"I went to Jerusalem to become acquainted (Gk. istoria) with Cephas" - Paul's words from Galatians 1:18.

Your 501(c)(3) Nonprofit Church Is a Kingdom Tool; It Is Not the Kingdom Itself

American mainline institutional churches are in trouble. Declining attendance, budget shortfalls, and more denominational churches closing their doors than new ones opening are only symptoms of the root problem.

The root problem, in my opinion, is a common mistake made by institutional churches and those who lead them. Christian leaders sometimes make our their 501(c)(3) nonprofit institutional churches to be the kingdom of God. They are not. 501(c)(3) nonprofit institutional churches are kingdom tools, but they are not the kingdom. To be more specific, the church to which you belong is a tool whereby the kingdom of God can be advanced, but it is not the kingdom of God itself.

This is a vital distinction that must be clear among Christian leaders and people who belong to institutional churches or churches will continue to be on the slope of slow decline. We preachers deceive church members when we act as if our institutions, our budgets, our buildings, our programs, and everything else about our non-profits are equivalent to God's kingdom. When we do this, we are like an equipment manager of the Dallas Cowboys saying he owns the Dallas Cowboys. Of course, he doesn't, but the more he pretends he does by constantly telling people he's the owner, acting as if he is the owner, and promising fans of the Cowboys that if they would commit more to make his job easier by giving more, making the offices and facilities more luxurious, and then of course, never argue with the methodology of how the  trainer/owner determines what is best for Cowboy players and fans, then the DALLAS COWBOYS will win! Over time, people will begin to realize that the equipment manager is either delusional or deceived. Either way, the Cowboy base is diminished by a vocal manager who talks and acts like he's the owner. 

The key to prosperity for any nonprofit church is have leadership that is keenly aware that churches are but tools in the kingdom and all Christians, including Christian leaders of nonprofits, are simply servants/stewards in the larger kingdom.  The New Testament only speaks of the kingdom and servant leadership, not 501(c)(3) nonprofits. The New Testament only refers to the "temple of God" as the people of God, not institutional brick and mortar buildings. The New Testament only knows God's people as believers in Jesus Christ from different regions and cities, joining together as needed to advance the kingdom of God. The New Testament knows nothing about individual, institutional churches with big budgets, big buildings and a professional staff who claim to be God's priests and vicars over laity. Since the time of the apostles, institutional churches have evolved. There is nothing inherently wrong with another tool for kingdom work evolving. But the government can one day outlaw institutional churches and God's kingdom will still thrive. Institutional 501(c)(3) churches are tools to advance the kingdom, but they are never to be considered the totality of the kingdom.

How do you know if an institutional church sees itself as "the kingdom of God?" Here are a few ways to determine:
(1). If the pastor proclaims himself as your "spiritual authority" and demands obedience to his will, then you have an institutional church that has set itself up as the kingdom of God.
(2). If the pastor equates giving to the 501(c)(3) nonprofit institutional church as "giving to God," and not giving to the 501-C3 non-profit institutional church as "stealing from God," then the institutional church has set itself up as the kingdom of God.
(3). If "attendance" at the meetings of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit institutional church and support of the "programs" of the institutional church is the measurement of one's "true spirituality," then the institutional church has established itself as the kingdom of God.
(4). If leaving a 501(c)(3) non-profit church to join another 501(c)(3) nonprofit institutional church in the same city causes the leaders of the forsaken institutional church to declare the action as "sin," then the institutional church has set itself up as the kingdom of God.
(5). If people in one institutional church compete with people in another institutional church, comparing how much money is being given to missions, how many people are 'attending' on Sunday morning, how much money is (or isn't) being spent on capital improvements, and how "right" theologically the other institutional church is or isn't, then that church doing the competing has set itself up as the kingdom of God.
When times get tough for institutional churches who think they are the kingdom, the guilt and shame messages from the preacher, the rants of 'unfaithfulness' toward the 'laity' from the 'leaders,' and the pressure to do more and perform better increase dramatically. When times get tough in a church that understands the true nature of the kingdom of God, the church simply adapts its methodologies, programs and staff, without any messages of guilt and shame.

The theme of Jesus Christ's earthly ministry was "the kingdom of God." The phrase appears 53 times in the New Testament Gospels, almost always spoken by Jesus Himself. "The kingdom of heaven,” a synonymous phrase, appears 32 times in the Gospel of Matthew. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he continually proclaims the 'good news' of the kingdom of God.
"Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14-15).
Notice, the "good news" (literally, 'the gospel') is the kingdom of God. In fact, the apostles joined Jesus in calling the gospel call it "the gospel of the kingdom." In the New Testament gospels, Jesus uses the phrase he basileia tou theou  in Greek or ha-malkhut elohim in Aramaic. The words basileia (Greek) and malku (Aramaic) refer to “reign, rule, authority, sovereignty.”

This meaning of the phrase "kingdom of God" is clearly seen in a parable told by Jesus.  The Teacher said,
"A noblemen went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return” (Luke 19:12, NIV).
The literal translation of this verse is "a nobleman went to a distant country to receive a basileia for himself."  Notice, the nobleman didn’t go to get a new region in order to rule over that region, but rather the nobleman went to a distant country to receive a new and greater authority over the place he already lived. This is the way the word "kingdom" is predominately used in the Bible, It means "authority, rule, power and sovereignty."
"All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your faithful shall bless you. They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom [malkuth in Hebrew; basileia in Greek], and tell of your power" (Ps 145:10-11).
God’s kingdom is not so much over the place over which God reigns (for He reigns over all), but it is a reference to the display of His divine power.  Jesus declares:
"Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near" (Mark 1:15)
Jesus is announcing that God’s royal authority and power have arrived onto the scene! Mark 1:15 can then be literally understood as follows:
“God’s revealed power has come into your world. His power is now being  unleashed among you. Turn your life around and put your trust in this good news.”
To whatever extent the local institutional nonprofit 501(c)(3) assists in unleashing the power of God in the daily lives of people, then that non-profit is a tool being used by God in expanding the kingdom of God. However, God does not need our nonprofits to unleash His power. The power of the gospel resides within every person who has come to faith in Jesus Christ.

I pastor a fairly large nonprofit with a multi-million dollar budget, large buildings that require capital to maintain, and a variety of programs that require a great deal of volunteer work.  Emmanuel Enid is not the kingdom of God. If people stop giving to Emmanuel, stop enlisting to serve in our programs, and stop agreeing with our direction as a nonprofit, the kingdom of God will continue! I know that to be true, and the members of our nonprofit church know that to be true. Everything we do is measured by whether or not the power of God is being unleashed to transform lives. We must have a kingdom purpose for a program, or a building, or a staff position, or we simply won't do the program, build the building, or staff the position.

I think that's one of the reasons the particular non-profit to which I belong thrives.  We know we are but managers of a kingdom tool in the kingdom of God, and we never act as if the institutional nonprofit we call Emmanuel holds the keys to God's kingdom.


Bob Cleveland said...

I've long maintained that a kingdom consists of two things; a King, and subjects.

If anything, the church should be a diaspora ... a nation without a homeland. Where the people are scattered all over the world. In a perverse way, multi-site churches mimic that more closely than the big red brick building on the highway.

Wade Burleson said...

Excellent Bob.

David Rogers said...


You have some interesting thoughts here, much of which resonate with my understanding of the NT church. A key question for me that you haven't really covered, though, is, is there a third category, an entity that is neither, strictly speaking, the kingdom of God, nor a 501(c)(3), but rather the local congregation, i.e., the entity the NT speaks of when it speaks of "the church that meets at so-and-so's house"? Obviously, in our modern-day Evangelical and Baptist landscape, there is some overlap between the NT local church and the 501(c)(3), but is it possible they are not necessarily one and the same, in every sense of the word?

Wade Burleson said...

"There is some overlap between the NT local church and the 501(c)(3), but is it possible they are not necessarily one and the same, in every sense of the word?"

David, I am saying emphatically that they are "never the same" in every sense of the word.

The church local ("where two or three are gathered together in my name") and the church global ("the bride of Christ") are never the same with the modern 501(c)(3) church. There is--because of the nature of the 501(c)(3) and the local and global church--overlap.

David Rogers said...

Okay, fair enough. That brings up the question, then, what precisely is the difference between a NT local congregation, a 501(c)(3), and what we typically call a local church today?

Mitch Bryant said...

Wade thank yo for this clear explanation of ideas that I myself struggle sometime to articulate. Some times I really cannot understand the majority thinking I run into about our 501(c)(3).

Bob, I agree with your idea of the church being a scattered people without a home. I liken us to the people of the captivity who were told to make homes get married and such and then to pray for the prosperity of the places where they were, but it was not their permanent home. God was coming back. This earth is not my home and America is not my country, I am an ambassador sent from another Kingdom to represent my King. The 501(c)(3) is just one of the places where my fellow citizens and I can meet, fellowship and talk about Home, worship our King.

Wade Burleson said...

What we typically call a "local church" today (at least in the United States) is ALWAYS a 501(c)(3) nonprofit religious organization.

What the New Testament calls the "church" is a group of believers who gather for fellowship, encouragement and ministry - in homes, cities, regions (Galatia), etc...

In the New Testament, the church was the kingdom, because the "church" always meant people who had experienced the power of God in their lives, not an institution. Nowhere does the New Testament distinguish between "local church" and "global church" because the church (i.e. 'the Bride of Christ,' 'believers,' 'the redeemed,' etc...) always meant people. It is true that some of God's people lived in a particular locality, so "local" church simply meant people in a region. Since the church in the New Testament ALWAYS meant people, there was no concept of an institutional "church" (modern 501(c)(3) nonprofit with buildings, a professional staff, church programs, etc...

Our modern nonprofits aren't morally wrong - they just aren't the kingdom. They are foreign to the New Testament (just like air conditioning, pews, telephones, media, etc... - which are also modern inventions used to promote the kingdom, but are not the kingdom).

Of course, I feel like I'm preaching to the choir because David Rogers could tell us all more about this concept--in a far more articulate manner--than I.

Anonymous said...

Amen and amen, Pastor Wade!

Sometimes we get so caught up in our petty plans and projects we miss the bigger picture. Not that our plans and projects are not serving God. Indeed, often those engaged in doing them are being absolutely obedient to God.

But sometimes we forget God doesn't assign each of His kids the same task!


Wade Burleson said...



Wade Burleson said...

"The 501(c)(3) is just one of the places where my fellow citizens and I can meet, fellowship and talk about Home, worship our King."

Well said.

Pege' said...

Wade, it is a blessing to see people grow.

Tom R said...

Wade - great article.

Unfortunately, looks like the SBC is going to elect a president who is terribly confused on this matter that you make so clear.

Ronnie Floyd just a few weeks ago spent an entire sermon telling his members that they must be "first fruits" givers to God (meaning to the church), else God himself will curse them. And he declared it doesn't matter what the income is: minimum wage and social security income - 10% of it must come to the church else God will actively bring harm to the Christian. And to make his point, he didn't quote the bible; he quoted Robert Morris - perhaps THE worst of the first fruits preachers out there.

Perhaps Ronnie Floyd IS the perfect president for the SBC at this time, sad to say.

Mitch Bryant said...

Could you post a link to that message?

GoldHorde said...

I am reminded of this: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.iii.ii.v.html

Jeshurun said...

The building is not the church; the people are the church or rather each individual. Laboring with your hands to make a building then calling it a church is deceitful, the work of Satan.

Going to said building once a week, or perhaps more than once a week if you're deemed 'pious', is not the sacrifice God wants. God is not pleased with those who call themselves after his name. He is wroth with those that call themselves after his name. But just as in the days of Noah when everyone was eating and drinking and the flood came so it will be with this evil people.