Updated on 5/14/08
When Justin Moore and his wife, Bonnie, cut up their credit cards in a show of financial freedom earlier this year, they did it in front of a group of supporters—at church.
Moore, 25, works as an information technology coordinator for a staffing agency in Shelby, N.C., but for 13 weeks this spring, he served as group coordinator for a course from Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University. It met weekly at his church and covered getting out of debt, living on a budget, and establishing better money-management skills. Ramsey, an author and radio-show host, created the popular program. It's basically the nuts and bolts of personal finance with a notable twist: The course shores up its advice with Scripture.
As more and more churches face their members' financial struggles, Christian believers like Moore are finding money advice where they worship. Some churches have well-established ministries that separately treat those in financial crisis and those who need to be acquainted with budget basics. Others just play host to courses taught with outside materials. Moore's church was offering the class for the first time. "We're really starting to see a change in people's lifestyles," he says. "They have this financial stress relieved. They're able to come closer to God. It just improves every other aspect of your life."
God and money. The expanding universe of church-based financial help comes as churches recognize the connection between people's relationship with money and their relationship with God, says Dave Briggs, director of the pioneering Good Sense ministry at Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch in suburban Chicago. "A growing number of pastors are beginning to see that the spiritual growth of their congregations will be and has been hindered because of a wrong relationship with money," Briggs says. "Which can mean hoarding it, spending way too much time caring about it, or it can be mismanaging it so much that their lives are in bondage to debt, and that becomes a spiritual depressor of growth."
Good Sense was established at the church in the early 1980s and has spread through its network of affiliated churches. Now Willow Creek is getting ready to roll out a personal finance presentation that's just for 20-somethings. Briggs says young people need the same message in a different package—something other than the standard line about budgets, mortgage payments, and retirement plans.
"Debt doesn't scare 20-somethings anymore, which is really a shame," Briggs says. "So you're really dealing with a different mind-set." He points to the experience his own 29-year-old son, J. R. Briggs, had when buying a condo. The younger Briggs, a pastor in Souderton, Pa., carefully calculated exactly how much condo he could afford, and then the bank approved him for twice as much. (He went with his own math.) "Society no longer has the fences around 20-somethings to help them avoid making bad financial decisions," the elder Briggs says.
Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., treats money management as a theological issue. The nine-year-old church is already well known for the innovations of its pastor, Rob Bell. Each week, 10,000 worshipers head for services in a former mall, which bears no sign. "Our belief is that there are a lot of different oppressions in our society," says Todd Monroe, Mars Hill's director of pastoral care. "But none is greater than debt and financial oppression when it comes to the lower middle class. Maybe even the middle class."
To combat the problem, Mars Hill offers Dave Ramsey's course, along with a financial mentoring program and help for people in financial crisis. The church is also launching a consultation program with financial professionals answering questions about some of the more tricky ways to get out of debt, such as declaring bankruptcy or taking out debt consolidation loans.
This sort of broad-based offering of financial help seems rooted in the missionary mentality, and it suits the Christian church, Monroe says: "I think, looking back in history, this would not be very abnormal at all."