So I work a business to business sales job that conducts full day job shadows as a second interview. More often than not I’ll have a recent graduate along for the ride so that they can get a feel for the job and I can decide if they are a good fit for the position. So two by two we go cold-calling to all the businesses in my territory. And without fail when I turn down some side street and pull into the little white church nestled between two houses the interview will ask “Are we really going in there? I mean, it’s a church.” My standard reply is “of course we’re going in, it’s a business.” The moral of the story is this: you would not believe how many people disagree with this statement.
On a professional note, for the record, churches are incorporated under tax ids and very unlikely to throw out some door to door sales rep so not only are they businesses, they are juicy ones! In fact they have more money to spend than the most of the businesses I pitch. The average pastor makes 77k a year, ranging somewhere between 30k and 80k. Needless to say that’s a tad better than most small business owners I come across theses days. And when you look at what they do in the simplest term they are no different, their patrons give them money in exchange for a service. (We will save the question of what service they actually provide for another post… or three)
What is clever about the business of churches is their time-tested marketing strategy. It brilliantly accomplishes what I think every salesperson is trying to, it makes their customers feel like they aren’t buying anything. This is accomplished by changing the name of the transaction. It’s not a purchase, it’s a tithing.
“Will a man rob god? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.” Malachi 3:8
Man that’s hard to argue with isn’t it? Robbing god sounds like a scary thing to be accused of, scarier than those “shoplifters will be prosecuted” signs you see in the dressing rooms. But the sales pitch doesn’t stop there, after all how many Christians actually read the bible? The various religious sects have their own methods for coaxing money out of the pockets of the faithful. What probably comes to mind first, for those of us who’ve read the bible, is Pentecostals.
I just came across the story of a boy named Marjoe. In the late 1940’s Marjoe became the world’s youngest ordained minister, preaching hell fire and praising Jesus from the early age of 4… that’s right, 4-years-old. As you may have guessed his parents were behind this, with some physical abuse to off-set the emotional abuse of being made to travel the revival circuit for his entire childhood. In his teenage years Marjoe quit the business, but returned as a young adult with a film crew behind him. In 1972 the documentary they made won an academy award. (It can be viewed in its entirety here thanks to google) In it he explained in great detail the tactics used to get people to offer up their money, everything from selling artifacts that were supposed to be holy or blessed, to raising 10 times more funds than needed for a mission trip. But almost 40 years after our backstage pass we’re still lining up for tickets. As Americans we give more to churches than education, charity foundations, arts, humanities, etc. Churches are not only a business, they are a 107 billion dollar industry. With tithing alone being called for at 10% we are left with about half of what we earn after god and country.
And then the question was posed to me… “so?” and I had to actually take a moment from proving my point to remember what it was. Churches are big business in sheep’s clothing but why do they disguise themselves? To obtain a tax-exempt status.
Granting the 501(c) status to churches was originally supposed to represent separation of church and state, and for that reason being tax-exempt is supposed to prohibit you from lobbying or campaigning politically. So how then would we describe the actions of churches in North Carolina telling their congregation that they were not welcome on Sundays if they did not support George Bush? Or the overwhelming presence of the LDS church during the prop 8 campaign in California? I myself was in church with my parents when a letter from the presidents of the church was read to us directing “do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment.” Quite frankly on the issue of separation of church and state, churches are not holding up their end of the bargain. President Garfield once said ”a tax exemption is a tax on everyone else, because the exempt institution, by not paying its share, shifts that burden to the rest of society.” There are no statistics to prove (because of course Church’s don’t have to report these things) how much money is lost by our government by not taxing churches. However there are far more of them, making much more money, than secular 501(c) organizations, and that smaller group represents almost 3 trillion in untaxed property and income. My argument here is that churches are businesses and they should be treated as such.