Church is expensive. Well, it’s expensive in the way the Rodin museum is expensive. It’s free, but if you go there actively or even go there once, you kind of feel the need to give a little something. Money and the church are not an odd couple; since the early beginnings of the establishment of churches as religious and political institutions money has been collected and continues to seep in. The church needs money to survive as a community center, whether this be at a local or an international level. And, in a lot of instances, people like to give money-- they understand their contribution in aiding the existence of their church. This is true of people of all religions, and of all incomes. Besides food and basic necessities, low-income families from all across the world spend the most money on religious festivities and contributions to their respective houses of worship. There seems to be a willingness to give money because people understand the very real effect their cash can have, and are eager to worship in the most lavish possible way they can. I don’t think this is really all that different from religions pre-Christianity, in which sacrifices of animals were made to please the gods and to signal the people’s devotion. In the end, it is all about faith, and what tools you have in the present moment to show your devotion.
That being said, the Christ Fellowship definitely asked for money, but in somewhat nontraditional ways. When we first walked into the church, instead of being greeted by a lobby or a welcome center, we were welcomed by a giant cafeteria. In the middle of hundreds of tables and chairs was a coffee kiosk; off to the side was a buffet where people could pay to dine on eggs, bacon, toast and pastries. It looked delicious, and it wasn’t exorbitantly expensive, but it was interesting that you had to pay at all. We meandered around for a bit, and noticed a bookstore that sold everything from literature to music to candles to purity rings. In both the restaurant and the bookstore, the money went directly to the church. At 11, we walked into service and settled into one of the front rows. Ten minutes into service, I noticed some people standing by the aisles with wicker baskets. How they then proceeded to ask for money was most interesting. First, the large band/choir on stage sung several songs, teasing out everyones souls and spirits. I found the music to be quite moving, if only for the swelling volume and the very visceral reaction of everyone around me. Then, Pastor Tom Mullins came onstage. He talked a little bit about the church’s recent trip to Israel, and then launched into a segment on donating.
“It’s easy to give in good times, but its a true act of faith to donate in tough times... If you follow God’s economic plan by giving money today, than He will reward you,” Tom said. As he went on, the donation baskets went round. None of us put anything in, and no one looked at us oddly, but nearly everyone else put money in. I saw checks and large notes get thrown in the basket without question. But where was all this money going? In his speech, the pastor did not mention whether today’s donations would be going to children’s programs or salaries or construction or community service projects. In a megachurch, there seems to be much more anonymity of money. It reminded me of donations to international NGOs such as the Red Cross- because they work on so many projects, the money could go anywhere, or it could simply sit for any amount of time. In a way, then, it becomes less about the amount of money and more just the sheer fact that you are contributing anything at all with the intention of helping.
At the small, local level, I have no problem with this kind of system. If people feel closer to their church and closer to God when they donate, then they should do so, no matter how much they give. The vast majority of people will not give more money to the church than they are financially able to. Christ Fellowship did not put pressure on people to donate large sums of money, even though some clearly did. For some people, it’s just the thought that counts.