The Adventist Church and a billion dollars

That’s correct! One billion dollars is a rounded total of tithe contributions for the Seventh-day Adventist world church in 1997. The number boggles the mind and defies comprehension. But let’s try to put this in a perspective that we can grasp. World church membership stood close to 10 million at the end of 1997. That means the average tithe contribution per member during 1997 was about two U.S. dollars a week or about $100.00 for the year.

Let’s put these numbers in a time-line perspective. Beginning with the organization of the Adventist Church in 1863, cumulative tithe contributions took 100 years to reach the first one billion dollars—in 1963. It took 10 years before the second billion was reached—in 1973, and four for the third—in 1977. Then the billion mark was reached in three, and then in two years in the 1980s. By 1997 church members were contributing more than one billion dollars tithe annually.

In other words, over its 135-year history, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has had a cumulative tithe of about 15 billion dollars. It took 124 years for the first half of that amount to be received, and 10 years for the second half. With the steady growth of membership and monetary inflation, annual comparisons are somewhat meaningless. However, it is interesting to look at the impact on long-term funding and at least try to comprehend such large numbers.

But tithe is not the whole story, of course. Members give additional funds to support the worldwide and local work of the church. These non-tithe funds include wills, trusts, and donations for specific projects. However, the largest portion of non-tithe funds consists of “World Mission Funds,” usually collected during the Sabbath school or as part of the combined budget giving by members. In 1997, this amounted to more than 50 million dollars—funds that support all aspects of the maintenance and expansion of the church work around the world, including educational, medical, evangelistic, and pastoral ministries. This article, however, is confined primarily to the source and use of tithe funds.

The spiritual nature of giving

But before we think of how to spend a billion dollars, consider the spiritual nature of this enterprise. What causes people from a variety of cultures, nations, and economic levels to join together and give liberally toward the marvelous work of spreading the good news of salvation? What is the trans-cultural glue that holds us together, as we join with Adventist believers around the world?

Perhaps at the core is what we have in common. And that is not an institutional mandate, but a spiritual commitment and shared mission. Such an observation is not intended as a negative aspersion on the corporate strength and accomplishments that are made possible by the church as an institution. But at the heart of the church—what makes it work—is a commitment to participate in the fulfilling of the gospel commission to all the world. And in the institution of the church we see cooperative financial effort as the best way to provide the funds to achieve such a goal.

The Old Testament origins

In Old Testament times, tithe and offerings were given to the tribe of Levi. Tithe was the assumed and natural response to the blessing of God. It was seen not as an obligation so much as a loving response. Offerings were also given in response to the grace and blessings of God.

From these resources the Israelites funded their religious practices, education, and at times their government as well. Although occasionally there existed varying forms of a rudimentary monetary system during Old Testament times, the tithe was based more on the increase accrued from agriculture than on wages. And commerce was conducted largely on the barter system, rather than by using cash. This positive link to daily sustenance and the product of the land provided for a much more direct recognition of, and dependence on, God for survival.

As Israel entered the promised land, the territory was divided among 11 of the 12 tribes. The tribe of Levi was left out of this land distribution, as it was their task to provide the religious direction that would hold the society together. As a result, they needed the support of the tithes from the other 11 tribes. Without this system of support, the Levites could not survive.

These biblical approaches to collecting tithe and offerings provided a model for the stewardship and financial structures of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unfortunately, as in the case of the Israelites, our concepts of giving and our relationship with God are often polluted with the pagan idea that views sacrifice as giving up something of our own to appease or bribe an angry god.

While God’s relationship with His people is based on a covenant that includes sacrifice, the covenant is based, not on our sacrifice, but on His. There is nothing we can do to purge ourselves of sin. All we need to do is to accept God’s sacrifice and enter into a covenant relationship with Him. Through the Psalmist, God expresses clearly and logically this relationship between covenant and sacrifice: “‘Gather to me my consecrated ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice’” (Psalm 50:5, NIV). Then to His covenant people He states: “‘I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me’” (Psalm 50:9-15, NIV).

What constitutes a sacrifice? Not the multitude of possessions surrendered. Not the slaying of animals. Not the good works of righteousness. In biblical terms, sacrifice is an act of gratitude, a response of thankfulness toward the sacrifice made by God to atone for sin. He has acted first in love toward us. We respond to that love. There is no other acceptable response than thanks and love to God. Love is the only accurate measure of sacrifice.

But it is so easy for our motives to become mixed or even totally perverted. How can we know when our offerings are self-absorbed and pagan, appeasement-oriented rather than thanksgiving? Perhaps when we begin to worry over whether we are giving too much or too little. Perhaps when we want to control the use of our “thanks-giving” by insisting that things must be done our way by the church or we will refuse to give. This raises a serious question: Is such giving a real act of love? Or is it just religious blackmail?

The New Testament pattern

In the New Testament, church finance developed along different lines. At first, the band of Christians was small and in a confined geographic location. In such a setting, with the expectation of the immediate return of Jesus, there was little felt need for an institutional church or for an organized financial system. Properties and possessions were held in common by the members. And it was largely as a result of the needs of poorer members that appeals for offerings of support and movements toward church structure began.

The apostolic church had no paid clergy, and those who preached were cared for by the people they served while working at whatever employment they could find. As they moved from place to place preaching the gospel, they established congregations, which in turn sent them on to additional locations to spread the good news. In fact, it was not until later New Testament times that structure and finance and buildings became a significant part of developing an institutional church.

Adventist structure

Arising after 1800 years of Christian history, the Seventh-day Adventist Church had a variety of models from which to draw as it searched for the best in structure and financial operations. At the base, of course, is the biblical principle of tithe and offerings. As to church organization, the primary options were two: the congregational and the institutional. The institutional model that we have chosen centralizes funding, using tithe for the gospel ministry and relying on non-tithe offerings for other aspects of mission such as church and school buildings, utilities, services, and educational and medical work. This centralized mode of operation makes it possible to be more efficient and equitable in reaching the world field.

There are, however, some downsides. When our church was small in its early years, its membership was largely limited to North America and located in a few major centers. Members knew their leaders personally and were directly involved in the work of the church. A General Conference Session was truly that—a general gathering of all church members.

Obviously, such is not possible today, in view of the size and global distribution of our membership. As a result, individual members tend to be less involved in the decisions of the corporate church. For that reason, there are often calls for more congregational decision-making about where and how church funds are to be used. And though such individual interest does spark somewhat greater support for specific projects, the potential for imbalance in such a mode of operation is enormous.

In today’s world of millions of members and one billion dollars annually, we must not allow ourselves to be caught in an either/or position on structure and finance. While there is merit in selecting individual or church group projects for funding and service to specific needs, yet the balanced and efficient operation of our movement seems best served by a structure that works through the 12 “divisions” of the church as it is now constituted. These world divisions are not permanent and unchangeable territories. In fact, the division structure undergoes regular review and restructuring as political, population, and membership matters make it advisable.

Financial distribution

Given the institutional mode we have chosen, how are the finances of the church received, divided, and distributed? The chart below lists the divisions by membership, total tithe for one year, and tithe per capita in an ascending order. (These figures are based on 1996 year-end totals.)

The initial point of tithe receipt is the local church. From here, it is sent in its entirety to the conference/mission of which it is a constituent entity and from which it receives the services and funding for needs of the congregation such as pastoral, evangelistic, administrative, retirement fund contributions for employees, and some educational costs. The amount of tithe expended by the conference/mission varies from a high of 90 per cent in some divisions, to a low of 68.25 per cent in the North American Division.

Depending on the structure and policies of the various divisions and the unions in their territory, the balance of the tithe is divided between the union and division level, with 1 percent of total tithe being passed on to the General Conference for the worldwide operations of the church (except in North America as noted below). Thus, the tithe is divided among the various levels of governance that coordinate and provide for the work of the church.

In North America, a larger percentage of the tithe is sent to the General Conference than in other divisions. The local conferences retain 68.25 percent of the total tithe, 10.25 percent of which is placed in retirement contributions, thus leaving 58 percent of the tithe for funding the operation of the churches and conference services. The union receives 10 percent, the division 10.40 percent, and the General Conference 11.35 percent of the total North American Division tithe, as represented in the accompanying pie chart.

Changing patterns, unchanging mission

It is clear that the wealth of the world is not evenly distributed, and that some divisions are donor divisions while others are net recipients. And the contrasts are even more starkly obvious within divisions themselves, as some fields are in the depths of poverty, while others support the work of the church in areas beyond their own borders. It is also clear that over time, the ideal would be for the work of the church to become not only self-sustaining in every field, but also that each entity might also be able to contribute to the expansion of its mission into new territories. Though we continue to work toward this ideal, we are not there yet, owing to inequities of world economy and the newness of the Adventist presence in some areas.

Time was when the entire membership of the church was in North America. But this was not to remain for long, thanks to the vision of our pioneers. Thus began the long decline of the membership ratio of the North American church in relation to world church membership from 100 percent at the start until at the present, it is less that 10 percent. And this is not a negative. It was the mission of our founders to make it so.

But with this burgeoning growth in the world church and the shift in membership percentages comes the realization that North America, at some point, can no longer finance the world work of the church as was the case for many years. In fact, we long ago passed that point. I can remember in my own life time when we reached the first one million membership mark. And at that time, North America was yet almost one-third of the world church. As we are reaching 10 million members worldwide, the ratio is now less than one in ten.

Increasingly, the leadership and the financing of church activities are being assumed by the members in each region of the world. Consequently, more and more the funding of donor divisions needs to be focused on territories yet unentered by the Adventist message (which at the outset included nearly the whole world, but now requires a new understanding). There is certainly a place for individual projects and donations as the Lord impresses the need on hearts and blesses with funds. But at the core of the miracle we are experiencing in the global membership growth is the efficient, equitable, and shared funding provided through the channels of the church organization, under the blessing of God.

This may sound like cheerleading for the institutional church—an optimistic view that fails to acknowledge that there can be problems and inefficiencies in the structure. It is not intended to be so. Indeed, I recognize that the church is not perfect—primarily because its membership and leadership are made up of people like myself, fallible, prone to self interest, and slow to perceive all God would lead us to know and do.

But in spite of all this, the church prospers and grows. It is not ours—it is God’s. And the marvel of it all is that at His calling, we may be partakers of the miracle of His grace in giving the gospel to the whole world, far beyond the wildest imagination of anything we could accomplish individually, or even through the isolated efforts of our own little congregations. And how exciting it is to remain informed and involved! The numbers are beyond my ability to comprehend. As God said to Abraham, it is like trying to count the stars, or number the sand of the seashore. The miracle of grace is that we can be a part of it—even if we cannot fully comprehend it all.

Gary Patterson (D.Min.,Vanderbilt University) is a general field secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and directs the Office of Mission Awareness. His address: 12501 Old Columbia Pike; Silver Spring, Maryland 20904; U.S.A. E-mail address: 74532.22@compu serve.com