denver Seminary’s library, I asked seminary students what they were going to do after they got their M. Div. (Masters of Divinity) degree? Most indicated they wanted to start a non profit. Hearing similar responses, I countered that they should start a business instead. They’d still be serving others, yet they didn’t have to comply with all of the IRS reams of legal and paperwork requirements. Here’s why.
Skip starting or close down most non-profit charities…
My wife and I saw a local showing of the documentary Poverty, Inc. She, like me, thought it was a hoity-toity Christian film, a snobbish view of Christian charity efforts. She, like me, came away totally in agreement with its message. Most charities, whether NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) or non-profits, can actually be detrimental to a community or the society it serves.
One story in the video stuck out. A local man in the village started a business selling eggs to his neighbors after his village was devastated; both sides benefited from his business. A church heard about their calamity and came in and gave away free food and clothing. The church’s “free food” closed down his business. Then they pulled out and went to another village that was “worse off.” Why pay when you can get it for free? Books such as When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert and Toxic Charity by Lupton echo the same theme: Stop the insanity with more charities!
Now, not all charities are bad. We went through a difficult period where we didn’t earn enough and the church food bank helped us through the rough spots. It was either buy gas to continue to earn money for gas to do our jobs or buy food and lose the opportunity to earn money (see Prov 24:27). The free food allowed us to continue to do our jobs until we made more than enough to no longer need the food bank. But don’t get me started about Christians who do not want to pay me for my ideas, experience, and labor. The ungrateful and frequent, “Can I buy you lunch/coffee so I can pick your brain?” of coveting free stuff from me. Don’t pay me? Back to the food bank we go.
However, the same toxic charity behaviors happen when Christian educational non-profits offer free content to everyone. They damage, and in some cases kill off, Christians who earn a living training others in faith and work in business. Like the free food in Africa, why should a Christian pay when they can get it for free from a non-profit who gets donations from businesses and others?
…and establish Church Coworking businesses instead
Why? Because people only value what they pay for. The nature of entrepreneurship and capitalism is you look at resources and how they are being used, or not, and how best to press them into even better use. Stark’s book, The Victory of Reason, shows historically how God’s purpose for Christians is to be co-creators with Him and what is true capitalism and entrepreneurialism. It continuously improves prosperity for a person, family, church, and community.
I met with a pastor and his wife at their church to discuss entrepreneurship in church. Their church was a closed big box retail building converted into a church, food bank, daycare center, and a school. Except for the daycare and school, most of it sat unused Monday through Saturday. Or another church had a coffee shop built in and only opened it on Sundays. Share this “Sunday Only” use of church resources with fellow area startup founders and nearly all drop their mouths at the loss of opportunities and wasted resources. Everything we have is a direct blessing from God, which means every Christian and church is a full-time banker. If we misappropriate funds (talents and resources), the Depositor might find someone else to handle His resources, maybe even the resources that were earmarked for me or my church (P.S. The pastor said to call them. I did, five times. No response).
Most pastors and church staff I know understand little about capitalism and economics, let alone business issues. Nearly all business owners I know would never go to their pastor if they needed help in their business. The clergy and staff are in “full-time ministry” and have a “higher calling.” If you survey the local churches, I bet you see most sit empty Monday through Saturday. But if done right, it could benefit it’s members, the church, and the whole community it resides in. Can we take a hint from a businessman’s view of resources?
Cornelius Vanderbilt was having a $1.15 million tax dispute with the federal government’s Internal Revenue office. During the Civil War, he had retrofitted his million-dollar steamship, the Vanderbilt, and gave it to the Union Navy as a gift as part of his patriotic duty. “We ought to find patriotism enough in our country to do something for it without everybody making money out of the funds of the government.” He hints of crony capitalism which still happens in our day, too.
Yet, after the war, the government was not so forthcoming returning his resource. “I said I could do better [putting his steamship to work than the government]…Why, they never gave me my vessel back,’ he explained. Yes, he had made a gift of it, but the navy had abandoned it. ‘The finest ship ever built is now rotting at the wharves in San Francisco.’” Vanderbilt had “created an atmosphere [in his company] of efficiency, frugality, and diligence, as well as swift retribution for dishonesty and sloth.” To the government, his ship was no longer needed. To him, he saw the chance to put his ship back into service, putting others to work earning a living and he earning more profits.
The same goes for church buildings. How many sit rarely used Monday through Saturday? If Christians and their church could unleash their latent God-given talents and creativity they could put all of their resources to work. Then they can increase the prosperity of their church members, the community, and finally to the church itself. Truly a win/win/win situation. Imagine starting a sort of church co-working spot where not only are people learning about God’s view of His economy, property, but increasing their prosperity, too. They put all of the body parts in the body of Christ, supporting one another, as it should be, and, as God designed it.
In the parable of the talents, the master entrusted his possessions (investments) to his slaves, “each according to his own ability” (Matt 25:14). Does your church need help putting all of your God-given talents and the church resources to work for God’s glory and prosperity?
 The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles, pg 491
 The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles, pg 358
 The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles, pg 511
 The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles, pg 404