Practicing Bad Theology

Tomorrow, my youth ministry will hold it’s largest fundraiser of the year, a Silent Auction, designed to raise money for our summer mission trip to Booneville, Arkansas.

In theory, it sounds like a great event – an event with the potential to bring together people from our family of Faith and give them an opportunity to enjoy one another’s company while supporting a worthwhile cause. It’s events like this one that enable our ministry to keep the cost of our potentially life-changing summer mission trip low enough for all our families to afford, something that I believe is incredibly important.

Despite knowing how important it is to make trips affordable, I struggle with this particular fundraiser a lot.

Because of the nature of this event, it’s difficult for youth to “own” it. They simply don’t have the skill set required to ask businesses to donate their goods and services. Those few students who are courageous enough to solicit businesses are usually not taken seriously by them. As a result, it’s up to parents & myself to solicit donations. What we’ve found this year is that businesses are hurting financially. So much so that it’s become difficult for them to generously donate to the plethora of events like this one held in our community.

This means that the bulk of our donations come from our own congregation. Thankfully, we have a talented community of artists in our congregation, many of whom donate their artwork to the auction. But we also have a lot of people who want to give generously & so they go to various stores, pay full retail price for items, and put together beautiful baskets.

Baskets, which unfortunately, we have to devalue in order to get people to bid on them. In fact, we have to devalue ALL the items that we receive – even the original artwork that people spend countless hours creating. At most, we start the bidding on an item at half its worth, hoping to raise maybe three-quarters of its worth once the bidding is complete. Though its a necessary evil of this particular type of event, this constant process of devaluing things is a part of this auction that I truly loathe. When we do this, what message are we teaching the very youth who we’re working so hard to raise money for?

I also struggle with the fact that for a Silent Auction to be a success, rather than encourage the discipline of simplicity, we must instead encourage people to consume material goods. We depend on our church family to attend the auction, to bid generously, and to buy our stuff, something that taxes the very group that has also generously donated items to the Silent Auction and diligently given their weekly offering to the church. Last year, I actually watched as parents donated baskets to the Silent Auction & then attended the Silent Auction & purchased those very same baskets again. Does that not seem absurd to anyone else?

But above all, I hate the theological message that the Silent Auction sends. I hate the fact that at the Silent Auction, I actually practice bad theology in order to raise money.

Its been a tradition in our congregation for the Silent Auction items to be set up in the narthex on the Sunday morning of the auction so as to allow people who won’t be able to attend the auction to consume anyway; To bid high in order to “win” their chosen items. Last year, we filled our narthex and our small chapel with items. The result? Pandemonium and a zoo-like feel after each service when people jockeyed for position to bid on their chosen items.

This on the morning when our lectionary reading was Matthew 21:12-13:

“Then Jesus entered the temple & drove out all who were selling & buying in the temple, & he overturned the tables of the money changers & the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Oh the irony.

What would Jesus have thought of our tables & our merchandise set up on Sunday morning in His house of prayer? Would we have been driven out of His house of prayer by the one whom we seek to serve? By trying to raise money in order to make our mission trip affordable, have we really only taught students how to make Christ’s house a “den of robbers”?

These questions have only increased my struggle with this year’s Silent Auction.

Yet, because we have to raise money for our summer mission trip and because this Silent Auction is the “tradition” by which we do that, tomorrow, I will once again host this fundraiser and do all that I can do to make this event a success.

All the while I’ll be thinking, “There’s got to be a better way. There’s got to be a way to raise money while still practicing good theology.”

Once all the items are sold tomorrow, the money is counted, and the tables are torn down, I’ll start to search for that better way; And I’ll wonder – Did anyone notice the word left off of this year’s Silent Auction program?




Wow, what an awesome post. Lots to think about as our high schoolers did the same thing to raise money for their mission trip. But I can’t complain too much, we got a cheap trip to Hawaii.

As hokey as it may be, I think the Biblical model of fundraising is simply to write letter and make your needs known. It takes thoughtful work on the part of a student to draft a letter, mail it, then perhaps make a phone call the week after (facebook notes definitely don’t count, though email could work, but sometimes there’s something about getting it in the postal mail). There of course should be a rule that you can only mail it to a limited number of people in your own congregation, and a good number of the letters should go to non-believers. This additionally would be a great way to share the Gospel.

Regardless, I trust the auction was a “success”.

Posted by dk, about 13 years ago


I am in my first year of youth ministry, and the youth want to attend the LCMS National Youth Gathering. It’s costing us $9000 for ten people, and the fundraising is not my favorite either. We’ve asked for donations (or buying stock in the group), done penny wars, prepared and hosted meals, are in the midst of completing “servant auction” jobs, will be selling coupons for Papa Murphy’s Pizza, and will be doing a bowl-a-thon. The idea that I like most of these has been the servant auction, but we didn’t really auction the youth at all. We figured we would bring in more revenue by doing more jobs and not making people compete against each other for our work. We got ten bids for jobs and had the youth then get into groups to complete each job. We’ve completed seven of the ten so far, mostly over spring break, and will probably make over $1000 from it. The best part, I think, is that most of the congregation members who’ve asked us to do jobs have worked along with us, and that builds community and mentorship too! All in all, though, fundraising is a pain!

Posted by sarah, almost 13 years ago

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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