At metro megachurches, a recession-proof gospel of giving

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2011 - 11:12 PM

Despite tough times, the cash flow is steady and some of the biggest evangelical churches in Minnesota are getting even bigger.

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At Eagle Brook Church, with five metro campuses, attendance is on the rise.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Other churches may be struggling in this economy, but not Substance Church of Fridley.

Founded in 2004, Substance is considered one of the fastest growing churches in the country. With more than 3,000 members and more coming, Substance opened a fourth Twin Cities area campus in August at Spring Lake Park High School and plans to open more campuses over the next five years.

"Our income has never stopped growing over the last six years," said pastor Peter Haas. "In 2004, we were lucky to clear $150,000 in terms of income in a year. Now we're probably more in the $2.5 million income a year." Like a number of area megachurches, Substance has found success by preaching the gospel of generosity: Giving to the church will be repaid with family, financial or other blessings.

Even as many mainline churches are facing stagnation or decline, some of the biggest evangelical churches in Minnesota are getting even bigger. Financial contributions keep rising, people continue flocking to the pews, buildings are expanding.

Of the nearly 60 megachurches in the Twin Cities metro area, about 35 percent are growing, while 12 percent have seen a decline. Nearly half have seen a plateau in growth, according to John Mayer, executive director of the nonprofit City Vision, a Christian organization that tracks local religious data.

"If you make generosity your message, a Bible-based message, instead of a budget message or a building message or [paying] the bills message ... it's amazing what can happen," said Brian Kluth, founder of the nonprofit Maximum Generosity.

Not all of Minnesota's megachurches have grown since the economy began going south. In 2010, 39 percent of churches saw giving decline, according to the annual "State of the Plate" survey of 1,500 churches nationwide, co-sponsored by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

"Never before have so many churches seen giving flatline or decline," said Kluth.

But even so, 43 percent of churches reported an increase in giving. Those churches often cite the Bible when sermonizing about the importance of giving, Kluth said.

For example, Proverbs 11:24-25: "One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered."

Some churches also try to help congregants manage their finances by offering financial workshops, Kluth said.

'It comes back to you'

At Substance Church, Haas said he has put a renewed emphasis on citing the Bible when encouraging congregants to give to the church and its mission work to help the less fortunate. The idea is that blessings will be bestowed on family and loved ones when the faithful put God first in their giving.

Haas said the church does not use a "heavy-handed approach" when asking for financial support. He tries to impart the idea that "giving is not an obligation, it's an opportunity." He said the church is helping build orphanages in Pakistan and has given significant amounts of money to earthquake victims in Haiti and Japan.

About 70 percent of Substance's congregants are younger than 30, and many are still saddled with college debt. Nearly two years ago, the church began offering Dave Ramsey Financial Peace courses on DVD to help members navigate the tough economic times, Haas said.

Skip Johnson, 26, of Maplewood, said he and his wife started attending Substance about two years ago. They have been moved to give regularly to the church -- in part due to Haas' message of making God and the church financial priorities in their lives.

Johnson, who works as an estate planner, said he and his wife live within their means and don't have much debt. But in a month that their car broke down and other unexpected expenses came up, Johnson said he considered not giving to the church. He decided to donate $350 anyway: "It was really tough for us," he said. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but at that moment, it was a lot."

The next month, he made $30,000 through his accounts: "I've just accepted the idea that when you give, it comes back to you."

Challenges and risks

Eagle Brook Church -- the largest in Minnesota with close to 15,000 members -- also continues to grow despite the economy. This month, it opened a new campus in Woodbury, where it's leasing space for worship in a school. The church, however, has purchased 40 acres near the intersection of Manning Avenue and Interstate 94 for a permanent campus to be built in the future.

With five campuses in the Twin Cities area -- including a 40,000-square-foot, 800-seat church building that opened in Blaine last fall -- attendance and monetary giving at Eagle Brook have steadily increased.

The church finished its fiscal year in June, and contributions were up about 17 percent; attendance was up 14 percent, largely fueled by the opening of a Blaine campus last fall. The church's general fund contributions were $12 million, compared to $10.3 million the previous fiscal year.

Scott Anderson, executive pastor for Eagle Brook, said the church has continued to stress the gospel of generosity but has also cut costs in programs and staff .

"We've been able to continue to grow ... but it's not been without increased challenges and the need to creatively solve problems," Anderson said.

The nearly 3,700 congregants at Westwood Community Church in Chanhassen rewarded their church leaders for taking a risk.

Even though the future looked uncertain, members voted several years ago to build an addition to the church to be used for education purposes, said Tim Remington, communications director for the church. The new space opened last September.

"We've really had flat giving in the last several years, but this fiscal year we did see an increase," Remington said. "Our attendance is up 5 percent this fiscal year, too. I think the fact that the church has stepped out in faith and built a building in trying times shows that we're committed to this community. Without it we were going to strain our ability to accomplish our mission."

Remington said one goal over the next year is to "cultivate a culture of generosity at Westwood. That's a tough one to measure; it isn't just about finances but what we do with our talents. We're just trying to be faithful to our mission."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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