The Huffington Post published an article this week about a Charlotte, NC man who left a dime, a nickel and three pennies—eighteen cents—in an offering envelope at First United Methodist Church with these words written on the envelope: “Please don’t be mad, I don’t have much. I’m homeless. God bless.”
Similarly this week, I’ve been convicted as I’ve heard several in our congregation speak apologetically about not being able to contribute as much to the church as they would like. And this week I’ve also been blessed to witness remarkable generosity as our church works to retire our mortgage debt.
What ties all those conversations together? Money.
Many years ago now a college friend of mine confidently asserted that money makes the world go round. That’s what she’d grown up hearing, but to my Baptist ears that didn’t sound quite right. So I was proud to chidingly correct her, saying, “It’s love that makes the world go round.” But she was probably more right than I was.
We live in a society where money defines value. Money, not behavior, buys respect. Money, not wisdom, confers influence. Money, not love, defines self-worth. And we all live quietly in that reality until something disrupts the system--this week it's people in Baltimore without money looking for alternative ways to gain influence and have others acknowledge their value and worth.
So when churches ask for money people can be suspicious, because money is the only way the world assigns value, and they were hoping that the church might be different.
But churches need money. Money to pay the staff. Money to keep the buildings open. Money for missions and ministry. So churches ask for money. And faithful Christians don’t just give because churches ask; faithful Christians give because Christ commands. Giving is a spiritual act of humility, a statement of priority. Giving requires that we live with enough financial margin to remind ourselves that we are more than consumers.
In the comments section of The Huffington Post article mentioned above—a dangerous place to be!—the critiques on Christians came fast and furious. Some used our own scriptures--the widow’s mite story--to critique us. And others juxtaposed this act of transparent generosity with a generally perceived lack of Christian empathy, lamenting, "If only Christians were more like Christ…"
But I wish those people could see what I see. I see people struggling to pay student loans and medical bills who wish they could be MORE generous. I see people in their 50s and 60s supporting both their parents and their children wishing they could give MORE of their income to those in need. I see people with a little cushion in their finances being OVERWHELMINGLY generous, with the faith that God will use their resources to build His Kingdom.
When men without homes in Charlotte, NC and middle-class women in Canton, GA both feel the need to apologize for their inability to give more, I think it’s safe to say the appeal for giving in churches has been heard. So maybe it’s time to stop asking and start saying thank you louder and more often.
So here are four things I would highlight about giving at churches.
- We ought to be saying thank you AT LEAST twice as often as we’re asking for contributions. We should clearly tell people how their contributions are being used, and we should say thank you. We should celebrate successful projects and ministry initiatives as often as we can, and we should say thank you. We should send our members financial updates even when we’re not asking for money, and in those updates we should say thank you.
- We need to find better ways to acknowledge the value of non-financial contributions to our congregations. When we do, we counter the prevailing message of our culture that value and respect and influence and self-worth can only be measured in dollars and cents. Faithfulness in prayer contributes to our churches. Visits and letters and phone calls to the sick contribute to our churches. Donated professional expertise contributes to our churches. Volunteer service on committees and in classrooms and in music programs contributes to our churches. Volunteer service on missions projects and in our community contributes to our churches. Every prayer, every visit, every phone call, and every hour of service deserves a thank you.
- We need to encourage and teach habits that help create financial margin. Margin helps our members cheerfully tithe out of abundance instead of feeling pressured to give beyond their ability. Tithing is a spiritual discipline that’s meant to require sacrifice. It’s not supposed to be easy, but we're meant to be able to do it cheerfully. In most families consistent tithing doesn’t happen without clear choices and careful planning. I don’t know many people who don’t want and need more financial margin in their lives. The church should find ways to teach and encourage that.
- And we ought to advocate for wages that allow the averagely situated family to live with a little cushion. No matter how carefully we plan, as the costs of living continue to rise even families fortunate enough to maintain consistent, full-time employment are feeling squeezed. If we choose to use our voices in the public square, we should be careful to use our voices on behalf of those who are struggling, those who would be overlooked and marginalized without our help.
I’m convinced that the shrinking ability of middle-class families to live with a little cushion is as big a threat to the health and vitality of the average church as just about anything. After racial and gender equality, economic justice may be the next big challenge the church will face. But that’s a topic for another day.
For now, though, there’s no need to apologize, thank you for your generosity.
See you Sunday.