Pay people to go to church. Here’s how it works.

A bolt of lighting stuck me when I was watching Al Gore’s new slide show on climate change.

I’d never really understood his idea of a Carbon Tax, but now I do.

Instead of taxing people for doing the things we want them to do, like work and shop, the government should only charge people for the amount of carbon they’re releasing into the air. I could pay little to no taxes if I live green, ditching my car and riding my bicycle to work for example. Carbon-heavy activities and products would become expensive- in some cases prohibitively so. People are motivated to change their lifestyles to the betterment of us all.

How does this translate to church going?

We want people to come to church. When they get there, we ask them for money. As living proof that America has a dissolving middle class, requests for money are a big turn-off. Asking for money causes tension in young, the skeptical, the poor, and the alienated.

What’s that you say? Those are a majority of the people that first make their way to a UU church?

(Hey, how many old, wealthy, open-eyed socialites do you even KNOW?)

Well, instead of asking for money from church goers, why not have the church pay members for ATTENDING.


Say, $5 a person would do it. That way, the church isn’t charging for something it wants to encourage.

Most people would ‘spend’ the money at the service anyway on coffee, cookies, etc.

Can you imagine the different feel something like this would have? Instead of shirking every time I grab a coffee and cookie, hating the $ donation sign and hating myself for clinging to my cash, I’d feel like I had a little spending money every time I walked in the front door. And if I felt like keeping the money, well… it WAS my money after all.

In this set-up, NOT going to church would feel the way it SHOULD. Like I was LOSING out.

Losing money. Missing friends. Missing an opportunity to grow as a person and add a quick fiver to my wallet.

Convincing people to donate an additional $250 per person shouldn’t be that hard. Heck, most UU’s can afford it. And who wouldn’t want to be a “Greeter” handing out cold hard cash to everyone that walked in the front door?! Can you imagine the look on the face of first time visitors as you lay a bill in their hand?

“Spend it however you want. Get some cookies. Buy a book. Heck, keep it! We’re just glad you’re here.” I’d say. “No, really. Take it. Everyone gets one.”

I bet UU’s would have a higher retention rate. I bet young people would show up more often as well. Use it to replace your sons allowance? Maybe. Beggars off the street? Could be. But it what’s wrong with giving directly to those who need it? It might help diversify and raise social awareness in the congregation. Don’t make me break out the ‘limousine liberal’ label.

Where does the money for guests come from?

Usually, churches are funded by contributions from all members with a few people contributing far more than the rest. Long time members interested in growing the church could be convinced to ‘sponsor’ a new member. Wealthy members could agree to sponsor any guests for a month. As new people walk through the door week after week, I’d be hard pressed not to ‘claim’ them as ‘my member’ and slip some cash to the greeter.

**Remember, all funds are received FIRST from pledged members specifically for this purpose. It’s like a membership at a gym. If you’re not using it, you’re not getting anything out of it. Church is sort of this way anyway, but the best gyms give members all kinds of perks: towels, fruit, drinks, classes, etc. It’s a much more pleasant experience than the ‘cheap’ place with ‘no frills’. Let’s think about providing a full-service service.

Change is scary. But what’s the worst case scenario? You run out of funds because too many guests start attending? You’d be lucky to have such a problem.

I know. I know. I’m young. I don’t get it.

We have to continue with the old ways and charge people for things we want them to do, while it remains free to everything else. Carbon taxes don’t work.

It’s not possible. It can’t happen.




I believe in my right to search for the good, to choose it for myself, and hold it in my heart.

I affirm this right in you as well.

Together we share in the joy of community, the power of reverence, and the challenge of freedom.

This is the promise of my heart extended to you, as we walk on separate paths, together.


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9 Responses to “Pay people to go to church. Here’s how it works.”

  1. Susan Kishner Says:

    Nice writing style. I will come back to read more posts from you.

    Susan Kishner

  2. Aaron Sawyer Says:

    Anybody have any thoughts?

  3. Aaron Sawyer Says:

    Anybody willing to propose this in a committee? It’d be great if this was more than a passing fancy. Maybe try it for three-four months?

  4. rev. ricky Says:

    aaron – first of all I love you. second I love the audacity of this idea and you’re openness to thinking about church in really radically different ways. It’s exciting. Unfortunately I think this idea is completely wrong in so many ways. The basic idea of taxing people for unproductive behavior (a “sin tax”) and rewarding them for good behavior makes great sense. But your analysis of the church situation is misguided. People are not taxed for coming to church. The service is free. In fact every program at a church is offered for free. Come to worship, talk to the minister, take a class, drop your kids in the RE program. It’s all free. The basket is a voluntary free-will offering and you’re welcome to let it pass. Only members are required to make a financial gift (a pledge) and you can come to church for years without becoming a member.

    A much more important benefit of coming to church than $5 is the opportunity to explore and expand your spiritual life. You get (hopefully) a thoughtful sermon, inspiring music, a chance to meditate, fellowship with friends, a free cup of coffee, allies who will help you transform the world in the direction of your vision. I want people to come to church who see the value of those things, not because of the $5.

    I also find it a relief that church is one of the few places in my life where the costs and benefits are not set up in a transactional, consumerist fashion. I try to teach my congregation that when thinking about a pledge the correct question is not, “How much is this church worth to me?” but “How involved do I want to be?” the money dropped in the offering plate, or stuffed in the jar on the refreshment table doesn’t “pay for” the church “product. If you put money in it’s because you’re expressing your own generous (spiritual) nature, and your desire to be part of the community. I think this is an area where the church rather than trying to conform to an increasingly (overwhelmingly) consumerist culture, ought to resist and teach a different way.

    I still love you though.

  5. Josh Pawelek Says:


    I don’t think you’re intending this to be tongue-in-cheek. I think you mean it in all seriousness, so I’m responding in all seriousness. This has nothing to do with your age or your idealism. It has everything to do with running a small non-profit.

    Have you actually done the math?

    At 320 people coming into our building on Sunday morning, that’s $1,600 a week–about 20% of what it costs to run our congregation per week. $83,200 per year is a few salaries, which is what we would have to cut to make this work. But without staff, programming suffers. Worse, toilets don’t get unclogged. You can see the bind I’m in. We’re trying to add staff, not lose them.

    I actually think most folks would be insulted if we handed them money. They gave it to us in the first place, and they would wonder why we asked for it if we’re just going to give it back. (We actually give most of our Sunday collection to local community organizations, which means we’re asking people to give us money that we’re not even going to spend on ourselves.)

    I like your idealism and your out-of the-box thinking, but this is a gimmick, nothing more. The carbon tax is not a good analogy. With the carbon tax, people and companies are paying more because they’re doing something harmful. With congregations, we’re asking people to pay because they get something profound out of their experience of religious community. If they’re not getting something profound out of it, paying them $5 isn’t gonna change that. Congregations that focus on mission, excellent ministry, provocative worship and effective social justice inspire people. Inspired people are generous. Generosity is what we need to focus on, not gimmicks.

    I do have two thoughts that might move in the direction you’re suggesting here.

    1) At the end of the fiscal year, if there is a surplus, perhaps that surplus could be handed out in $5 increments (if there were enough to go around on a Sunday.) But the reality there is that most surpluses could be directed towards some unmet goal in the congregation.

    2) I recently read about an evangelical congregation in North Carolina that handed out $40,000 to its parishioners on the condition that they contribute it into the larger community in some way. $40,000 was 10% of the congregation’s capital campaign money, and they were committed to tithing with that money, in this case meaning giving 10% back into the community. I like this idea a lot.

    Discover UU is a great resource. Keep up the good work. If I ever start blogging . . . .

    –Rev. Josh Pawelek

  6. Aaron Sawyer Says:

    Well said, Rev. Ricky. This is a pretty radical idea. And it goes completely in a consumerist-driven direction… which is a direction churches should stay away from. Heck, didn’t Jesus even throw a fit because of the commercialization of the church back in the day?

    I think it’s one way or the other though. Either money is a part of church or it’s not.

    I’ve been to services without a collection. I think I’d like that direction better as well.

  7. Aaron Sawyer Says:

    Thanks, Rev. Josh. A focus on positive inspiration is the key.
    I suppose my relationship to the church and money will always be problematic so long as I feel like there are better places for the money to go. There’s a lot of competition facing the church today- both in terms of immediate self-gratification and in terms of good causes. As society becomes more divorced from their local communities and more in touch with national and ideological or identities, the harder it will be for churches to gather funds.

    Why give money to the church when some other cause or person seems to need my money more?

  8. Aaron Sawyer Says:

    This has been a great thought experiment (which I did enjoy exploring in earnest). Kudos to the great comments tackling the subject.

  9. shaktinah Says:

    Just a question: why do we want people whom we have to pay to be members?

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