How to Start a Christian Non-Profit

Christian Non-ProfitDEAR LARRY

I want to start a Christian non-profit. Are there Biblical principles that should be considered? I mean is there a right or wrong way to run a Christian ministry? How do I make sure that it doesn’t become one of the negative stereotypes that I see talked about on your site?

Thanks. Tom Speirs

DEAR TOM,

You’ve got an excellent question here.  I think the most excellent aspect of it is that you’ve asked the question!  Seriously, I commend you for taking time to consider the most God-honoring ways to go about that which God has called you to.

Non-Profits in the U.S.

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (http://www.nccs.urban.org/) there are about 1.6 million non-profits in the U.S. today.  Over the past ten years, Americans have been starting non-profits at the rate of about 63 per day – every single day of the year!  Of course, not all of those are Christian, but many of them are.

I’m beginning here because it’s important for you to understand that you aren’t the first person to think about starting a nonprofit.  A whole lot of Americans are doing that these days.  And that in itself should give you reason to pause and consider what you’re about to do and why. 

With 1.6 million non-profits already, that’s only 188 U.S. citizens to support every non-profit.  Are Americans generous enough to pull that off successfully?

With 1.6 million non-profits already, that’s only 188 U.S. citizens to support every non-profit.  Are Americans generous enough to pull that off successfully?

A lot of people start non-profits with the thinking that they’ll support it on their own at first … but have visions that one day it will be self-sustaining with contributions from others.  Perhaps we even see ourselves able to devote ourselves full-time to the cause and drawing a salary from the non-profit.  But the reality is that this almost never happens.  More often than not, the non-profits never reach the financial potential that we envision when we start them.  Statistically, the majority of those non-profits that were started by individuals have annual income of less than $25,000 per year.  (See the NCCS source quoted above.)  Many of them end up just being dormant when the founders run out of money or grow weary of being the primary funding source.

Biblical Model of a Non-Profit?

So if you have your eyes open and are ready to proceed, it’s good to ask – as you have, what the Biblical model would look like.  There are times when there may be a topic that the Bible doesn’t specifically address.  This is one of those times.  In fact, there’s no mention anywhere in the Bible of any type of organization other than a government, a church, or a (for profit) business.  Nevertheless, there are some very fundamental Biblical principles that should guide our thinking about setting up and founding a Christian non-profit.

Acts 2:42-47 gives us a very glorious picture of what’s commonly referred to as the “New Testament Church.”  It says there that, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe … All the believers were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.  And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

This description of the church continues and another salient point is made in Acts 4:32-35, which tells us, “All the believers were one in heart and mind.  No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.  With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.  There were no needy persons among them.  For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”

The Church vs. The Non-Profit

Did you catch that?  The reason that there were no needy people is because everyone gave whatever he (or she) had to the church.  And the church in turn identified who was needy and used its resources to meet their needs.  This is probably the best clue we can find in the Bible of how God wants the needs of the world to be met.  Throughout the Bible God has been very clear that He cares deeply about the poor, the oppressed, etc.  In fact, most of Jesus’ miracles involved healing the sick and feeding the hungry.  But there’s an order to how God wants it done.

For the sake of time, I won’t go into a lengthy theological discussion.  But let me just say that what I’m about to tell you comes from my own lengthy research.  That research included checking conclusions with respected, professional theologians (including my own pastor).  The point I have to make here is that non-profits (excluding churches) are not Biblical.  That is to say that there is no provision for them in the Bible.  Moreover, it is clear from God’s Word (the Bible) that He has always intended for the churches to do the work that we see being done in so-called para-church ministries and other types of non-profits (Christian or otherwise). 

And why do so many Christians (and others) set up non-profits to do work that God intended for the church to do?  The answer is really quite simple.  It’s because Christians … and their churches are disobedient.

It’s also clear that God didn’t intend for governments to take care of everyone.  He didn’t intend for secular institutions (like non-profits) to take care of everyone.  So why are so many governments engaged in work that God intended for the church to do?  And why do so many Christians (and others) set up non-profits to do work that God intended for the church to do?  The answer is really quite simple.  It’s because Christians … and their churches are disobedient.

Studies have shown over the years that, at least for decades, self-professing Christians don’t tithe.  Statistically, 78% of Americans claim to be Christians (following a denomination based on Jesus Christ).  But of only about 4% of all Americans tithe.  And out of 36% of Americans who say that they attend church regularly, total giving represents only about 2-3% of their total household income.  (http://www.barna.org/, http://www.gallup.com/, http://www.religions.pewforum.org/)

In withholding money that rightfully belongs to God, and which He has commanded them to bring to their church, these people have disabled and crippled their churches.  So the churches are woefully ill-equipped to do the work that God commands them too.  The New Testament churches described in the book of Acts were able to ensure that there were “no needy among them” because their people had a supernatural revelation of Christ and were obedient with their resources.  Who do you know in today’s American churches that would sell their house to be sure that others in their own congregations were taken care of?

At the same time, even churches with strong balance sheets and high income streams often invest their money in the things that they believe will help grow the number of people in their churches.  Consider for example, the explosion in American churches of the multi-site concept that claim to have “one church with multiple locations.”  Instead of investing their money in programs and facilities to serve the poor, heal the sick, educate the ignorant, heal the hurting, etc. — they are instead investing their money in franchise facilities to grow the enterprise of the church.

Don’t get me wrong, most Christian churches are doing good work.  But they aren’t always limiting their work to that which God called them to do.  Especially in modern times, when Christian churches in America are going out of business in droves — most of our modern, contemporary churches are paying the most attention to what will help them survive, thrive and prosper.  Lest you think that I’m throwing the churches under the bus, stop and think about what kind of churches we want to attend.  Let’s face it, a church where everyone in the congregation sells everything they have to give to the church so it can ensure that nobody is in need would have a difficult marketing message! 

Para-church ministries are not Biblical.  But they may be necessary.

Questions to Consider

So it is that we have this dilemma.  Para-church ministries are not Biblical.  But they may be necessary.  How then do we go about the business of setting them up and running them?  Here are some questions for you (and anyone else starting or running a Christian non-profit) to consider.

 

  1. What exactly has God called you to do here?  Be very clear here.  Write it out.  Discuss it with other mature Christians.  It is Biblical?  Does it line up with the character and nature of Christ?  Does it align with what God has told us to do (i.e., love God and love others)?
  2. Is there no way to accomplish this in your church?  Does your church have no ministry that addresses this, which you could engage in?  Have you discussed this ministry calling with your church leaders to be sure they aren’t willing to take this ministry on (possibly with you as its leader)?
  3. Are you fully submitted to the authority of your church now, before God called you to do this?  Are you living an examined life (Lamentations 3:40)?  Are you confessing all of your sins to another brother in Christ (James 5:16)?  Are you obediently tithing (Malachi 3:8) and serving (Matthew 23:23 & Luke 11:42) in your church – as God commands you to do?
  4. Under what God-ordained, church authority will you operate this non-profit?  What trained theologians will be looking over your shoulder to help make sure your theology is sound (i.e., that what you’re doing and how you do it always aligns with Scripture)?
  5. What can you put in place to safeguard against the eventuality that the devil will try to undermine your mission?  How will you, for example, keep from getting distracted from what God specifically called you to do?  To be clear here, every instance that we can find in the Bible of God calling someone to do something was always very, very specific.  It’s often been said that the enemy doesn’t need to defeat Christians.  He simply needs to discourage them, intimidate them, or distract them.  What will keep you safe from such attacks?
  6. What funding sources do you have in mind?  Can you fund it all yourself?  (And if this is the case, why can’t you do that within your own church?)  If you need other funding, will you get it from your church, from friends, from foundational and government grants?  Fund raising in non-profits is an enormous business in America.  And sad to say, Christian non-profits are not the most successful at doing it.  You’ll find, for example, that educational and political non-profits attract far more of the giving dollars in this country than any Christian endeavor.  How effectively can you compete?
  7. Are you a strategically thinking leader?  Most donors today want to know that their giving is having an impact.  If you’ve been called to help orphans, for example, do you know what the best way to help them is?  Can you be certain that your approach is significantly more effective than all of the other approaches being tried?  (It will need to be in order to capture the donations.)

Starting a non-profit can be an enormous undertaking.  I don’t want to discourage you.  But I would rather see you not start a non-profit … than to see you start it and fail.  So continue to do your homework.  Make sure your church is very involved in helping you vet the proposition.  At the very least, you’ll need the prayerful support of people who love you and believe in you.  So make sure you’ve done everything humanly possible to be worthy of that support.

About Larry Walker

Larry Walker loves God and loves people. He has a heart for teaching people how to follow Jesus Christ in all aspects of life. He has worked for years in a recovery ministry called Celebrate Recovery, and also counsels many Pastors throughout the country. Larry answers questions and provides practical application of biblical principles in everyday life. If you've got a question....ask Larry!


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Comments

  1. Steve Bacon says

    A lot of truth in this article. Many churches have traded caring for widows and orphans in the location where most of them dwell, in the city, and have opted to relocate onto sprawling suburban campuses where every need of the congregation is met: Christian school, daycare, coffee shoppe etc. I’m a pastor in a church that did the opposite. We left a church with a mega-ministry model and started a inner city work that God has used to run a homeless shelter for men for the past 10 years. What is interesting is that after the first few years we realized that our congregation of 100 could no longer sustain the expenses of the shelter on its own without cutting back other ministry programs. We eventually had to seek funding through partnerships with local secular social service agencies and later State grants. This collaboration has put Born Again believers at the same table with non-believers seeking to accomplish the same goals albiet for different reasons. It has been a wonderful testimony showing what genuine Christian love is really like. We are now in the process of severing our dependence on State funding and trusting the Lord to provide for his work. As your article correctly illustrates, for a start up non-profit hoping to draw 100% support through God’s people for Christian endevors in our day may be nothing short of a miracle. You may find yourself linking arms with unchristian supporters, but if you agree with the teaching on this blog you will navigate those waters to God’s glory.

  2. Jim Lewis says

    Those who give (donate) cash, boats, cars and trucks ought not expect the government to share in that giving. Tax deductible giving is very wrong. We are to give as though it matters much to ourselves, but not to receive something in return.

  3. says

    Thank you so much for the questions you posted and for the topic. I pray that God continues to lay the caring for our neighbors on our heart and with that shows the believers (the Body of Christ) and the unbelieving world what His love looks like. Often we mean well, but forget that without God we can do nothing (even Jesus could not). But somehow, we manage to call our own agenda His. Maybe it’s not that complicated after all. Maybe we need to trust Him more for His ability to multiply the very simple gifts we give and with that grow compassion and love in us for His Body and the lost. Thanks so much for your ministry! Heidi <

  4. Larry says

    Patti, given your limited family resources and inexperience raising money from others, my advice would be consider partnering with existing organizations. There’s a great Christian author named Henry Blackaby. He wrote a book called “Experiencing God.” (I highly recommend it!) In his book, Henry says that one of the best ways to engage in ministry is to look and see where God may already be working — and then join Him there. So in your case, who is helping orphans, distributing Bibles in local language, and planting churches? There are two very high quality organizations that come to my mind immediately. The first is World Vision International (http://www.wvi.org/). They do a massive amount of work in more than 100 countries on behalf of children, especially orphans. They also partner in local villages to plant and strengthen churches. The second organization is Wycliffe Bible Translators (http://www.wycliffe.org/). They translate and distribute Bibles in more than 700 languages and dialects around the world. If I were you, I would contact World Vision and Wycliffe. Tell them what God has put on your heard for the people in Pakistan, and ask them how you can get involved with them —- in obedience to God.

  5. Carol Jordan says

    I have been advised to accept government money to help establish a Christian Maternity Home for women. Can you give me any advice on whether this is wise? I would like to start the home as soon as possible, because the need is very great, but have limited resources, and fear that I would need to accept funding from the government to fund the endeavor. I might be able to raise some monies from churches and Christians who give to such ministries, but know that this would probably not be enough to run a comfortable home for these young women who are so in need of one. I am troubled about how accepting money from the government @ grants, and monies to help fund the room and board for the girls would be impact the ministry. I know that it might be difficult to raise money, especially in the beginning, but I have it on my heart, as do others in my circle of Christian friends to help women who would like to bring their babies to life full term and without government help, running a house like this seems like a monumental task that might fail if It is not funded by the government. Any advice how to do this, without being totally under the secular hand of the government. I would like to be able to have solid Christian women working in the home with the girls, and have had many volunteer, who could pray with the girls, offering them Christian love, without forcing it upon them, but it troubles me that this project might be almost impossible to raise money for, without accepting some government funding. Will accepting government support hurt the ministry?

    • Larry Walker says

      Carol, you’re asking a good question. I wonder who gave you advice to accept government money. Generally it’s not a question of a non-profit being willing to accept government money. What you’ll find is that there is immense competition for state & federal government grants of any kind. For the most part, the winners of those grants are the largest, most sophisticated non-profits in the country. (Think Lutheran Services, Catholic Charities, World Vision, etc.) They can afford the expert grant-writers (who write the applications). In some cases, those grant writers even work on a commission-like basis … getting paid a percentage of whatever grant money they help the non-profit be awarded. Moreover, these large non-profits are the only ones to have the infrastructure in place that is most often necessary to meet the requirements of the government grants. Government grants for social causes usually have stringent reporting requirements — which typically require professional information technology, among other things. Things like counselors, for example, would most likely be required to have full professional credentials (and some religious institutional credentials wouldn’t be acceptable). Other limiting conditions are common. Most Christians would have a concern that goverment grants could come with strings attached that you’d simply find unbearable – deal breakers. We hear stories about the necessity to pay for abortions, offer equal services to homosexuals, or refrain from evangelizing or offering moral guidance. What if, for example, you found your home providing to a woman who identified more than five potential fathers of her baby. You might, for example, feel called by God to offer such a client some moral guidance. But your government grant could prohibit such counseling. Concerns such as these are very legitimate in many cases. Many government grants do come with such strings attached. But from a practical perspective, I believe your bigger challenge would be to even qualify for the government money in the first place. It’s that hard to get. If the Lord is calling you to establish a Christian maternity home, my simple advice to you would be to expect the Lord to resource it — and not the government. It’s possible that once you’re up and running you may want and qualify for government money. But you would NEVER, EVER want to be in the position of having to take that money in order to keep the ministry viable. For if you do, then you would ALWAYS be in the unfortunate position of having to accept whatever conditions the goverment wanted to dictate. My second piece of advice is that you contact some existing homes today. Maybe volunteer at one. Get familiar with their inner workings. See how they resource themselves. And ask the Lord to show you what He sees in those ministries. You may be surprised at what you can learn!

  6. patti says

    I thank God for finding this article and comments. I am not a new Christian, but in a sense I am a baby since I recently rededicated my life to Christ and to doing His work. He has placed a specific church/orphan ministry on my heart which is in Pakistan, and I talk frequently with the pastor there. My husband and I have been using any extra money that we have to help provide the Pakistan people with Bibles in the Urdu language, but we ourselves struggle to pay our bills at times. I know that God has put them on my heart and I want to do more, so I’m looking at all angles. The church that we attend is very small..about 20 people, and we don’t even have our own building. So I know it sounds kind of nuts when i say that we are so concerned about this ministry in Pakistan. I don’t quite understand why but it just seems that it is more in my Spirit to help these people who are primarily muslim, come to know Jesus Christ. I feel in my heart that they are hungry for change and for a hope that they have never known. More than in our culture, although I know we have needs here for the same in the U.S. I just feel that the season is right for the seeds to be planted in the Middle East and I think that God is calling my husband and I to be a vital part of this painting. any helpful advice would be much appreciated. thanks !!! and God bless!

  7. Larry says

    Charlotte – I assume that you’re referring to getting churches to help direct potential new counseling clients to you, and/or to help provide some funding for your non-profit. My experience has been that churches tend to be very parochial – and reluctant to provide funding for other non-profits. I’ve even heard Bill Hybels (who leads the wealthy mega Willow Creek Community Church) say that it’s healthy for other non-profits to struggle so that they can learn to depend on God! If you are offering Biblically-centered Christian counseling, you may be more successful getting a church to refer its congration to you. To do that, I’d have some brochures made up and maybe a brochure rack that could be placed in a common area of the church. Then go to the church office, introduce yourself, and ask permission to provide the brochures.

  8. Carol says

    Praise the Lord that I found this article! Wow, what a wealth of profound advice. It answers half of the questions that I hadn’t even thought of yet. As a young adult hoping to start a Christian nonprofit, I couldn’t have found a better article – way better than some books I’ve read! If you haven’t turned this into a book, please consider it!

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