I want to start a Christian non-profit. Are there Biblical principles that should be considered? I mean is there a right or wrong way to run a Christian ministry? How do I make sure that it doesn’t become one of the negative stereotypes that I see talked about on your site?
Thanks. Tom Speirs
You’ve got an excellent question here. I think the most excellent aspect of it is that you’ve asked the question! Seriously, I commend you for taking time to consider the most God-honoring ways to go about that which God has called you to.
Non-Profits in the U.S.
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (http://www.nccs.urban.org/) there are about 1.6 million non-profits in the U.S. today. Over the past ten years, Americans have been starting non-profits at the rate of about 63 per day – every single day of the year! Of course, not all of those are Christian, but many of them are.
I’m beginning here because it’s important for you to understand that you aren’t the first person to think about starting a nonprofit. A whole lot of Americans are doing that these days. And that in itself should give you reason to pause and consider what you’re about to do and why.
With 1.6 million non-profits already, that’s only 188 U.S. citizens to support every non-profit. Are Americans generous enough to pull that off successfully?
A lot of people start non-profits with the thinking that they’ll support it on their own at first … but have visions that one day it will be self-sustaining with contributions from others. Perhaps we even see ourselves able to devote ourselves full-time to the cause and drawing a salary from the non-profit. But the reality is that this almost never happens. More often than not, the non-profits never reach the financial potential that we envision when we start them. Statistically, the majority of those non-profits that were started by individuals have annual income of less than $25,000 per year. (See the NCCS source quoted above.) Many start out with financial support from their family and close relationships, but never end up achieving a broad range of support required for a non-profit to sustain itself. Many of them end up just being dormant when the founders run out of money or grow weary of being the primary funding source.
Biblical Model of a Non-Profit?
So if you have your eyes open and are ready to proceed, it’s good to ask – as you have, what the Biblical model would look like. There are times when there may be a topic that the Bible doesn’t specifically address. This is one of those times. In fact, there’s no mention anywhere in the Bible of any type of organization other than a government, a church, or a (for profit) business. Nevertheless, there are some very fundamental Biblical principles that should guide our thinking about setting up and founding a Christian non-profit.
Acts 2:42-47 gives us a very glorious picture of what’s commonly referred to as the “New Testament Church.” It says there that, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe … All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
This description of the church continues and another salient point is made in Acts 4:32-35, which tells us, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
The Church vs. The Non-Profit
Did you catch that? The reason that there were no needy people is because everyone gave whatever he (or she) had to the church. And the church in turn identified who was needy and used its resources to meet their needs. This is probably the best clue we can find in the Bible of how God wants the needs of the world to be met. Throughout the Bible God has been very clear that He cares deeply about the poor, the oppressed, etc. In fact, most of Jesus’ miracles involved healing the sick and feeding the hungry. But there’s an order to how God wants it done.
For the sake of time, I won’t go into a lengthy theological discussion. But let me just say that what I’m about to tell you comes from my own lengthy research. That research included checking conclusions with respected, professional theologians (including my own pastor). The point I have to make here is that non-profits (excluding churches) are not Biblical. That is to say that there is no provision for them in the Bible. Moreover, it is clear from God’s Word (the Bible) that He has always intended for the churches to do the work that we see being done in so-called para-church ministries and other types of non-profits (Christian or otherwise).
And why do so many Christians (and others) set up non-profits to do work that God intended for the church to do? The answer is really quite simple. It’s because Christians … and their churches are disobedient.
It’s also clear that God didn’t intend for governments to take care of everyone. He didn’t intend for secular institutions (like non-profits) to take care of everyone. So why are so many governments engaged in work that God intended for the church to do? And why do so many Christians (and others) set up non-profits to do work that God intended for the church to do? The answer is really quite simple. It’s because Christians … and their churches are disobedient.
Studies have shown over the years that, at least for decades, self-professing Christians don’t tithe. Statistically, 78% of Americans claim to be Christians (following a denomination based on Jesus Christ). But of only about 4% of all Americans tithe. And out of 36% of Americans who say that they attend church regularly, total giving represents only about 2-3% of their total household income. (http://www.barna.org/, http://www.gallup.com/, http://www.religions.pewforum.org/)
In withholding money that rightfully belongs to God, and which He has commanded them to bring to their church, these people have disabled and crippled their churches. So the churches are woefully ill-equipped to do the work that God commands them too. The New Testament churches described in the book of Acts were able to ensure that there were “no needy among them” because their people had a supernatural revelation of Christ and were obedient with their resources. Who do you know in today’s American churches that would sell their house to be sure that others in their own congregations were taken care of?
At the same time, even churches with strong balance sheets and high income streams often invest their money in the things that they believe will help grow the number of people in their churches. Consider for example, the explosion in American churches of the multi-site concept that claim to have “one church with multiple locations.” Instead of investing their money in programs and facilities to serve the poor, heal the sick, educate the ignorant, heal the hurting, etc. — they are instead investing their money in franchise facilities to grow the enterprise of the church.
Don’t get me wrong, most Christian churches are doing good work. But they aren’t always limiting their work to that which God called them to do. Especially in modern times, when Christian churches in America are going out of business in droves — most of our modern, contemporary churches are paying the most attention to what will help them survive, thrive and prosper. Lest you think that I’m throwing the churches under the bus, stop and think about what kind of churches we want to attend. Let’s face it, a church where everyone in the congregation sells everything they have to give to the church so it can ensure that nobody is in need would have a difficult marketing message!
Para-church ministries are not Biblical. But they may be necessary.
Questions to Consider
So it is that we have this dilemma. Para-church ministries are not Biblical. But they may be necessary. How then do we go about the business of setting them up and running them? Here are some questions for you (and anyone else starting or running a Christian non-profit) to consider.
- What exactly has God called you to do here? Be very clear here. Write it out. Discuss it with other mature Christians. It is Biblical? Does it line up with the character and nature of Christ? Does it align with what God has told us to do (i.e., love God and love others)?
- Is there no way to accomplish this in your church? Does your church have no ministry that addresses this, which you could engage in? Have you discussed this ministry calling with your church leaders to be sure they aren’t willing to take this ministry on (possibly with you as its leader)?
- Are you fully submitted to the authority of your church now, before God called you to do this? Are you living an examined life (Lamentations 3:40)? Are you confessing all of your sins to another brother in Christ (James 5:16)? Are you obediently tithing (Malachi 3:8) and serving (Matthew 23:23 & Luke 11:42) in your church – as God commands you to do?
- Under what God-ordained, church authority will you operate this non-profit? What trained theologians will be looking over your shoulder to help make sure your theology is sound (i.e., that what you’re doing and how you do it always aligns with Scripture)?
- What can you put in place to safeguard against the eventuality that the devil will try to undermine your mission? How will you, for example, keep from getting distracted from what God specifically called you to do? To be clear here, every instance that we can find in the Bible of God calling someone to do something was always very, very specific. It’s often been said that the enemy doesn’t need to defeat Christians. He simply needs to discourage them, intimidate them, or distract them. What will keep you safe from such attacks?
- What funding sources do you have in mind? Can you fund it all yourself? (And if this is the case, why can’t you do that within your own church?) If you need other funding, will you get it from your church, from friends, from foundational and government grants? Fund raising in non-profits is an enormous business in America. And sad to say, Christian non-profits are not the most successful at doing it. You’ll find, for example, that educational and political non-profits attract far more of the giving dollars in this country than any Christian endeavor. How effectively can you compete?
- Are you a strategically thinking leader? Most donors today want to know that their giving is having an impact. If you’ve been called to help orphans, for example, do you know what the best way to help them is? Can you be certain that your approach is significantly more effective than all of the other approaches being tried? (It will need to be in order to capture the donations.)
Starting a non-profit can be an enormous undertaking. I don’t want to discourage you. But I would rather see you not start a non-profit … than to see you start it and fail. So continue to do your homework. Make sure your church is very involved in helping you vet the proposition. At the very least, you’ll need the prayerful support of people who love you and believe in you. So make sure you’ve done everything humanly possible to be worthy of that support.