What Your Church (Probably) Doesn’t Want You to Know about Giving

It’s the giving season.giving

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.

Pay for Someone Else

checkout2I was reading Mark H. Miller’s blog this morning and had to share this good news story and the challenge he took from it:

Jackie Switzer is a parishioner of a Christian Church in Round Rock, Texas—where I had served as interim pastor a few years ago.  In her e-mail message this morning was the following letter:

“Dear G:

“Today is Nicholas’ birthday. I went grocery shopping deliberately in a low income part of town, and bought the person’s groceries behind me as a birthday present to me and my big boy (inspired by Monkee See – Monkee Do). I left before the woman behind me in line knew I had paid for her things. A few minutes later I saw her climb into the driver’s seat of her car, put her head in her hands, and weep.

“I was so nervous trying to explain to the cashier what I wanted to do that I left my phone in the store. When I went back to get it, that same cashier told me that the woman behind me had been buying all of that food for a domestic violence shelter.”

Ever done something like that?  Paid for the person following you…at a grocery store, a toll booth?  Ever done something unexpected that can have favorable results?

I would hope…when we do that…we don’t do it for any other reason than caring ALWAYS has a place from us to others.

Okay.  Lots to chide about.  And, for any one of us, we can do a list—probably pretty quickly—of what chagrins us, what offends us.  Maybe even since yesterday.

However, today is Friday, Sunday is Palm Sunday the first step of Holy Week.  A special time when all that swirls life, even death, is important, for it doesn’t miss any of us.

So, take a moment or two…and list the goodness [and maybe even mercy] you have experienced this past week.  But more vital and vitalizing, keep in your mind [and heart and soul] this coming week…and look for the one opportunity—perhaps more than one—when you can do something of value for someone else.  Not to be applauded, but to know in the center of your heart and the pulsing of your soul, you have done the good thing, yes, the right thing…and even more, what it means to be doing what God wants each of us to do.

Open Happiness . . .

I think this cartoon captures the essence of the season, at least the essence as far as our commerical media is concerned. The jingles such as “Open Happiness” (Coke) or “Be Happy” (Target) assume that we believe our happiness comes from the things we possess or what food/drink that we consume.

I think we all know deep down that things don’t satisfy or bring lasting joy. But let’s be honest: we are still caught up in this consumerist ideology, espeecially during this festive season.

So, rather than deny it, let’s admit that we love our things, our food, our conveniences, our “guilty pleasures.” And while we may not be able to completely remove the things we enjoy from our lives, perhaps, especially at this time of year, we can be generous in spirit towards those who do not even have the things they need–food, medical help, shelter, clean water, hygeine or good sanitation–and give from our plenty to better their situation in life.

There are many fine organisations through which we can give the gift of hope: World Vision, Kiva, Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam, Anglicare, Charity Water, Vinnies, Salvation Army, SIMaid . . . and the list goes on and on. (For a great range of gifts supporting a variety of charities, try Charity Gifts.) Or perhaps your church has a program to help the needy in your community.

Let’s be honest: giving is a blessing in itself and can make you feel a real sense of joy and satisfaction knowing that you had a part to play in making this world a better place. So, as we fast approach Christmas with all it’s treasures, open happiness–open your wallet, and your heart–and give.

Cheerful Givers

In the recent experience of our northern neighbours in Queensland, Australians have shown themselves to be a fairly generous bunch of people: giving money, time, goods, service and energy to helping those affected by the devastating floods.

One thing that strikes me as being quite foundational is the term “cheerful giver.” Those who have the attitude of Scrooge would doubt there could ever be such a thing. But once they start to open their hearts to give, the joy builds. There is something about the satisfaction of seeing someone else enjoying the benefit of your gift that lifts the spirit and brightens the heart.

This reflection from StillSpeaking echoes this same sentiment:

“God loves a cheerful giver,” says the Apostle Paul.  But is there any other kind?  In my experience givers are cheerful.  I have never known any truly giving person who has not been a person of cheer.  Joy is one of the indelible characteristics of the giving person.

I am not referring to the kind of reluctant, sharp-penciled, let-me-figure-out-what-my-share-is kind of giver.  Rather, I am thinking of the open-handed, open-hearted givers.  They not only spread cheer and share joy, they obviously know cheer and experience joy.

We might wonder which comes first: Do these people know cheer and joy because they are givers, or are they givers because they are people of cheer and joy?  The question seems strangely moot, however, for in the lives of such people the two are inextricably intertwined.  Joy and giving flow from one another in a sure and blessed way.  Think of it as the endless echo of grace.

Among the reasons why givers are cheerful is that, in giving to others, we are acting in accordance with God’s intentions for our lives.  After all, we are created to be givers, meant to be givers.  So when we close in on ourselves in self-concern, we are departing from what God intends for us, and there is no joy in that.

So Paul enjoins us to give, to borrow the words of Jesus, “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

God, help me to take my part in the echo of grace, where giving and joy flow from one another.  Amen.

–Reflection by Martin B. Copenhaver