God’s Commission: Evangelical Finance in Suburbia

Evangelical megachurches in suburban Chicagoland have faced serious challenges of late, and none more notable than the recent fall of Bill Hybels at South Barrington’s Willow Creek Community Church—a pastor and his flock fairly credited with paradigmatic innovations in megachurch development since the 1970s

By Greg Chatterley|June 2, 2019

Evangelical megachurches in suburban Chicagoland have faced serious challenges of late, and none more notable than the recent fall of Bill Hybels at South Barrington’s Willow Creek Community Church—a pastor and his flock fairly credited with paradigmatic innovations in megachurch development since the 1970s. While Hybels’ troubles arose from an evangelical wing of #MeToo that challenges abuses of long-standing patriarchy in the tradition, more recent controversy at Rolling Meadow’s Harvest Bible Chapel rests on another cultural foundation of contemporary evangelicalism: aggressive church financing and its oversight, or lack thereof.

After years of criticism from leading church members, Harvest fired long-time pastor James MacDonald in February for financial impropriety, including allegations of operating a “black budget” to hide leadership pay and other extravagant expenses. In April, Harvest lost its seal of approval from the Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability (ECFA), an agency that promotes non-binding financial standards for evangelical churches and parachurch organizations. ECFA’s mishandling of the incident has other area churches questioning the legitimacy of ECFA oversight, and Village Church of Barrington—which has since absorbed many members fleeing Harvest—may not renew their affiliation with the agency now that ECFA credibility has been undermined.

Public scrutiny of evangelical finances provides evangelicalism’s critics with plenty of palace intrigue at which to shake their fingers. Outside Chicagoland, money-minded evangelical pastors (particularly those of the “prosperity gospel” strain) have recently played for laughs on popular satirical news shows. John Oliver’s 2015 report on the fundraising practices of Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, and Robert Tilton, among others, brought new scrutiny to church tax exemption with all the irreverent mockery attendant to the vulgar Menckenian tradition.

Cheap jabs aside, Oliver’s commentary provides opportunity to consider more thoughtfully the long history of religious financing in the United States, a heretofore subterranean narrative that entails far more than tax regulation. Put simply, as macroeconomic systems change over time, religions must adapt or wither on the vine. In the United States, this fiscal imperative has been at the center of religious life ever since the country’s Founding Fathers disestablished churches. Nevertheless, much of American religious history unfortunately reduces religion to its mental, affective, or supernatural components. We easily lose sight of non-metaphorical religious economies and their corollary material and ideological effects. 

Scholars of a recent “business turn” in American religious history have rightly championed increased scrutiny for these important matters. With good reason, these scholars often set their sights on twentieth-century evangelicalism. As evangelical leaders strove to secure institutional power outside mainline denominations, they aggressively pursued financial support from corporate leaders who shared evangelicals’ anti-state, pro-capitalism values. From Sun Oil and Club Aluminum to Walmart and Chick-fil-A, evangelicals have long fused divine aspirations with corporate culture. Much of the “business turn” narrates this fusion as a sanctification of corporate capitalism, particularly as private for-profit companies increasingly promoted evangelical values and practices. (See “suggested reading” below.) 

More than corporate worlds transformed in this process, however. When evangelicals challenged the denominational system on conservative theological grounds, church financial systems were reconfigured alongside church governance structures that amplified the authority of local churches and pastors. New funding initiatives were established within closed, often nepotistic social networks lacking compulsory institutional oversight. Select financial managers often dictated evangelical organizations’ investment strategies without pause to consider collateral effects.

As “business turn” scholars emphasize, those networks certainly included prominent corporate leaders both before and after World War II. In the postwar era, however, evangelicals further engaged the economic systems of federally-subsidized housing and real estate development to grow the tradition. Alongside philanthropists in industry, evangelical leadership included construction managers, real estate developers, and banking professionals who helped evangelical organizations secure competitive advantages in postwar suburban economies. Much of evangelicalism’s rapid growth and increased social influence from the 1940s onward issued directly from the economic privilege, insular social networks, and attendant resource hoarding of suburban markets. As evangelicals’ cultural footprint enlarged, many evangelicals—especially white evangelicals—came to adore the socioeconomic world of suburban capitalism in all its affluence and, occasionally, its opulence.* Massive megachurch campuses and national offices for evangelical organizational headquarters alike came to be praised as literal extensions of God’s kingdom. As historian Darren Dochuk has put it, evangelicals fashioned a new gospel of wealth to justify and exalt their increasing prosperity.

There are good historical reasons, then, why controversies over evangelical financial oversight (among other kinds) almost always issue from suburbia, particularly outside Chicago where evangelical institutions developed early strongholds. Lacking robust institutional oversight, nondenominational megachurch leaders have been most free to pursue ambitious financial aspirations that strengthened the tradition, but not without other consequences. James MacDonald’s impropriety is one example of what can go wrong when wealth becomes a symbol of God’s favor. However, even ECFA commentary on its “Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship” displays how inextricable capitalist finance, corporate structure, and visions of the Kingdom and its Great Commission have become. All these considerations raise a critical question for concerned evangelicals: do sinful individuals alone cause financial impropriety, or do these problems issue more seriously from historical socioeconomic priorities of the tradition? 

Image: James MacDonald preaches about financial responsibility at Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, on March 31, 2013. MacDonald was fired in February. (Photo Credit: Stacey Wescott | Chicago Tribune)  

Author, Greg Chatterley, is a PhD Candidate in Religions in America at the Divinity School. He studies racial formations of U.S. religion in the twentieth century. His dissertation traces the development of white racial ideologies in evangelical Protestant traditions of suburban Chicago.

Suggested Reading

Gloege, Timothy E. W. Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Grem, Darren E. The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Hammond, Sarah Ruth, and Darren Dochuk. God’s Businessmen: Entrepreneurial Evangelicals in Depression and War. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Hudnut-Beumler, James David. In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Porterfield, Amanda, John Corrigan, and Darren E. Grem, eds. The Business Turn in American Religious History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

*Much of this analysis is derived from my own dissertation research on issues of evangelical economic development as they relate to matters of evangelical racial formations in the twentieth century. Two papers derived from my dissertation research recently offered at the 2018 AAR Annual Meeting can be found here.

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