There was a couple who were having serious issues in their marriage, mostly because of financial difficulties. After a stewardship sermon at church, they went home and had a huge discussion. They decided to sell their house and buy a smaller one. They did just that, and saved their marriage. In fact, their whole lives were changed.
That experience reminded me of how important preaching is, because what happens if people really believe what we are saying and begin to order their lives around it? Imagine if they do that with sermons about money.
Clergy are often reluctant to raise the subject of money. They know it is a sensitive area and people might get upset. Good church members are hard to find. Why risk losing them by raising a provocative topic? Clergy are also sensitive to the fact that there is an element of self-serving in their talk and preaching about money. After all, the point of such sermons is usually to increase the income of the church which pays their stipends and benefits. And clergy are sensitive to the reputation of the church in many quarters that “the church is only after our money.”
For their part, the members of the congregation often have an uneasy, maybe even a love/hate relationship with their finances. They work hard for their money and sometimes find it difficult to make ends meet. Many are stretched to the point of discomfort and worry over the state of their personal finances. They are, after all, deeply influenced by a culture that encourages them to live on 120 per cent of their income. And they know they should be saving for retirement. Often they feel that they really should be giving more to the church and charities, and probably wish they could.
It’s not hard to understand why talk about money and giving might make them feel uncomfortable, and maybe even guilty and resentful.
So how do we acknowledge this reality and move to healthy ways of talking and preaching about money in our churches?
Move away from the customary fund raising mindset in which we talk mainly about the needs of the church and how we need everyone to step up and do more to meet these needs. Such conversations do have their legitimate place of course, but they should not be given priority in our talking about church and money. We are charged with the leadership and spiritual care of congregational communities, and so our work is to help our people as individuals — and our congregations as communities — to grow to maturity as followers of Jesus who are learning to live their lives to the glory of God. This involves learning to make the connections between our faith – our commitment to follow Jesus – and all the various areas of our lives: our character, our worldview, our roles, our relationships and our responsibilities.
Help Parishioners to make the connections as a key part of the great adventure of faith. One of the really important connections has to do with the role that money plays in our lives. Jesus knew that this connection was so important that he spent a lot of time talking about it. Not because he was looking for donations for his ministry, but because he knew that people needed a new way of thinking about money. They needed to be free of its power, in order to live the new life of the kingdom he proclaimed.
Help people understand the role that money plays in culture and the power it has in our lives. Money is about far more than purchasing power in our world. It is closely connected to ideas about success, living a useful life, being clever and talented, security, fulfilment, satisfaction and joy to name only a few. The spirit of money, what Jesus called Mammon, is one of the most powerful idols in our culture. It is the ultimate measure of almost everything and it is behind a lot of what we do and think in life.
In helping people to follow Jesus and live the life of his kingdom we need to help them to name these issues, to understand them, to see through them, and to put them in their place. We need to acknowledge that these are also issues for clergy and the Church. None of us is immune to the power of money.
Before we preach any sermon on money we should always ask ourselves, “What is the good news for my people in this sermon?” When we teach these things about the power of money and its place in our culture and our lives with kindness, understanding and empathy, many of our people will hear it as the good news it is intended to be. They will hear it with relief and gladness rather than discomfort and resentment. Our goal in this teaching is to help them to name and understand these things so that they might be set free from this oppressive power in their lives, and enter into the joy of freely living the life of Jesus’ kingdom.
Empower people to see that generosity is one of the defining traits of a growing follower of Jesus. If our goal is to follow Jesus closely and represent him well, surely generosity will be an important part of that. Not a grudging agreement to give some of my money here or there when pressed or pressured, but an authentic generosity that finds joy in giving. People come to see that all the contentment and joy that they have been taught they will find by acquiring and keeping money and things, they will actually find in becoming more generous. They have been designed by God to give, not to amass. The scriptures are filled with exhortations for God’s people to be thankful, and to live lives of gratitude. When people are encouraged to think of their lives more in terms of gratitude and contentment as they grow in this adventure of following Jesus, they are free to think more seriously about generosity.
Offer practical suggestions. A follower of Jesus should avoid developing a life style in which he/she cannot afford to be generous. That has been my answer to questions like how large a house should a follower of Jesus live in, or how large a car should they drive. Give enough that you feel it stretch you and make you wonder if it is too much, has been my response to questions about how much to give. I suggest people try to add an additional one percent of their income each year, and see how that goes for them. Encourage people to always be growing, to never think they have arrived, and to enjoy the process!
Harold Percy is a Congregational Coach with the Institute of Evangelism. He served at Trinity Anglican Church in Streetsville, Ont. for 19 years, helping to grow it into one of the largest congregations in the Anglican Church of Canada. Harold is the author of three books.