The Hidden Side of Paying Off Church Mortgages Early—We Can’t Take It With Us

A really good church (whose leaders I once met on a trip out west) recently kicked off a Capital Campaign to pay off their building mortgage early. Their motivational tagline is, Financial Freedom-Missional Freedom. I just don’t buy it. The order seems out of line with the gospel.

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It reminds me of the Parable of the Rich Fool who stores up his wealth for the future. He says to himself, “Soul, You’ve stored up plenty of good things for many years. Take it easy” (Luke 12:19). Then God comes along and says, “Tonight your soul is required of you.”

What if God were to return the day their mortgage is fully paid. I think he’d say, “You have seven million dollars buried in your building; of what use is that now?

Because where we are going, we can’t take it with us.

Daily Bread

My own church—like that Capital-Campaign-Church—began by meeting in local school buildings. We had enough resources to cover missions, salaries, and building rental. And God provided our daily bread.

There is great mental value in a monthly rental model; we ask God for resources to cover our daily expenses. Even if we own our church building, the mental model of a monthly mortgage helps. We haven’t built up treasures on earth. We can’t say to our collective soul, “Take it easy, our building is paid for.”

When the children of Israel were in the wilderness, God provided daily bread in the form of manna. Any manna collected for “tomorrow” bred maggots and stank.

God gives enough for today. We can’t take it with us.

The misplaced priorities of today and tomorrow

Their argument goes like this. If we work extra hard today to pay off our three and a half million dollar mortgage, then tomorrow we’ll have an extra three hundred thousand dollars a year for mission and outreach.

I know the argument, but it doesn’t work. Who knows what tomorrow brings? We only have today.

Why not campaign today to increase mission funding and tomorrow we pay off our building? In fact, why not take a second mortgage on the church—a type of selling all we have—to serve other missions? Or use it to pay off the mortgage of a poorer church?

The thirty year-old church above is the daughter another church that was only twelve years-old when it planted them. That “mother” church itself was the daughter church of yet another church plant.

This church has church planting in its DNA. Why not raise capital to start another church in a poor neighborhood or another city? I think they bury their talents in a building today for Missional Freedom tomorrow.

The mental model of monthly needs

Let’s go back to our mental model of monthly needs. There is great value in asking God for our monthly needs. It forces us to rely on God’s moment-by-moment provision.

Many churches begin by renting schools. They ask God to supply their daily needs.

Eventually, the human-resources required for weekly setup becomes a burden. We want to use our time (as well as our money) for outward services of mission, not just inward services of chair and sound system setup. So we buy a building.

But that building mortgage still fits in our mental model of asking for monthly needs.

That church with the new capital campaign has a monthly mortgage of less than fifteen percent of its monthly budget. That seems about right. Probably too low. There’s got to be a reasonable percentage; too big a monthly percentage makes us church-poor and too little of a percentage is a treasure on earth that moth and rust destroys.

What’s so bad about considering our monthly mortgage just like our old monthly rental? We use our today’s money for today’s needs. Why build up treasures here on earth?

Why the big push to pay it off, delaying (yet again) their built-in DNA to church plant?

These are really good folk

I know that this is a gospel-centered church, really good folk. I once met with  its staff and I respected every single one. I would recommend their church to  newcomers to their city. I don’t mean to pick on them. I wish all churches were led half as well.

And I suspect they’ve considered everything I raise here.

But their new campaign stirred this question that haunts me every time I hear of other churches doing the same thing. Why invest all this energy in an earthly asset? Ask me to invest in souls, yes. Ask me to invest in a building? Yuck! We can’t take it with us.

How much better it would be if some of our business-folk formed companies to purchase our churches and simply lease them back. Our churches would be free of earthly possessions; we could pray, “Give us this month our monthly lease payment.”

On the other hand

But maybe I’m wrong. Yet again. And maybe the “worldly wisdom” of other churches is right. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced. Let’s pay off our mortgages today, so that tomorrow—when there is surplus—we can support missions.

So here is my idea. I’m going to quit tithing for the next five years. I’ll bury that money to pay off my mortgage and prepay all of my future property taxes. Maybe it’ll take ten years.

Once paid, I’ll have lots of extra money to help with my church’s Capital Campaign. I’ll give out of my surplus. Of course, that means the church’s mission work won’t get funded for twenty years. I’ll first pay my mortgage then help the church pay theirs. And then we’ll do mission together.

Who knows, maybe in twenty years or so, we’ll be able to start that new church plant or help that inner city church pay their expenses.

Although in twenty years I’ll probably be dead. And I can’t take it with me.



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I Long To Live My Life As An Artist

A friend of mine challenged me to adopt—perhaps embrace—a Transcendent Pursuit for the coming year, something life changing, something I can bring to the world to make a difference.

Then I re-read the first chapter of Genesis. It felt like I was reading it for the first time, and I felt the nudge of God.

The first thing I noticed was the creative artistry of God. The opening verses do not focus on God’s unparalleled power. Instead they reveal—and almost revel in—the beauty.  After each creative act God doesn’t say, “That was powerful;” he says, creation+of+adam+michelangelo“This is beautiful” (a better translation than what we are used to).

Next I noticed that God sees potential where no one else ever could. God hovers over and looks into the chaos and void; he takes the raw materials of darkness and depth, and he creates light, and it is beautiful. As are the oceans and fields and skies.

After observation and creation, God gives. He gives this unparalleled treasure of creation to man. The opening chapter of the Bible surges with swarming fish, teaming land animals, luscious vegetation, and a sky pregnant with stars.

And God turns to man and says, “It’s yours. Take it. Care for it. Love it.”

The opening of the Bible reveals a completely different God than any man has ever created. The opening of the Bible reveals God as an artist, seeing beauty, creating incomparable art, and giving it away. It is a radical image of God.

I long to live like that artist