New Internationalist

The Church Of The Rich

Issue 137

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THE RICH [image, unknown] The dilemma of rich Christians

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The Church of the Rich
Only a third of the world’s people are Christian; but we own two-thirds of the world’s resources. Most of us are very rich in global terms, although 200 million brethren in Christ are amongst the poorest in the world. David Barrett investigates how Christian wealth is shared and examines the choice between material riches and spiritual poverty.

JESUS did not carry money or own any. He had no silver or gold, no cash income, no property, no stocks or shares, no current account, no savings account, no hedge against inflation, no tax havens, no financial reserves. He had nowhere to lay his head. He lived in poverty but his impact on the world was enormous. He founded the original Church of the Poor; a fellowship of the oppressed, the exploited, the dispossessed. He commanded his first followers: ‘Do not carry any gold, silver, or copper money in your pockets’. Today he has 1.5 billion followers who receive annual incomes totalling US $6,500 billion* and who own two-thirds of the earth’s entire resources. On this basis, global Christianity has become overwhelmingly the Church of the Rich.

Worldwide average income is around $2,400 per person each year. But because Christians are concentrated in the Western world, their average income is far higher at $4,500. Non-Christians average only $1,350. Since lifestyle depends on income, Christians across the world live on average at a level over three times higher than non-Christians.

The incomes of all Christians total more than six trillion dollars a year. The largest slice of this (43 per cent) is in Europe, the next (36 per cent) is in North America. The influential worldwide community of Evangelicals alone have personal income totalling just under $1,000 billion a year.

Not all Christians belong to the Church of the Rich. Income distribution is unequal: whereas 52 per cent of Christians live in affluence and a further 35 per cent are comparatively well off, 13 per cent live in absolute poverty.

The degradation and agony of absolute poverty are shared by millions of Christians. Some 109 million Christians live in the world’s twenty-six poorest countries, In all developing countries Christians living in absolute poverty number some 195 million. Of these, half live in Latin America, a third in Africa, the rest in South and Southeast Asia. This is what we usually mean by the ‘Church of the Poor’. By the world’s standards, they have nothing.

How poor is the Church of the Poor? Here we meet a strange paradox. On the one hand, the answer is: shockingly, appallingly, outrageously poor. It is surely outrageous that 750 million affluent Christians can continue to allow 195 million brethren in Christ to exist in abject poverty year after year. But from another point of view, the answer, surprisingly, is that this Church of the Poor in the Third World is largely financially self-supporting, with huge financial resources right there amid its membership and church income totalling well over $300 million a year, enough to run major relief programs of all kinds.

Again, the major problem is that income distribution is grossly unfair. In the ‘Church of the Poor’ to which the 195 million belong, they exist in close proximity to some 20 million relatively affluent co-citizen, elite, fellow Christians above them. These include the hierarchies of Church leaders who control those churches, few of whom are poor and a number of whom have become very rich since taking office. Regrettably, these 20 million show less concern for the poor than many of their co-religionists in the Western world.

Yet another side of the paradox is that this Church of the Poor is poor only in material goods. They are far from being spiritual paupers. Spiritually, it is the Church of the Rich. Some of the richest and most dynamic forms of Christianity today, and the most rapid church growth, are to be found in these areas of material poverty and destitution. This Church of the Poor is the only part of global Christianity whose lifestyle is similar to that of Jesus on earth. They are the only Christians who are able with complete accuracy to proclaim, with the apostle Peter ‘Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!’

In theory the Church of the Rich should give to the poor. Many confessions and communions assert that Christians should tithe, which means give away 10 per cent of their income. If all did this, the total would be $647 billion a year. In practice, they give a third of this - something like $181 billion, if we include every kind of Christian. If we restrict the definition to affiliated church members, their annual donations total $160 billion. Forty-nine per cent of this comes from North America, 34 per cent from Europe. Africa contributes a mere two per cent, Asia less than one per cent.

These huge sums of money become more intelligible when reduced to what the average individual contributes, On the world level, the average church member gives $76 a year (which is $1.46 a week). As one would expect, individual giving is highest in the strongholds of the Church of the Rich (the affluent West) - $212 a year in North America; is much lower in the Church of the Poor in Africa ($20 a year) and in Latin America ($15 a year); and is lowest ($4.70 a year) in the Church of the Absolute Poor in South Asia.

Who are the immediate beneficiaries of all this wealth? Though Christians number only 32 per cent of the world population, they receive 62 per cent of the entire world’s annual income - and spend 97 per cent of it on themselves. Put another way, each year North American and European church members spend $4,500 billion on themselves personally and on their families. The Church of the Rich is at heart a selfish and self-serving church.

Of the remaining three per cent of Christians’ income, a meager one per cent, or $60 billion a year, is given or donated to secular or non-Christian causes and charities; and about two per cent, or $100 billion a year, is given or donated directly to Christian causes. This latter sum forms the vast bulk of what the churches and parachurch agencies across the world receive to run the worldwide Christian church and its annual operations.

A voluntary 10 per cent cut in income on the part of all church member Christians in Europe and North America could produce a 93 per cent increase in income on the part of the entire 1.4 billion population of South Asia, or an 82 per cent increase throughout Latin America, or a 158 per cent for every soul in Africa. To a large extent, the global sharing by Christians of money, wealth, property and goods could solve most of the problems of famine, poverty, disease, unemployment, dangerous water supply and soon. Because this is so, there is a sense in which Christians are to blame for the persistence of the present disastrous state of affairs. Every Christian with an income of over 5500 a year ought to be deeply concerned and actively involved in this problem. At the least each should consider donating 10 per cent of his or her income to Third World missions or charities, to studying, preaching, writing or teaching about the situation. Every Christian who ignores this obligation lies under the solemn judgement of God.

Several centuries ago a Roman pope who was an avid patron of the arts is said to have surveyed the vast artistic riches he had amassed and to have gloated: ‘No longer can the Church of Jesus Christ now say "Silver and gold have I none" ’. ‘True, Sire,’ a subordinate replied, ‘but then neither can she now say, "Rise up and walk"!’ Material wealth has always carried the risk of attendant spiritual bankruptcy. Today’s Church of the Rich has vast resources capable of reaching the entire world for Christ. But unless these resources are immediately deployed to that end, this church will ultimately prove to have had minimal spiritual impact upon the world.

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*As some point of comparison the gross national product of the US in 1983 was $2.18 I billion, of the UK $450 billion (approx.)

David Barrett, who serves with the Church Missionary Society in East Africa, edited The World Christian Encyclopedia published in 1982. A fuller version of this article first appeared in November 1983 issue of International Bulletin of Missionary Research.


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