Yet we must. Pastors must discuss money unflinchingly because our culture is awash in gold yet spiritually adrift. Our denomination routinely boasts among the highest per capita incomes of any body of Christian believers in the world. Yet, statistics show that we contribute only around 2% of our incomes to the church’s ministry. Despite the hot button issues that otherwise divide us, money is the real issue in this culture.
It’s a tough topic for pastors. We are institutional authority figures in an anti-institutional, anti-authoritarian age. A famous maxim says “the most human thing we can do is comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” We pastors serve congregations of loving if skeptical stewards, many if not most of whom make more money than we do. Nonetheless we step annually into the pulpit among the congregation’s top givers. And most of us take that annual step never having had a seminary class in anything remotely useful regarding stewardship, not in its theology, not in its application, not in its preaching. Nonetheless, the pastor is absolutely central to any congregation’s stewardship ministry. If the pastor is cold to the conversation, the congregation’s heart will be forever strangely chilled.
How to do stewardship is no secret. Our denomination — not to mention the gads of consultants and private firms whose bulk mail fills our boxes — offer a circus of stewardship methods. Classy clip art. Prepackaged themes. Canned sermons. While much of it is quite helpful, it is nonetheless secondary. What most of us need, I suspect, is not so much to reflect on how to do congregational stewardship so much as why to do congregational stewardship.
Here are the answers that make the most sense to me.
First, generosity is a foundational spiritual discipline. With so many Presbyterians — and notably, the young — clamoring for traditional spiritual rituals, we may remind them of the ancient spiritual arts: prayer, contemplation, encounter with holy texts, and tithing. Yes, tithing. Off the top. A tenth.
Somewhere along the way the church has joined the United Way and the American Cancer Society as a potential recipient of our charitable giving. If we have paid our bills, and after we have had some fun, we might consider sharing if the recipient really deserves it. We share out of our “discretionary income.” I daresay that my grandparents wouldn’t have known the term.
Past generations spoke of giving “God’s tithes and our offerings.” The tithe remains a helpful biblical target. In offering it at the beginning of the pay period and not the end, we ask God to help us distinguish between what we need and what we merely want. By giving off the top, we make a tangible investment in our spiritual convictions, offer a testament of faith that we actually believe that “the Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” For those suspicious that the 10% tithe is an Old Testament admonition, fair enough. I suspect you’re right. Jesus would not have said that 10% is the goal. He would have said that it’s a good start.
Second, we must reverse our traditional stewardship pitch. For too long we have spoken of the church’s need to receive. Now we must preach the individual’s need to give. Many of our congregations “take the collection” rather than “receive the offering.” In the first model, the recipient extracts something valuable for self benefit. In the second, the recipient graciously receives what the giver joyfully shares.
This is no small distinction. Especially for younger, anti-institutional disciples, a call to replace the air conditioner is not the stuff of Christian joy. Sure, churches need air conditioning. The stewardship appeal, however, is more fruitfully the biblical observation that “where your money is, there your heart will be also.” Our hearts follow our dollars. If we want to care about something, we contribute to it. Christians need to share. It’s in our spiritual DNA.
Imagine a stewardship appeal that openly reminds the disciple of the spiritual wellbeing that blossoms after one joyously, thankfully, sacrificially shares from the abundance God has shared with her. Anyone who has seen the delighted look of a child whose parent is opening her homemade clay flowerpot knows the look that comes from such unbridled generosity. Such contented looks will sprinkle the sanctuary if we remind people how good it feels to give.
Finally, the stewardship conversation is the church’s theological antidote to the chief idols of this age, namely, consumerism, materialism, and acquisition. Wealth is not itself the challenge. Deeper yet is the assumption — taught and absorbed in our culture — that human beings are worth what we own, the car we drive, the house we live in, the accounts we manage. Such an image of human worth runs wholly contrary to Scripture, which tells us that we are each invaluable simply because we breathe. In such a time and culture as this, what message can be more singularly liberating than a preacher proclaiming that we are — each of us — children of God, and that in this identity we will find meaning, comfort, generosity, and hope?
I am convinced that the annual stewardship effort can be an opportunity for us to stand toe-to-toe with the idolatries of this age and declare with a loud and resonant voice that we are made by God, blessed within God’s abundance, and inspired by the generosity we have experienced in the very heart of God. To view the stewardship conversation as anything less is to miss the chance of a lifetime.
And that’ll preach.
Karl Travis is pastor of First Church, Fort Worth, Texas.