It’s the giving season.
If you haven’t noticed, you soon will. As Christmas approaches, we will soon be bombarded from all sides by messages urging us to buy expensive gifts for our family and friends. Charities will use this time to raise money for their programs. If you live in the northern hemisphere, Autumn is upon you and many churches and organisations use this season to run pledge drives to underwrite their budgets for the following year (This works so well with back-to-school ‘Homecoming’ or seasonal ‘Thanksgiving’ themes).
Churches rely on gifts from their membership to sustain the many programs they run and to employ staff. Today it seems we must have some sort of structure and this requires finances to maintain.
I am in no way against supporting my local church. If I align myself to a congregation in my community and receive nurturing in that context, it’s only right for me to give to keep the church doors open and support-providing programs running.
What I cannot support, however, is the growing number of pastors, evangelists, and Christian churches and ministries who keep the subject of giving in front of their congregation, constantly reminding and reprimanding them with commands from the Old Testament in order to keep giving to the church/ministry, and promising them God’s blessing if they do so.
Following are four observations I have made about this from my own experience.
Giving to your Church is not the same as giving to your community.
In most cases, over 95% of your community does not have anything to do with your church. While the argument is often made that the church facilitates ‘the work of God’ in the community, statistics fail to support this.
Then there’s the question of what actually is ‘the work of God’? Is it running programs on Sunday to benefit the children of those who attend the church? Is it facilitating a seniors’ ministry on a weekday morning for the elderly church members and their friends? Is it putting on special events to draw in the community in an effort to ‘share the gospel’ with them in exchange for entertainment, food and/or fireworks?
Or is ‘the work of God’ that which Jesus time and time again exemplified in stories such as the Good Samaritan and the Lost Sheep and in such sayings such as found in Matthew 25:35-36–
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
It has been my experience that, whenever churches in the Evangelical tradition speak about ‘Giving,’ they are referring to giving your money to The Church to enable it to run its programs and pay its staff, or giving your time to be on any number of church ministry rosters—from music to making coffee; from cleaning the church to teaching Sunday School.
And, while this is often called ‘giving to the community,’ is more likely has absolutely nothing to do with the wider community and everything to do with meeting budget and providing programs for the initiated ones.
Giving to your church is not a Biblical requirement.
I had a friend who visited a growing evangelical church in our area a few years ago and I asked him what he thought of it (he is Catholic). He said the service was uplifting, the people were friendly and the sermon was very helpful and practical. Then he shared how, as he entered the door, he saw tables set up and people sitting at either side of them filling in forms and exchanging money. When he asked about this, he was told it was for the purpose of tithing. On one side of the table sat the church elders who were questioning the church’s members about their income the previous week and then taking 10% as a tithe for the work of the church.
Like me, he found that very strange a practice.
But it is common—maybe not so blatantly, but still a popular notion in Christian circles that members are asked (required?) to give at least 10% (the ‘tithe’ is stated as 10% and ‘offerings’ are anything above that).
Others have written extensively about this practice on both sides of the debate. One of the most thorough treatments I have seen has been this one by L. Ray Smith.
In summary, the tithe is an Old Testament ‘tax’ on God’s people to pay for the upkeep of the temple and its priesthood. There are other tithes in Scripture as well—of produce, of stock, and a ‘poor tax.’ Some have estimated that, if we are to be ‘Biblical’ about tithing, we would be giving around 20% of our income, not just one-tenth.
That said, St Paul writes about those who ‘labour in the gospel’ (which we would understand to be those whose only job is full-time service in the Church) to be deserving of payment for their labour (1 Corinthians 9:14), yet he himself didn’t do this just in case people thought he was profiting from his preaching. How unlike many of today’s money-grabbing televangelists.
Giving to your Church is not a measure of faithfulness to Christ.
I am convinced that, many times, church ministries become the conscience-salve we use when we want to stay in a safe, protected environment. It’s the love of the familiar, for those who were raised within its doors. It’s easy because all you need to do is sign up and show up. We won’t be subject to constant swearing, the mentally ill, addicts and we won’t have to give our time to those who we may deem to be ‘unworthy.’ Apart from one morning a week and the occasional evening, we’re not really put out that much at all. And the added benefit is that we will been seen by all our fellow churchgoers to be faithful to Christ. (Should we choose not to be involved, we can still give our money and that will be enough to keep the pastor from calling us, maybe…)
I remember a funeral I attended once where a rather ordinary man in his 60s was being farewelled after a brief battle with cancer.* He wasn’t actively involved in his church, though he was respected by all who knew him. The funeral was simple—a few hymns, a eulogy from his eldest child, and a slide show. Then . . . then the testimonies started. “He regularly volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for those in need.” “He showed up every Thursday at the homeless shelter to serve lunch.” “He visited the local school and helped kids with their reading.” “His neighbours could depend on him any time to help them out.” “His work colleagues were amazed by his positive attitude and caring words.” “He was a blood donor.” “He sponsored three children in Kenya.” “He volunteered with the State Emergency Service.”
What an inspiration! He followed the example of Jesus in giving over and over again and, in his giving, influenced more people than those who sacrificed every cent and every moment of their life to church ministries. His faithfulness to the calling of God in his life was evident inside and outside of the confines of his church circles.
Giving is a lifestyle choice.
Generosity is a choice we make every day when we plan our time, our spending and our priorities. We decide to be generous when we decide to smile and give our co-workers encouragement. We follow the example of Christ when we give to those in need without being asked, begged, or solicited by a door-knocker. We contribute to our community in meaningful ways—not simply as an armchair activist or opinionist. We know the truth of the saying attributed to Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ and so we cheerfully dig deep, bring a plate, buy the next round, open our home, give our time and talents to our larger community, not just to those who think the same way we do.
In doing this, we truly show ourselves not only to be people of integrity and purpose, but people who love, following in the generous path of the One who loved humanity and showed it in the generous grace of giving.
*Details have been altered so as not to identify the man or his family.