Whose Fault Is It That Churches in Poor Communities Are Struggling?

If you were building a new restaurant, the ideal location might be a place where a lot of affluent people live. They’re the ones who have money to spend, after all, and time to eat out. Those are the people who can help your business grow.

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But if you’re a church with a desire to share the Gospel, none of that should matter. You want to reach the poor and the wealthy. If anything, the people without much money need the most help, and churches (all relevant criticism aside) frequently serve as community hubs, helping people find meaning and hope, build connections, and make use of social services.

That also creates a problem for church “planters.”

If you start a church in a poor area — perhaps with some seed money from a larger, more established church — you’re relying on the people you serve to give you the money you need to pay salaries and rent. It’s almost cruel to guilt-trip people who don’t make much money to begin with to hand over 10% of their income. That’s what televangelists do — with the promise that God will reward them for sending in their “seed money.”

The Atlantic‘s Patton Dodd just published a piece looking at a pastor who faces that very dilemma. Yoan Mora appears to have his community’s best interests at heart, unlike those televangelists, but he also needs help to continue his work.

The median income in 78207, the zip code where Primera Iglesia Cristiana is located, is less than $25,000. If the church is a raging success someday, with, say, 150 members, and 100 of those members are adults earning the median income, and all of those members tithe a full 10 percent of their pre-tax earning (most churchgoers give far less), it would have a budget of $250,000. That budget would need to cover potential employees, insurance for the building, plus upkeep for the aging structure, and a slew of events, including food and clothing drives, among other things.

It’s not like Mora is enriching himself through this either. His salary — he just got a raise — is now $12,000 a year. That’s nothing for a family of four, which is why he still holds another job.

Part of me wonders if the money at the church is being used effectively. Would the people who go there get more bang for their buck if they put their money into electing people, at the state and federal levels, who look out for them and work to lift them out of poverty? The GOP has no desire to do that, and this church is in Texas, where both U.S. senators (Ted Cruz and John Cornyn) are Republicans who voted for the recent tax scam bill that will worsen income inequality and benefit the wealthy. That said, the people in this San Antonio community elected Democrats to every other meaningful post, and their political contributions would likely be a drop in the bucket compared to the types of money pouring into those senators’ campaigns.

There’s a strong case to be made that this church is worth the cost to the families who attend because of all the secular benefits they might get out of it, but if that’s true, why aren’t wealthier churches doing more to maintain them? Mora is doing everything he can to stretch his dollar while other churches spend countless dollars to put on a show. Mora says the money would be nice but he needs more than that.

Mora says financial backing from an affluent white church is not necessarily the kind of help his church needs now. “How can big churches help small churches?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s not sending money only. Help us with jobs. Good positions. Train us to be a success. I have several people in my church who are looking for employment.”

It comes down to a simple question: Are wealthier Christians more interested in planting churches or maintaining the gardens they’ve created?

On a side note, the comments in the Atlantic piece include a lot of people criticizing the church for just being a church. I’m obviously aware of those arguments — these people don’t need mythology, they need secular help instead of religious dogma, the community should invest in more secular social services, etc. But that’s missing the point. For many of these people, church leaders are the only people they know looking out for them and there’s a religious glue that often holds their communities together. I’m all for secular alternatives, but while this church is here, it’s worth asking what it can do to provide actual help to those who attend. Many churches serve their communities remarkably well even when you set aside the fairy tales.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Drew for the link)

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