Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Has the Church Capitalized Too Much?

Written by: on February 1, 2022

The readings this week were centered around the birth and progression of Evangelicalism and its relationship to capitalism. D.W. Bebbington’s historical Evangelicalism in Modern Britain provided a broad context of the formation and expansion of Evangelicalism throughout Britain. A history professor by trade in both Scotland and in the U.S., Bebbington articulates what an Evangelical is, how Evangelicalism has impacted society, and how it has changed over the course of several hundred years.[1] In conjunction with Bebbington, we took a first look into Evangelicalism and Capitalism, the dissertation work of Dr. Jason Clark which balances historical and philosophical views on the subject. The highly esteemed faculty member of Portland Seminary provides social science and theological perspectives on the relationship between Evangelicalism and capitalism, utilizing Bebbington’s work as a foundational text in his own.

The authors define Evangelicalism as a “major development of modern Protestantism that emerged in the early 1730s in the United Kingdom,” not having any specific denominational connection.[2] Additionally, Bebbington and Clark give significant attention to what is referred to as the quadrilateral of priorities that is the foundation for Evangelicalism. These four components are conversionism, activism, biblicalism, and crucicentrism.[3] This quadrilateral of priorities coupled with the belief in justification by faith alone launched Evangelicalism as a radical force of its time that significantly impacted the larger society around it.[4] Bebbington would continue that the quadrilateral, “have formed a permanent deposit of faith. Each of the characteristics, however, has found expression in many different ways,” which I believe we still see to this day.[5] Clark’s specific focus on the interconnectedness of Evangelicalism and capitalism must be understood within the context that Bebbington provides. In understanding the emphasis on activism in which they utilized every means to spread the gospel, its no wonder that capitalism aided many Evangelicals in that vein.

There are two key learnings for me from the reading this week, the first of which was just one sentence in Clark’s work, stating, “Bebbington himself, in response to critiques of his work Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, notes that the nature of assurance is more complicated than he had proposed.”[6] I immediately thought of Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz which focuses on the importance for owning and communicating when we have made a mistake. Perhaps it is just from my vantagepoint, but it is not often in todays society that I see those in leadership positions openly communicate when they may have not been correct in a specific viewpoint, action, or communication unless forced by outside pressures. The willingness for Bebbington, one of the key scholars within theological circles, to hear and respond to critique in a posture of humility and transparency only makes me want to heed his voice more as an expert in the field. There is somehow more trust in a voice that admits imperfection.

The second learning are really focuses on the concept of entrepreneurial Evangelicalism. Clark describes how prominent theologians of the time were able, “through the new freedoms of trade routes, publicity (print media), and communication, to bring this inner world to life for the masses. Evangelicalism was thus able to bring resources to the psychological and social needs of people who found themselves in a rapidly changing world of broad dissenting thought.”[7] While I’m sure this was spurred by the energy found in the quadrilateral of priorities, specifically through activism, I cannot imagine that at the time they would understand the significant impact that would begin by leveraging capitalism in this capacity. While it is undeniable the ways that the gospel has spread through capitalism over the centuries, I can’t help but consider how Jesus would view just how entrepreneurial the church has become. Consider these recent statistics:

  • Faith-based publishers saw significant sales increases in 2020 with predictions of robust futures ahead, despite the pandemic challenges and physical store closures in 2019.[8]
  • “In 2020, religious books generated 667.2 million U.S. dollars in sales revenue, surpassing 600 million U.S. dollars for the third consecutive year.”[9]
  • “According to a study by The Leadership Network, the average salary megachurch preachers received ranged from $100,000 to $140,000,” some of which earn upwards of $400,000 annually with the top-earning preacher having a net worth surpassing $300 million U.S.[10]
  • As of October 2019, the President for World Vision earned upwards of $563,000 annually and Compassion International’s CEO was upwards of $417,000.[11]

While Chivers’ cautions ring in the back of my mind even as I wrote out these statistics, there are some numbers that give me cause to take a deeper look. While it is the love for and motivation behind what we seek that is core to how we function in Christ, I struggle at times to consider just how much certain sectors in the Christian faith benefit off capitalism. Again, is what they are providing in goods and services contributing towards the expansion of the gospel? More than likely. But what is the ultimate cost for those that profit from it in such excess? And even more, what limits are being set in the impact and expansion of those good works and services because of how much a small number of people benefit from at the top?

As Clark described, “Evangelicalism was not just a response to the trials and challenges of economic migration, but was also a response to the wider changes in how human beings understood the world conceptually, and their place within it.”[12] The reality of these changes are as true and constant today as they were in the 18th century. I look forward to continuing to read about the impacts of capitalism, both positive and negative, on Evangelicalism and what it means for us as Christian leaders in society today.


[1] Bebbington, vi.

[2] Bebbington, 1 and Clark, 52.

[3] Bebbington, 2 and Clark, 52.

[4] Bebbington, 6.

[5] Ibid., 269.

[6] Clark, 56.

[7] Ibid., 62.

[8] Publishers Weekly, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/religion/article/87209-faith-based-publishers-on-surviving-thriving-in-2020-and-beyond.html

[9] Watson, Amy. https://www.statista.com/statistics/251467/religious-books-sales-revenue-in-the-us/

[10] World Scholarship Forum (2021), https://worldscholarshipforum.com/wealth/highest-paid-preachers/

[11] Charity Watch, https://www.charitywatch.org/charities/world-vision#top-salaries

[12] Clark, 63.

About the Author

Kayli Hillebrand

Associate Dean of International and Experiential Education

8 responses to “Has the Church Capitalized Too Much?”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Kayli, thanks for this post, especially your point about the entrepreneurship in the church. Years ago, I read the autobiography of Billy Graham and, at some point, he froze his salary at a modest amount – I think it was $60,000. I wonder how much his decision to do that helped his influence compared to some high-profile ministry folks with huge salaries. Your stats also reminded me of a church trip to Haiti a year after the earthquake. At that point, 1.4 billion dollars had been donated for relief. It was hard to see much relief but there were plenty of folks from non-profits driving around in shiny new Land Rovers. The Haitian nationals knew that their tragedy was good for the income of the organizations. It led to us working directly with national leadership in a missions context. In light of your point on entrepreneurship, what advice would give a church when deciding on the compensation for their staff?

    • Kayli Hillebrand says:

      Hi Roy: I see the same issues working in missions across the globe too. I purposely delay trips we take to areas impacted by some sort of natural disaster by 2-3 years to have my students engage in the long-term recovery. I’ve found it’s so much more transformational for them to see just how long it takes a community/country to recover — and likewise, encouraging for our partners to have folks that have not forgotten as they’ve moved on to the next disaster.

      In terms of church salary, my main compass is just to be realistic – the geographical location, housing costs, etc. play so much into it. One leader I used to work with in the nonprofit realm had a rule for herself that although the executive director, she was never to make more than 10% more than her staff. Everyone who worked under her thrived, and I think part of that is that they knew she was truly in the work with them.

  2. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Kayli: I didn’t consider to such a great degree the interplay of capitalism and the Church. Your post was challenging because I have always been one who has never doubted the power of capitalism to drive economic vitality and lift the mases out of poverty. There are excesses, to be sure, but capitalism done with checks and balances and in concert with the church, the two can powerfully affect change for the good. Do you think so?

    • Kayli Hillebrand says:

      Absolutely. When there is transparency and genuine accountability, I have seen amazing kingdom-focused and real world needs met through capitalism, innovation, and the like. While in my MBA, one of my research papers was on the CEO salaries of large well known nonprofits that were involved in child sponsorship. At that time, only one of them allowed an outside auditor to come in and take a look at their numbers. It’s that level of openness that I think is really what allows us to remain in line with keeping the main thing the main thing.

  3. mm Eric Basye says:

    Great post. Well done on the summary. As to the stats regarding the church and capitalism, that is a very interesting topic. I do see the concerns that you raise. However, having been in the nonprofit world for over two decades, I have also seen that we have much to learn from the business world, at least as far as implementing good business practices. I suppose the question remains, to what degree should those practices be adopted (or not) into the Church?

    It also makes me think of the Molecule of More. As we have ‘mastered’ certain domains, it may also lead to our extinction. Could this also be the state for the church? Thanfully, the calling and readying of the Bride is His work and not contingent upon us.

    • Kayli Hillebrand says:

      Eric, I’m a firm believer that the church, para-church organizations, etc. need more business minded folks engaged in vocational ministry work. A few years ago, roughly 80% of nonprofits failed within 2 years because they had a lot of passion and very little business sense. I think when you can combine the two, not only does it allow for increased awareness of stewardship, but allows the church/ministry to innovate towards the future of meeting real and kingdom needs. For me, it lies within the excessiveness of benefitting off of “ministry” that gets me fired up.

  4. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Kayli, I really enjoyed how you wove your thoughts, feelings, and insights throughout your post. Adding the statistics was a good touch. It reminded me of an observation I have had. In the Pacific Northwest as Christian bookstores closed, I noticed that the warehouse bookstores increased their Christian book selections significantly. Your questions about the effectiveness of the commercial influences on the gospel are great. My observations of the impact of Christian books, for example, behind the Iron Curtain revealed the importance of relationship with those materials to maintain a mature balanced faith. I wonder if that could be true in our culture today.

  5. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Kayli, thank you for making this very pertinent observation about the intersection between evangelicalism and capitalism in a very wise and sensitive way. I guess there’s no doubt that the enterprise of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth (conversionism, biblicism, and activism) is an extremely expensive one. The tension, as you rightly point out, is that of compensation, especially executive compensation, in the light of global poverty and the possibility of abuse. For me there are no easy answers. Scripture calls us all to sacrifice, yet highlights how Abraham, for example, was extremely blessed in material terms. May God help us in our understanding and rolling out of His will in this very delicate matter

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