Growing Churches Invest in People

The greatest cost most churches will incur is “opportunity cost” — the price of doing the safe, easy thing. Wise church leaders know they can trust God, especially when they tackle something new or Don Corder

As ministers, we need to keep in mind that we are talking about a really big God who says the stars and planets are but vapor in His breath. That’s pretty big. We can trust Him to guide our decisions, including financial ones. The key is understanding the difference between “cost” and “price.”

The church incurs a cost because of what we fail to do for God — a concept whose equivalent in the business realm is known as “opportunity cost,” or the price of either not doing a thing or doing nothing. This is the true cost of the Western church in the last fifty years.

“Opportunity Cost”

I was trying to help a certain pastor friend who was struggling with the question most churches have grappled with over the past three decades: Shall we change?

This particular pastor wanted to shed the ministerial robe he traditionally donned on Sunday mornings, disband the choir, and stop using hymnals. He met with his team, all of whom were in favor of the proposed changes. They wanted to meet the needs of their contemporary neighborhood with contemporary means.

They talked about the changes endlessly, and even leaked the ideas to the parishioners. Many of them were thrilled at the prospect, while others grumbled. The pastor assured the grumblers that the changes wouldn’t be forced on them but would rather be optional. This assurance settled them down. Meanwhile, the staff continued to discuss the myriad ways to affect a transition to a more contemporary service. A year went by, but no date was set for making the switch. No one could reach a decision.

The staff’s lack of decisiveness had nothing to do with the will of God. They were all in agreement that God wanted them to change. Their indecision came right down to not wanting to deal with those whose feathers would be ruffled by the changes. They kept telling themselves they were easing into the change to be wise, but they weren’t wise at all. Would Jesus have entered their staff meeting and said: “Please don’t change things. This church has been shrinking for years. Keep it up!”

The biggest cost to most churches is “opportunity cost.” There is no immediate physical cost for doing nothing. But the ongoing cost that’s accrued by doing nothing is that no new people come to church, no new families are saved, fewer and fewer orphans are cared for, and so forth.  When we talk something to death yet do nothing to act on it, we’re accruing “opportunity cost.”

Let’s say a church missions committee plans a fund-raiser banquet, and in selecting the menu, someone has the bright idea not to offend the vegetarians. Now, I’m not bashing vegetarians. But this type of reasoning easily becomes a slippery slope that leads to distraction from the primary purpose — in this case, to raise funds.

The committee’s goal becomes not to offend people with diabetes, high blood pressure, or diverticulitis. They carefully look at every dollar spent, and yet they freely spend time and resources on all the wrong stuff. Because they spend so much time and effort planning a menu that caters to a select few instead of focusing on how they could raise the most
money, their net profits are lower than they otherwise would have been.

And the money they didn’t raise because they were focused on superficial things — that’s “opportunity cost.” It’s potential income that was sacrificed unnecessarily.

Cost vs. Price

When you consider potential projects, you ask, “What is the cost of this?” and “What is the cost of that?” But what you’re really asking for are prices.

In business terms, the difference between price and cost is explained this way: Price is what you pay for a thing, and cost is what you give up, don’t get, or give away.

It’s like investing. You always measure the value of an investment by the return it produces for you. Price is what you pay; return is what you get.

In the church, the most important return is the number of people we reach for Christ; the cost is a measure of the resources we allocate toward reaching people for Christ, plus the number of people we fail to reach (opportunity cost) because of our indecisiveness, ineffectiveness, and so forth.

Simply put, “opportunity costs” are the things that do not happen because of a course of action not taken. In the past forty years, the Western church has gone from being a leading force in a Christian culture to a religious sect in a secular culture. How did that happen?

Recently, while trying to help a local church raise funds for its building campaign, I was turned down for a loan at the bank. This church had been a beacon in the community for over a hundred years and a customer of the bank for almost four decades.

When I asked the banker to explain his refusal, he said, “While the bank appreciates our long business relationship with the church, the loan committee views churches as depreciating assets in a declining industry, and the committee members have no appetite for lending to an organization in that environment.”

What the banker was saying is, “When we look at the church, we see nothing happening.” There was a time when banks fought to do business with the local church because of the resulting boost in the bank’s reputation. Do you think the church has come to this point for all it has done over the last forty years or for what it has not done?

What about your church? Do you spend more time talking about what people inside the church like or don’t like — or what the people outside the church need? Do you expend more energy trying to avoid conflict or trying to change lives? Do you spend more time talking or doing?

Every choice has a cost, and every cost has a corresponding return. On which does your church focus?

Return on Investment

“Return on investment” in the church is best measured by the number of lives changed. Cost should be measured by how many people won’t hear the gospel and whose lives will never change because of the things that we in the church choose not to do.

Here is a little exercise for you to try. Think of all the people you know of who gave their heart to Jesus at your church in the last year. Now, double that number to account for the people who gave their heart to Jesus without making it public knowledge. Next, divide your church’s annual budget by that number. You now have a value that represents the dollar amount that your church spends for each new soul it sends to heaven. Are you proud of that amount?

Here is the really meaningful part of this exercise. If you wanted to cut the “cost per soul sent to heaven” at your church in half, would it be easier to double the number of salvations or to cut your budget in half? Now, take five minutes and write down every idea you can think of that could increase the number of salvations in your church in the next twelve

For example, you could include an altar call at the end of each service, or you could invite a soul-winning evangelist to hold a revival at your church. Whatever ideas you generate, the souls that don’t go to heaven next year, and the lives not changed — these represent the opportunity cost of not pursuing the ideas you just wrote down.

If you are a church leader, you should get this concept of opportunity cost into your own spirit, as well as into the spirit of the people you lead. Then, direct your budget accordingly. Call me in a year, and we will celebrate together how God honored your decision.

You cannot measure costs simply in terms of dollars, resources, and time. Start viewing the money your church spends as an investment in heaven, not an amount spent on goods and services. And then, most important, measure costs in people not going to heaven and the amount of people who won’t hear the gospel if you do the safe, easy thing instead of the “scary,” God thing.

Get more great content like this delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe Now