Church generosity and the parable of the prodigal

by Sean Mitchell

Why will certain church members not give more money?”

“Why will others in the faith community who receive the benefits of being in community not share their financial resources?”

“When will the millennials become more trusting of church leadership and give to the community?”

These are the questions people are asking in session meetings, stewardship committee discussions and around other tables in churches. Quite regularly, the stewardship planning and reporting meetings evolve to a place where leaders are contemplating those “who don’t have their giving act together” and then further evolve into brain dumps about how to foster more giving from this group of bystanders. Rightly, of course. Those who have joined a community of faith should be reminded, as Paul taught, that the members of the body need one another in order to be fully Christ’s body in the world.

Yet, sometimes all the talk about the bystanders is an intentional deviation from a path of spiritual growth. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal is not only about one who leaves and returns, but about a father and an elder brother – the latter of whom never leaves and becomes disgruntled at the attentive mercy shown the brother who did. In a conversation with a pastor, I was struck by her idea that some church members might reflect a likeness to the elder brother. The idea was that elder brother members seem overly preoccupied with the wandering, the absences of giving from their fellow members. She wondered if the focus Jesus is asking of those preoccupied is for each of us to look inward and pray for God to lead us away from our personal wanderings and absences from growth in Christian stewardship. Her point and Jesus’ clarion call: We all need to look inward again and discern if we are able to give or share more, not to feel superior in comparison to others.

As I learned from reading Henri Nouwen’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” years ago, each of our lives involves a liking to the prodigal and the elder brother. However, Nouwen’s insightful writing ends with the challenge for us to become like the father in the story. The father was generous, compassionate and ready to give more. The father’s identity in this story can actually be summarized as generous.

We are to become generous, like God. We don’t accomplish this in one act. We become generous. We mature into generosity and become more like God the more we practice the act. This act requires the discipline of prayer. Practicing prayer will open the soul to more possibilities for generosity.

Before our churches search for ways to inspire deeper levels of generosity in our communities, let’s pray together. Let’s commit ourselves to new acts of generosity before asking others to do the same. Let’s suspend the thoughts of what others aren’t doing and thoughtfully discern what else we can be doing to receive the kingdom and spread it to others.

Sean MitchellSEAN MITCHELL directs the stewardship offices at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.