There were others I was prepared to steel myself for when the discussion ensued but this one seemed like a “Sure, go ahead, take it on if you want to” sort of item.
Our recently constituted finance committee had met and it had been noted that although attendance and membership numbers were up, the weekly offering had remained good but stagnant. That seemed to me to indicate that perhaps we (me? the session?) were not doing a good job of incorporating new people into the culture of giving that our little country church had long enjoyed. It was my understanding, from life-long members, that the church was a “tithing church” and folks just knew what was “right” to give and did. I learned that pledge cards and stewardship campaigns had been abandoned twenty or thirty years prior. However, given the growth and the influx of people unfamiliar or uninitiated into this culture of giving it was apparent, at least to the finance committee and to me, the pastor, that perhaps it was time to re-visit the concept and communication of stewardship.
Hence, when it came time for the finance committee’s report there was the recommendation that a stewardship campaign be undertaken complete with a mission fair that would visibly demonstrate where the money goes and how everyone’s contribution of time, talents, and money was needed. It was proposed that such an endeavor would be equally a means of Christian education, new member incorporation, vision communication (a strategic plan was fast coming to completion), and stewardship invitation. What could be more useful and even exciting, right?
The lack of initial response was my first clue that we had entered into that shadowy space where church history, past practices, current tides of change, and personalities were about to collide. After a long silence the past treasurer made the argument that pledge cards didn’t work and you couldn’t plan a budget around them, so what would be the point? Another elder got particularly upset at the prospect of a mission fair as it sounded to her as if we were asking people to give money to support programs and ministry when people should give because the Bible tells them so. She followed this insight by looking at me and saying, “That may be well and good but will you preach tithing and the scriptural basis for tithing?” I responded by saying that I would preach tithing in conjunction with preaching about the many aspects of stewardship and then I asked, “Are you willing to stand up in worship and share with the congregation why it is that you tithe?” Moments of heavy silence were followed by a curt, “I think it needs to come from you.” To which I said, “I think it needs to come from all of us.” A tense discussion followed with the end result being that there would be no stewardship campaign. The clerk would write an article on “giving” for the next month’s newsletter and that was that.
I was blindsided by the intensity of the reaction and began to reflect on it afterwards. I recalled that the only time I’d gotten a barrage of calls regarding the church sign was when it said something like, “We’re a tithing church.” Church members called and e-mailed and asked that I get it taken down immediately. (I’d not put it up but in good church fashion no one was going to confront directly the person who had.). They did not think it was the image we should present to the community. Why, I wondered. Too dogmatic? Somehow too fundamentalist? Not welcoming, perhaps? It appeared our congregation had a split personality when it came to stewardship at least in the narrowest sense. I was to be the spokesperson and tell everyone to tithe because, according to some, that is what we are commanded to do. However, we were not to proclaim that commandment to outsiders, nor were we to talk openly to one another about stewardship, narrow or broad.
It felt like an utter dead end, especially after I did a little research and discovered that a mere 1% of those who give 10% or more of their family income do so at the congregation or pastor’s urging. (Presbyterians Today, August 2004) And besides, the issue was about Christian education and discipleship, incorporation of new people, communication of a vision, commitment to ministry, in other words, stewardship in the broadest sense, not merely or even mostly about the dollars in the plate.
I had run into a wall that had been heretofore invisible to me and I began to realize that the wall encompassed much more than the issue of stewardship and had the potential to become not just a boundary but a barrier if it wasn’t addressed. It was a symptom of a greater divide manifesting itself in a variety of ways within the congregation. The wall represented the separation between two divergent worldviews. On one side were those who still operated out of a mostly modern vision of the church and on the other those who were living within a post-modern paradigm.
Many of those encamped on the modern side of the wall had been members of the 200-year-old, rural church for generations and shared an investment in maintaining the institution of the church, as it had been. The church was to be a haven of security, safety, and certainty. Even as the world changed radically the church could be counted on to be the same. They emphasize a sense of duty, responsibility, and obedience. The Bible instructs us how to live in clear and measurable ways. This includes a belief that one gives ten percent of one’s income to the church without too much concern for how it is distributed. Regular mission giving goes to support missionaries working abroad to spread the gospel. Special offerings are for specific institutions that are usually church-based such as children’s homes, retirement communities, and the like. If something is needed for the church, a new sound system, money to renovate a Sunday school room, then a fund is started and members are asked to contribute in addition to their regular weekly gift. It is important to “pay as you go” and not tap into savings or get into debt. A visual representation of this mindset might look like concentric circles with “Church” being the largest outside circle, a circle labeled “Scripture” contained with in it and another, “stewardship” within that. There is a high level of trust regarding the work and institution of the church and, in this model, stewardship means primarily supporting the church as mandated by Scripture.
On the other side of the wall are those who’ve come to the congregation recently and mostly from much larger, more urban, program or corporate sized churches or are returning to the church from a many year hiatus. Consciously or not they view the church in post-modern terms. In this view everything is up for debate, discussion, and dissent. Authenticity is valued over duty and obedience. A recent article on new Christian-indie rockers quoted these musicians saying things like, “I don’t think my music has to convince anyone of anything” and “If some of my songs express uncomfortable feelings, that’s ok. I think that’s much more powerful than telling people what they can and can’t do.” Their music is played on an iTunes podcast called “Bored-Again Christian.” The show’s motto? “All of the church, none of the pew” (Charlotte Observer, September 20, 2008, 1E and 3E). To quote Bob Dylan, “The times they are a’changin’.” And even though many of the newcomers to this old, country church would not go as far as the young musicians quoted above, they are no less immersed in the culture such musicians inhabit. In the introduction to Theology for Preaching: Authority Truth and Knowledge of God in a Postmodern Ethos, authors Allen, Blaisdell, and Johnston state, “The heart of the post-modern mind-set is awareness of the relativity of all human thought and action” (pg. 9). In such an ethos commanding from the pulpit, “Just Do It!” will be insufficient and, I believe, unfaithful with regard to giving or any other aspect of Christian discipleship.
In keeping with the visual analogy proposed of a modern mindset, a post-modern representation might look something like this: The largest and all encompassing circle could be labeled “Stewardship” if the term is defined as broadly as possible to include concern for the created environment, practicing local, hands-on mission, and a commitment to struggle with how daily decisions and practices impact the world. The next concentric circle would also be “Scripture” with an emphasis on how that is interpreted not merely or mostly by church tradition or leaders but by one’s own experiences and thought. The smallest concentric circle would be “Church” not so much as building and institution but as a faith community and one sphere where a person sorts out what it means to be authentically Christian.
Just a cursory exploration makes clear that the wall is indeed thick and at times feels impermeable. However, there is a third model that would speak to those on both sides of the divide.
First, an emphasis on God’s Word, both written and incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, would lead to a bold proclamation of God’s total claim upon us, a claim that is based on God’s inexplicable and insatiable desire to be in relationship with us. It is not transactional or percentage based. We are not asked to give 10% but rather to lose our lives in order that they may be saved. As Jesus instructs the rich, young ruler, “Sell all you have, give the proceeds to the poor and follow me.” Never is there ever even a hint that we can give a portion of ourselves or our money over to God and check it off our to-do list. Jesus says, “You have heard it said … but I say.” Whatever was dutiful and obedient and enough before is paltry in comparison to what is demanded with the Incarnation of Christ. With an emphasis on God’s total claim on us and on creation (The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, Psalm 24:1a) both the values of obedience and authenticity are strongly upheld and disciples are invited to struggle with what 100% looks like, individually and corporately, even as each of us knows that we will never reach it. And yet, the only way we can begin to discern and live out God’s total claim on us and on creation is within Christian community.
Subsequently, it becomes evident that the church matters, with or without the pews. A resurgence of ecclesiology would also begin to breach the modern/post-modern divide regarding stewardship and other issues. A passionate dialogue about ecclesiology would enable those on both sides to see their common commitment to the purpose of the Church despite their differences regarding the importance and role of buildings and institutions. The church is the Body of Christ, the “sign and instrument” of the Kingdom and reign of God until Christ comes again, “the worshipping assembly called forth by God”, the community where the Word is duly preached and Sacraments are rightly administered (The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, 108-109). It is within the Church, visible and invisible, where truth is preserved and social righteousness is promoted (Book of Order, PCUSA G-1.0200) and the tenuous balance between tradition and reformation is navigated.
Reclaiming a rich and full ecclesiology can enable those in both camps to appreciate each other’s understanding of “Church” as an “exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (ibid) through broadly defined stewardship that is demonstrated within the community of faith and outside of it, rooted in tradition and yet open to God doing a new thing allowing for both continuity and change, pastoral care and outreach, prudence and risk taking.
And finally, out of a resurgence of ecclesiology could come a lifting up of the diversity within the Body of Christ that would allow for a celebration of the variety of spiritual gifts given by God and exhibited in community. After all, giving is one of the spiritual gifts Paul lists in his epistles and those to whom it has been given are to be generous. Perhaps if we were to see giving as one among many spiritual gifts there would not be the undue tension surrounding most discussions of money in the church. We are all called to be disciples and stewards, but we’ve not all been given the same gifts equally. A celebration of God’s generosity in gifting us all with something to share in order to participate in exhibiting God’s Kingdom on earth would allow each of us to joyfully offer what we’ve been given in preaching, teaching, giving, caring, etc. in ways that don’t pit us one against another but instead enable us to rejoice together as we work side by side in the vineyard.
There is indeed much that divides those in my congregation on the topic of stewardship and yet there is, I believe, much more that can unite us. Perhaps instead of differing concentric circles we can create a third way represented by a Venn Diagram that might look something like this: One circle of the “Word”, written and Incarnate, over lapping a circle of “Ecclesiology”, the Body of Christ, the sign and instrument of the Kingdom, with a third circle at the bottom of “Stewardship”, the daily struggle to discern together what it means for God to have a 100% claim on our lives and our world, with the space common to all three labeled, “Discipleship”, that small place where God has God’s way with us and we seek to live faithfully, together.
Jill Duffield is pastor of Tirzah Church in Waxhaw, N.C.