Saturday, May 4, 2013

CHURCH: Charity or Tax Deductible Country Club?

This morning I spent a few minutes--as I have on occasion over the past few years--perusing the website of my former church. And the more I look at what the church has to offer the community--or rather doesn't have to offer--the stronger my belief that it has no right to call itself a charity and should, instead, be designated for what it is--a big-ass country club with a cross.

I spent about 35 years as an active member of the Mennonite Church, serving on committees, attending youth activities and serving as youth president. I sang (but did not dance), read, played piano, competed in bible quizzing tournaments. I did it all. And never felt like a part of it. My alienation from the social club was only a very tiny part of the reason for my defection. However I do admit that if I had felt more accepted and more comfortable in "the club" it is very likely I wouldn't have questioned my faith quite so much.

That being said, as denominations go, I still think the Mennos are one of the least objectionable out there. I say that because they don't waste their money on gaudy, ostentatious affectations or costumes for their leaders. And the church as an organization does occasionally get it right as far as helping their fellow man. Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Disaster Service as well as Ten Thousand Villages are all excellent charities that focus mainly on the rebuilding, feeding, education and fair trade for the less fortunate with very little--if any--time or energy spent on Bible Thumping. However the same cannot be said for individual churches. As is attested to by my recent visit to my former church's website.

Oh, there are plenty of clubs and activities that are available to members of the church, and even to members of the outside community. But not one of these offerings comes without the attached string of potential indoctrination. Activities for youth and children, Women's club, Men's club, Gym nights--you name it. Every single one includes some form of Bible study or prayer or worship. I couldn't find a single example of community outreach such as free babysitting, offering the gym or the kitchen to the community for use at no charge, visiting the elderly, free babysitting for working single mothers, volunteering at the food bank, cleaning up the local highways. Nothing. In truth every single club and activity is geared towards the membership of that church. Granted, there is no official stipulation that in order to attend the church or the activites that you have to pay a certain fee, but tithing is highly recommended and if you don't share the belief system--let's face it--you're not gonna be terribly comfortable there.

A couple of years ago I heard a couple of my relatives talking about the Pay it Forward activity that the youth group had participated in the previous week and my ears perked up. This sounded promising! Maybe they were actually going to do something to help out the greater community without expecting anything in return but I was disappointed. They had sent kids in cars out to local drive-through coffee shops and restaurants. The kids would go through the drive through, give the cashier a set amount of cash that was to be applied towards the bill of the car immediately behind them. I was already underwhelmed by this premise when I heard the kicker: A note was to be given to the car receiving the donation--a note that told them that their meal had been paid for by the selfless kids at the Corner Mennonite church and when they could attend services the next morning. So it was nothing more than elaborate proselytizing.

So, what are your donations to your local church used for? Well, there's upkeep and maintenance on the church building. There's the salaries for the pastors and all their clerical assistants. And then there may or may not be donations to other "charitable" organizations associated with that particular denomination. There may also be contributions that go towards sending youth to international youth rallies or for "volunteering" jaunts in other impoverished countries like Switzerland where they can spend time witnessing on the slopes while snowboarding or skiing. (I did not make that up, by the way. True story.)

And where is the charitable merit in this--or any--church's mission statement? If all it takes to merit status as a charitable organization is the activity of spreading your particular fairytale to the masses then surely Dr. Seuss should have qualified! But shouldn't there be more to it? Shouldn't there be some actual...well, you know...CHARITY involved? As in giving something to others without expecting anything--including Sunday morning pew-sittin'--in return?


  1. I think that there are lots of charitable contributions, but often when they come straight from churches like this it gets embroiled in the social club atmosphere and can get lost a bit. Ski trips, youth group trips to the vatican (not for mennonites I'm sure but you get my point), fund raisers for dances, and the like. Not to say that churches don't donate, or that those things aren't important to the youth, but just that they aren't really placing them on the moral pedestal that they often claim to be on. I often say, there is nothing that can be achieved by religious means that can not be achieved by secular means. And in my opinion, cutting out the middleman of religion often leaves more money for those who need it and under far fewer pretenses.

  2. The thing is, the vast majority of member's donations go to the church's overhead. I think, at our old church anyway, they designated maybe 10% of givings to outside charities that actually know...charitable work. But the "tithing" goes almost exclusively to pastor and secretary salaries, building maintenance, heating, water, etc. (I've seen the financial statements.) Shortly after we left our church had an enormous building project that cost them somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2 million dollars. That included a beautiful new gym and kitchen. Is that being offered to the community as a free resource? So, yeah, like you say, the church basically functions as an enormous middle man. Just another charity with enormous administrative costs where the true intent of the donation gets lost in the bureaucracy.