I’m watching as the pastor in a megachurch prepares to receive the Sunday offering. This is a “prosperity” church where you have only to claim your pile of riches on Sunday to receive it on Monday-where being a consumer is not a systemic evil but a divine right.
Food for judgment. But a lifelong missionary, now a member, says to me, “This is the most generous church I have ever been in!” I’m watching for it. The pastor speaks. He says three things. First, “prosperity” is not luxury but having more than you need. Second, for believers our true wealth lies in our relationship with God, even when material blessings slip through our fingers.
Third, he reminds that the economy has brought hard times to many. Then he asks us to take a second envelope from the pew rack, insert money or a cheque, then give it to someone who is in need. I wonder how many people follow through.
Upon reflection, I see in this moment of offering first, the total comfort of the pastor to talk about money; and second, the total acceptance of the people to hear it, and to respond. I am transported back to my own childhood in the Pentecostal church where money is seamlessly interwoven with praise, preaching and piety. At the age of 15, I give my eighty cents tithe on a monthly government Family Allowance cheque of $8. What is happening in this middle class megachurch is in a way not so different from my rural Maritime church-whether poor or wealthy, we honour God with the first fruits of our labour, and God will supply our needs.
My eventual leap into the Anglican family was thick with cultural difference, including attitudes to money. I soon realized that money was a deeply private matter, mentioned perfunctorily once a year at “pledge time,” and giving was measured carefully to just meet the budget presented by the finance committee. The “biblical tithe” was seldom mentioned, and “tithes and offerings” was as unfamiliar as hillbilly music in a cathedral, and just about as unwelcome. Of course there were stellar exceptions, but that is the point-they were exceptions.
It took me years to realize the impact of church culture. Culture is the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that say in effect, “this is who we are” and “this is how we do things.” Desired change in either one cannot be achieved by mounting interesting programs alone. Programs are an important delivery system, but cannot by themselves change the culture of a congregation.
Back to money and church. What I encountered in my new church family was a cultural phenomenon of middle class North America. As long ago as 1929, H. Richard Niebuhr named it-I was now part of “a bourgeoisie whose conflicts are over and which has passed into the quiet waters of assured income” [cited in Durall, 45]. The effect of these “quiet waters” is predictable and discernible. Our money is ours, not yours or even God’s. We give as we choose, not out of duty, compulsion or imposed scale. We are offended by money talk outside the liturgical rhythm of the fall pledge drive, like the woman in my former congregation who was upset when I preached a sermon on money in June instead of October.
Of course there is more money talk these days because we are a shrinking and aging church in the midst of mounting maintenance costs for equally aging buildings. There is an increasing urgency on the part of leaders who are aware of our mainline culture, and some are finally ready to give up some of our entrenched practices which seem like debilitating cultural baggage.
Now to our question-does this stingy and measured attitude to money hinder a congregation from being missional? To put it differently, can a congregation be truly missional without being generous? My preliminary conclusion is that it may be possible, but it is likely as difficult as getting a camel through the eye of a needle.
Two fundamental reasons for the difficulty come to mind. As already mentioned, mainline Christians are mostly rather secure middle-class folk. The older generation is particularly committed to our cultural institutions, while the younger generation is more personally and consumer motivated. This is not a critique of middle class Canada (I am part of it, after all) but is intended to point out how this cultural status affects our attitude to money. The second reason is that the older generation, which warms most of our pews and gives the most money, responds best to the needs of the institution. For them it is hard to give beyond the needs displayed on the annual income-expense pie chart. Patterns of giving that stretch far beyond church upkeep are understandably difficult.
A missional church will call forth much more from its members than is currently expected or received in most of our mainline congregations, and at every level. But in order to achieve these changes, the culture of the congregation must be changed. We need generous congregations that will embody the character and spirit necessary to respond to the larger challenge of the gospel.
I have no magic wand, and consider myself to have been only partly successful in accomplishing this goal in my own parish ministry. But the following guidelines may serve as preliminary pointers, if not a detailed map, for moving forward.
1. Make every effort to break through the cultural glass ceiling of silence regarding money. This will take more courage than most of our pastors have the stomach for. It will require finding creative and effective ways to incorporate the subject of money in sermons, teaching, and decision-making processes. It will call for involving more laity who share your views.
2. Address the spiritual benefits of giving, not just the moral “ought.” This is a challenge because many of our pastors (1) do not believe in tithing as a New Testament principle, (2) are unconvinced that there is a “spiritual law” of giving, and (3) do not think that there is any connection between generous giving and an enriching personal faith.
3. Shun the dichotomy (spiritual apartheid?) between those with more of the world’s goods and the materially poor. Jesus made a stunning observation for the religious leaders in the synagogue when the widow gave her last penny. Rather than rushing to protect her from her recklessness, he praised her example of sacrificial generosity-not to mention the stinging blow he dealt to the hypocritical onlookers. To deprive the poor of the blessing of giving is to score a moral and spiritual indignity upon them.
4. Preach and teach both the macro and the micro dimensions of giving. That is, preaching macro would include the belief that (1) all that we are and have belongs ultimately to God, who provides the good things of life on loan, and (2) giving is one of God’s ways of employing his followers in the world. We give generously for evangelism because we believe that every person deserves to know God’s gracious offer of salvation and fullness of life in Jesus. And we give for the alleviation of pain and poverty in this world because we know that our resources and ministry are God’s way of giving witness to a new world. In other words, biblical generosity means sharing the Good News as well as our resources.
Preaching micro is making the message relevant and real in your own congregation. The best of preaching motivationally will address both head and heart. What would it take to create such a climate of generosity in our churches that people would find it hard to keep their hands off their wallets when a Kingdom vision is cast? What would it take to bring our message home with the kind of excitement described by one visitor to a 10,000 member megachurch: “a cup of designer coffee with lightning bolts coming out of it” [Durall, 26]? Our calling is to help people see that giving generously for God’s work is not only right but desirable.
5. Work with the symbiotic relationship between giving to God and giving missionally. Research shows that just giving to worthwhile outreach projects does not create a culture of generous giving. We first seek to form disciples who live out the truth that everything we have belongs to God. But opportunities to give are important means by which we grasp the reality and blessing that comes from giving.
6. Do not be afraid to appeal for sacrificial giving. Our consumer culture is not accustomed to depriving itself of its wants. But for Kingdom purposes, the decision to delay trading in the family car or postponing a kitchen renovation becomes a moment for weighing the sacrifice factor. As Bill Hybels says, be bold in asking for money, since most will likely end up spending it on frivolous things anyway.
7. Enlist laity in the culture change. Observe those lay persons who already show signs of a generous spirit. Do not limit yourself to those who have more money to give. Find ways to raise their visibility in the congregation. Give them opportunities to share their testimony, especially the ways God has blessed them. Ask elected leaders (wardens and church board) to lead by example-commit to tithing or have a plan to work toward it through increased proportional giving.
Churches are never just about bricks and mortar. They are either weekly comfort stations for passive believers, or they are hospitals for the sick, redemptive centres for the sinner, and launching platforms for sharing God’s good news from the neighbourhood to the farthest continent. The former takes only a little money to keep the doors open. The latter is secured by a divine purpose, a global vision and lots of money. Whether or not we feel the pain of the sacrifice depends entirely upon the angle of vision and disposition of the heart. Miracles are not always instantaneous. This one will take a minimum of five years.
Michael Durall, Creating Congregations of Generous People (Washington, DC: Alban Institute, 1999.