Money, Giving and the Obligation of Love

The subject of giving and money often are areas of contention in many communities and perhaps no more so than in Church communities. There are many high profile and many everyday examples of an unhealthy emphasis on money which contributes to the fairly widely held belief that Church is more concerned about money than anything else. While in some cases this may be true, my experience suggests most churches are genuinely interested in seeing people come to and grow in faith and this includes their finances. How this is actually done is up for further discussion; however, there are a few areas which could use some further examination as it relates to money, financial stewardship, growing disciples and healthy communities.

Inadvertently, in our efforts to motivate people to give financially, we have fallen into a variety of tactics to drive people into giving and giving more. There are a number of different spins on it, but basically it is the idea that we encourage people to “give-to-get in return”. The temptation is to misuse and proof text Old Testament scriptures which seem to say that if we give (and the bigger, the better) God is obligated to prosper us; the idea that there is a formula to be worked for our own financial prosperity. With just a little hyperbole, we can reduce the scriptures to a book of spells and incantations that can be employed at a whim to get what we want from God. The give-to-get strategy can be useful for stimulating giving but sadly does nothing to help people mature in faith. Instead of people learning to love we keep them stuck in self-centeredness. Make no mistake, though, we can generate a lot of money by ministering to people's favorite idol - themselves. This model of stewardship neuters the giving experience and reduces it to a business transaction. It negates the healthy aspect of love inspired giving.

Furthermore, it propagates the paradigm of consumerism in the Church, the very thing that is voraciously consuming lives in “the world.” Reaping and Sowing, as an example, which in so many ways is a true principle, gets twisted when we give-to-get. In this paradigm of giving, the seed we plant is greed and if you plant greed, you will reap... a harvest of greed.

Tithing is very popular and is deeply rooted in Old Testament. Analysis of this teaching illustrates that the tithe in the Old Testament was much more than 10%. The tithe was in a practical sense an obligation to God which served to provide for those who served the community in relationship to God. Often tithing is pitched in a give-to-get model or in a veiled (or not so veiled) threat of calamity or shame if one doesn't tithe. One is hard pressed to find a significant basis for tithing in the New Testament when the context is considered but it does demonstrate a better way!

Giving is a Spiritual Health Issue

The actual giving and the heart behind giving is very important.  We want to help those we lead to mature and transition from a quid pro quo, ‘what have you done for me lately’ paradigm to a maturity where they understand the obligation of love they have as a part of a community.   Let me share a simple example, a situation I am actually aware of.

Jon and Jane are married and both work.  They share a home, cars and a family.  Jane's income is used to pay the mortgage, buy the groceries, pay the bills, take care of the children's needs, etc.  Jon, whose income is just as significant Jane’s, only contributes what he wants to, or if he is feeling spiritual - “only what he senses God is telling him to give at that time”.  If God isn’t speaking, Jon isn’t contributing towards the family expenses!  Is Jon really all that spiritual or healthy in his stewardship with his family?

Most of us will recognize that while Jon may have a spiritual veneer about his finances, he, in fact, is not as mature and healthy as he thinks. It is not reasonable that as a part of the family (community) he does not share in the expenses of the family (community). Jon needs to learn, that as a member of a community, he has an obligation to pay at least his share of the financial needs of the community. This is really a no-brainer part of health maturity - we as a faith community are responsible to contribute in a deliberate way for the healthy operation of the community we are a part of. If we share a building, a teacher(s), administrators we are as a community responsible for the financial obligation of those things. It’s part of being a part of a family, a community. This is love and fidelity which is part and parcel of Christian maturity. For a no-brainer, it seems to be a difficult concept for people to grasp because we are so conditioned to look for the payback!

Many times the church has defaulted to a spiritualized form of consumerism. It places all involved in an economic, pay-for-service situation where people are not actually a part of a community and a contributor to the life of the community but a consumer of god-stuff in exchange for some money - we entertain, inspire and make them feel good and they reward us with attendance and their money. This is not healthy Christian community and will never lead to a healthy community, rather unhealthy dysfunction and co-dependency. The consumer posture by its nature positions people outside of that which they are paying for which inhibits personal buy-in and healthy participation in a community. It provides a pseudo intimacy without any real commitment.

Many give lip service to how the Church in the book of Acts shared with all who had a need in the community.  This was because they understood community and were dedicated to the body of Christ, of which they understood they were a part.  They knew that love is practiced (moves from an abstract feeling or idea to a concrete manifestation of love) as the faithful acceptance of responsibilities within the community.  The community exists for their benefit and the benefit of the community.  This is serving one another, laying down our lives for one another - loving one another.

Financial giving is a fruit of love.  It is practical and mystical at the same time.  Practical because it contributes to the many legitimate needs of the community and at the same time mystical because it is a demonstration of heart and love where people choose to serve, to give to others instead of taking care of #1.  It is mystical because in doing so we mature in love and experience a deeper sense of connectedness with God and others. This is the functioning of a healthy body of believers who in loving each other in tangible ways become a sign and wonder to a world that is often greedy, self-centered consumers that consume voraciously to appease a deep fearfulness, disconnection and profound loneliness.

NOTE: Sometimes people withhold their money because this is the only sense of power they feel they may have within the community. Perhaps they feel they do not have a voice in the community and respond to that feeling in the only way they feel they have some power. Transparency in community finances is crucial and we need to be deliberate in providing meaningful opportunities for people to be involved in the financial decisions of their (our) communities. As inappropriate as we may view this use of passive aggressive power, we must help others learn ways of stewarding power and disagreement, and the best start to this is we as leaders are careful to steward the power we have in healthy ways. This means we understand that we lead people we don't drive them. Healthy leaders know this is a process of maturity and health and realize there are not short cuts.

Please remember, our programs, systems, budgets, staff, etc. exist to serve people and life. People do not exist to serve the structures, the structures must serve life and when they cease to do so, they must change. We cannot allow the desire for the efficient operation of a system or program to run rough-shod over people - relationship over issue should be our primary focus.

So what is the way through in a practical sense?

  • Teach and demonstrate community by making decisions and using tools that affirm the values of community and Kingdom leadership. Avoid slick doctrines that exploit the sin / brokenness in peoples lives.
  • Be Patient but deliberate.  It is a process of maturity and the uses heavy-handed guilt and shame will not produce healthy communities.
  • Help people understand what healthy community is, what responsibility / fidelity is and the obligation of love.  This is an important part of discipleship and relates to all areas of faith in real life, not just giving.
  • Be transparent, accountable and responsible with Church finances.
  • Our Communities need to live within our means.  This is healthy no matter what the situation. If things are really important to people, they will pay up for it.  This is a good litmus test for the programs and services we offer.
  • Have an open process for budgeting.  Provide opportunities for people to participate and give feedback in this process.  Move ahead as a community.
  • Communicate with regular financial updates.  If the community is behind, then the community needs to address it. It’s not pastors problem - it is a community issue.
  • 10% is a good guide to help people know how much to give. This seems to be an equitable way that accommodates a wide variety of financial situations  The challenge is not to make it a legalistic rule.  This will make folks who manage 10% feel self-righteous and those who don’t discouraged - neither of which leads to healthy maturity.

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