God and Giving
We've enough of a record in this BLOG that I'm going to take this week and repeat a post I offered four years ago—because I want to bring some thoughts back up again at the beginning of a new year. This was about what I see as four principles of stewardship. Call it a "greatest hit" if you want! Here's it is, reprised from December of 2011.
Been thinking about giving of late. Beginning of the year sort of thing for pastors, as we watch in wonder and gratitude as our people give love and money to the church and to many important causes.
In a world of development experts, fund raising techniques, endless analyses of giving trends, “benevolence” mindedness, financial anxiety, economic uncertainty, and more, there is no shortage of talk about Christian giving. As I think about this I want to offer up four historic principles, or ideas, about Christian giving that have shaped a Reformed Christian understanding of stewardship.
These begin with the simple idea that our call to generosity is a call to tend to the whole of our lives in ways responsive to the gift of life that God has given us. They go on from there to describe four ideas that might seem a counter-cultural today. They are a sort of ideal.
1. The measure of sacrifice. Christian stewardship challenges all God’s people to give as a spiritual discipline. In doing so, Christian stewardship measures giving by sacrifice and joy in giving before it measures giving by amounts given. The “widow’s mite” is a non-negotiable value in the gospel (Mark 12: 41-44). Jesus praises a widow who gave joyfully from what little she had over the folk who gave more but did not give joyfully or sacrificially. It’s a challenging story for all of us.
2. The ideal of proportion. Christian stewardship challenges all God’s people to give as a spiritual discipline. In doing so, it encourages believers to a discipline of “proportional giving,” which means a principled percentage of gross annual income (or wealth) given to the church. The Old Testament concept of “tithe” suggests that 10% of gross annual goods should be brought to the temple. The New Testament speaks more of “whole life stewardship,” in which all we have is to be devoted to doing good with as high a portion to the church as possible. “Offerings” are considered gifts over and above that principled “proportion.” Now some do not find proportional giving as fulfilling as directed giving, and that’s fine. But those who try giving a principled proportion of their wealth, despite circumstance, often speak of great spiritual enrichment and a sense of personal responsibility.
3. The purpose of quietly. Christian stewardship challenges all God’s people to give as a spiritual discipline. Therefore, the church has always given privilege to quiet, often anonymous, giving. That is a Christian ideal. This is why some traditions do not seek specific pledges of giving from members, and why among those who accept pledges knowledge of giving levels has always been restricted to a very small circle (not just to preserve ‘privacy’ but also to encourage anonymity). In many cases (by no means all) that knowledge is not even known by pastors. Quiet giving preserves the first two principles described here, acknowledges equality between giver and receiver, and underscores the dependence all have on God. We remember the joy in Christian giving when you look at the giving of a gift and can’t tell who is the giver and who is the receiver.
4. The privilege of responsibility. Christian stewardship challenges all God’s people to give as a spiritual discipline. As a discipline, our giving is about our obligation to our Creator before it is about accomplishing something. This is why our tradition has been reluctant to encourage dividing pledges between program and mission. This is also why most churches in our tradition do a stewardship drive before they publish a budget. This is also why Christian giving has traditionally not demanded measured results from those given to, but instead has sought trusting relationships. The “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, for example, is a Victorian concept, imported into but foreign to Christian compassion (but that’s a much longer conversation).
May you be blessed by the joy of giving in 2016.