Last Sunday afternoon I had an interesting conversation with the assistant pastor of our son’s church. He described a recent attempted church plant in an area known for its upscale "hippie-ishness". The picture he painted (my apologies to my friend if I get this wrong) centered around bi-vocational ministers struggling to support the church. In the course of the conversation he made three statements that got me thinking. First, he asserted something we all have observed – "millennials don't tithe". Second, he shared how the church plant failed because "it all just became too much" for the pastor (and others on his team, I assume) to carry. Third, after I had expressed my own impatience with the bi-vocational model of ministry, he asked if it was wrong “to look for alternatives” to our traditional tithes and offerings model of supporting the ministry of the church.
I had two contradictory initial, knee-jerk reactions to that last question. The first place my mind went was to say that the Scripture really only gives us one model – the traditional one – for supporting the work of the church. God expects his people to give freely, abundantly and sacrificially. God established the concept of tithing (as long as we are careful not to get trapped in legalistic fearfulness) in the nascent, newly established Israeli nation for two reasons: First, "…that there might be meat in my house (Mal 3:10; Deut 26:12,13)". Second, to build, within the psyche of each individual person of His chosen people (I.e. a group including both the Israeli people and the Christian church), a pattern of thinking that goes to God and the things of God first.
The second place my thinking went, in fine contradictory fashion, was to say "Yeah! Why not find alternatives?" God is infinitely creative, why limit Him to our traditional model? I have put some thought into that idea over the past week and have come to the following conclusion: There are no viable alternatives to the traditional model for supporting the work of the church. This becomes especially clear when you read 1 Corinthians 9:14. "In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel.” (See also Matthew 10:8–10 and Luke 10:7). That word "commanded" is a pretty strong word. Note how it is directed – it speaks directly to the people of the church on whom fivefold ministers (Ephesians 4:11) spend their lives, preparing God’s people for the work of the kingdom.
One has to ask why God designed it this way. Why didn’t He leave any room for "alternative" methods to support the church? I see two major concerns God was addressing. My friend stated it so well – "It (the work of keeping the church afloat while also working full-time) all just became too much" for the pastor to handle. I am no longer young and have been watching ministers of the gospel for a long time. Time and time again I have watched a pastor do all the labor of the church while his parishioners sat on their hands. Time and time again I have watched as bi-vocational ministers labor to support their families while the church languishes, needing fuller and deeper ministry than their pastor is able to give them. When you labor at a job or business your energies – physical, emotional and spiritual – go into that labor, leaving little for the sheep of the flock you are shepherding. The bi-vocational model is necessary in some circumstances, but when it becomes the sustained – usual, customary and expected – modus operandi of the church and her ministers, that ministry becomes limited, unatural and fruitless, leaving the door open for our enemy to prosper.
Finally, I'd like to address my friend's statement that, "millennials don't tithe." That's a very true statement. Every generation has its characteristic sins, and a narrowed, self-centered focus is one sad trait of the millennial generation. After receiving Christ they are usually happy to attend church and receive from its ministry, but, in general, they don't give back. (This absolutely is not always the case. I’m speaking in generalities here.) So, look at this from God's point of view – what is He to do with these self-focused young people? Somehow they need to be trained to think of God and God's goals and plans first, before dealing with their own issues and needs. Suppose a church managed to find an alternative income source that didn't overwork the pastor. How would these young people ever learn to put God first if we drop tithing from our mode of operation? They won't. Jesus made it clear that a God-centered focus begins with the giving of your material substance (Matt 6:21). The Lord commands us to support his fivefold ministers because He wants us to move deeper into faith with Him and that journey begins with regular, disciplined giving. For a church to install an alternative form of financing the ministry would be to enable bad behavior on the part of the sheep and would stunt the growth of his people, especially the growth of the millennials in the congregation. Someone might want to accuse me right now of being an old-fashioned fuddy-dud. I can't say that I don't fit that model in some ways, but I am quite aware that not all innovative and "out-of-the-box" models for ministry are wrong. The great mistake of the church in the past has been to reject new ideas out of hand, simply because they are different. I am not doing that here. It is simply that it is vital to weigh everything we do in the church in two ways: First by the Scripture as manifested in good, solid, strong doctrine, and, second, by the Spirit and what He is speaking about the situation. Some good work or church program might be a good thing and even be scripturally sound, but it could still miss what God really wants to do. We must weigh all things by the Scripture and by the Spirit, especially when we are contemplating a departure from the norm. God often leads us to do just that, to step away from those things that have been our usual and customary practice, but when we do such things we must know for certain that we are led by the Spirit. So, when you weigh the suggestion that we find alternative models for supporting the work of the church by those measures, it falls short.