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The Really Big Business of Bethel Church, Part 1: Show us the Money!

Anyone who lives in Redding knows the name “Bethel.” Our small conservative community is certainly church-friendly, but Bethel takes church to another level, drawing a cult following from around the world.

Some locals have even worried it is a cult. And that’s partially because it’s grown so big. Just how big? According to its annual report from 2018, Bethel Church reports a whopping 11,233 congregants who “call Bethel Redding home”. Of these, more than 6,000 people attend weekly. (Notably, 45% percent of their attendees are under the age of 25, and more than half of those are minors. )

Image from cover of 2018 Bethel Church annual report.

Still, with that many members and attendees, Bethel Church must bring in significant income. After all, members sign a “commitment” in which they agree to tithe to the church. Although, as far as I know, the church does nothing to ensure this giving happens – it’s purely voluntary. And it appears their giving policies pay off. Or that God is at work in new and lucrative ways. Probably both. Because Bethel is making big money. In fiscal year 2017-2018, according to its annual report, Bethel Church pulled in $21.6 million in income JUST from “tithes and offerings”.

For those not familiar with church-speak, the tithe is a Biblical principle, considered by many Christians to be a requirement. It’s a gift to your local church of 10% of your income, sometimes called the “first fruits” of your “harvest”. “Offerings” are gifts of money above and beyond the tithe.

But that’s not all. Even more fascinating was learning about Bethel’s additional funding sources. Most churches receive almost all their income from tithes and offerings. In fact, the concept of the tithe is based on the principle that since churches are organizations dedicated to serving God and humanity, they won’t have time for money earning activities and require tithes and offerings as an income source. However I recently learned that Bethel’s income from tithes and offerings, large though it is, makes up only 35% of their annual income.

In fiscal year 2017/2018, Bethel Church reported almost $60.8 million in overall income. And per its annual report, the bulk of that income came from sales, services and royalties, not from traditional tithes and offerings.

Sales? What sales? What exactly is this non-profit selling? No, not snake oil, as many have speculated. They’re selling culture. Specifically, they’re selling media that incorporates the “kingdom culture” they teach and seek to live, in friendly, bright, well-marketed, expertly designed packages.

Eric Johnson photo and text from page three of Bethel Church’s 2018 annual report.

They do this primarily via two significant income earning entities, nestled under Bethel Church’s non-profit wings: Bethel TV and Bethel Music. Bethel TV is a department within Bethel Media and streams on air in more than 150 countries worldwide to 19,000 paid subscribers. They also offer free live streaming of Bethel Church’s weekly Sunday morning service. Bethel Music is played on Christian radio stations around America, downloaded nationally and internationally via Spotify and iTunes and streamed on YouTube. Bethel Music includes a record label, publishing company, and events department. They hold live events around the country which drew in approximately 125,000 participants last year, again per the church’s annual report.

These two entities, together with “product sales” are the source of Bethel Church’s sales, service and royalties income, which makes up 38% of Bethel’s overall income, or just over $23 million.

They file their I-990s under tax code 509(a)(3), by classifying themselves as “supporting organizations” to Bethel Church, hence their non-profit status. Per the IRS, “a supporting organization is an organization that carries out its exempt purposes by supporting other exempt organizations.”

Bethel Church Communications Director, Aaron Tesauro, clarified for me that the church pays sales tax on all product sales.

I should mention here that sales, service and royalty income reported by the church does not include royalties from the many books written by Bethel leaders, or the fees paid for these leaders’ speaking engagements around the country and the world. This income goes directly to the individuals or their personal non-profits, and the amounts are not reflected in Bethel Church’s numbers.

So far we’ve discussed tithes and offerings ($21.6 million) and sales, services and royalties ($23 million). Additionally, Bethel earns income from their multiple school tuitions which provide $13.7 million, or 22.5% of their total earnings. These include fees paid by students of the three years of Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, fees paid by parents of kids enrolled at Bethel Christian School (K-8), as well as tuition from students of WorshipU (an online as well as on site summer worship school), Bethel Conservatory of the Arts, and Bethel School of Technology. Their online Leadership Development Program also draws tuition-paying students. And word on the street is that a new school, Bethel Business School, is opening soon.

Fair enough, with Bethel’s own big (non-profit) businesses booming, they must have some special wisdom to impart.

Image from 2018 Bethel Church annual report.

And there’s more . . . .Bethel Church is growing even bigger, and its growth is the source of yet more funding. Their brand new worship center and ministry school will be located on Collyer Drive, not far from Bethel’scurrent location on College View, and once built will be, I’m told by sources, the single largest building existing in Redding to date. ( I could not confirm this.) Bethel has an Office of Advancement, with the purpose of networking and fundraising for this building, under a project titled “Arise and Build.” (tagline: Expanding our Capacity to Establish Heaven on Earth.)

Image from 2018 Bethel Church annual report.

Last year, BSSM allocated $1 million to fund the project and this advance team’s efforts; an investment which paid off handsomely. The Office of Advancement is funded by BSSM tuition income, not tithes and offerings. Donors have given $36.2 million in gifts or commitments to the building project since its inception. Bethel’s Office of Advancement still has work to do, though, as the project remains far from funded. At current estimates, it will cost about $148.8 million to finish the project, per their website.

(Editor’s note: The original text in the above paragraph regarding the source of the $1 million was incorrect. The paragraph has been revised and corrected.)

Bethel Church growth graphic from 2018 Bethel Church annual report.

In partial response to my questions, Bethel Church shared this statement with me:

“Bethel Church has a high value for integrity, transparency, and good stewardship, and as such, each year we conduct a financial statement audit through an independent accounting firm. Bethel’s Annual Report is built upon these fully audited financials.”

I was happy to hear of Bethel’s value for transparency, as that’s my goal, too. I think few Bethel attendees, let alone community members, know just how much income the church has. And while financial audits are important and valuable, they don’t tell the whole story on organizational finance.

Bethel Church’s $60.8 million income is a bit mind boggling to those of us who have driven up College View Drive to see the nondescript building on the hill, surrounded by immaculate landscaping and a driveway lined by international flags. It’s pretty, but not all that much to look at, and one imagines that they are a low-budget operation, accomplishing great things for the Lord on minimal donations. But Bethel Church turns out to be something much different; a really big business.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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Author’s note: I have written in detail about only the three largest income percentages Bethel Church documents in their annual report. The additional approximately 4% of their income is made up of event registrations, totaling between $2-3 million.

Editor’s note: Annelise Pierce is a graduate of Bethel’s ministry school and a former member of Bethel Church.