Why discipleship giving is not like debt ceiling negotiations
As I write this, Washington has apparently reached some kind of agreement that will prevent the nation from defaulting on our debts. In play are two broad categories, taxes and spending; in other words, income and outgo, the same basic principles that individuals and families all around the country deal with month by month, only multiplied by 300,000,000 or so.
I think some of the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear that has characterized the last few weeks in Washington has trickled into congregational giving, and I lament that. Congregations do not tax members. People do not contribute to a congregation in order to “make budget.” We operate from a completely different set of priorities.
Of course, in order to function in our society, at one level congregations have to think in terms of “income” and “outgo” as well, generating budgets that anticipate an “income” and guide the “outgo” that supports the activity of the congregation. We do so for tracking purposes, for accounting and accountability, and for ease of reporting. But the similarity ends there.
We start by having faith that God will provide abundantly enough resources to accomplish exactly what God wants to accomplish. Secondly, we think of giving as an act of discipleship, done freely and without compulsion, as our response to what God does for us. And ultimately, we know that all we have comes from God in the first place, so as we offer our money we aren’t giving anything away at all, rather we are multiplying God’s resources to accomplish God’s purposes.
The priorities that shape giving in the church are supposed to be God’s priorities, and so they require constant reform and renewal. Because we are sinful people living in a broken world, we must continually re-examine ourselves to ensure we are keeping God’s priorities at the forefront. In fact, the moment we feel we have God’s priorities completely figured out is the moment we need to step back and re-assess the situation.
The national priorities are a part of this world; God’s priorities are heavenly. And often those two sets of priorities come into conflict, which can make it tricky to figure out what it means to be the church, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
I wonder how many people see the relationship between citizen and government as parallel to the relationship between member and congregation. I pay taxes and so I get services - police, fire, schools, roads, and so forth. Doesn’t that mean I “pay” my offering and so I should get services from the church - worship, Sunday School, weddings, funerals, and so forth?
When we fail to articulate a sufficient ecclesiology, church is just one more in a long list of pleasant social gatherings. I believe this is how the church has been operating for years, and it’s high time to stop.
For example, it is time to stop using phrases like, “…give to the church.” No, we don’t ask people to give “to the church;” people are the church. The church gives to God’s mission. We must no longer separate “people” and “church,” even in our thoughts. That is just bad ecclesiology.
Because the church is the body of Christ, our challenge is also the articulation of a richer Christology. Intertwined with the issue of diminishing financial discipleship is a diluted image of Jesus that many people embrace. Jesus has become the Chairman of the Federal Reserve in our lives, and we call upon him to provide testimony every now and then, when what we are supposed to be doing is laying down our entire lives (including our resources) for him so that he can live through us.
Better ecclesiology starts with different priorities
As I mentioned before, priority one for the church is acting in faith that God will accomplish God’s mission, and as such there will be sufficient resources to accomplish exactly what God has in mind. This means that individuals, families, committees, classes, ministry teams, and administrative boards all must stay attuned to God’s priorities when making decisions about giving and spending. When there seems to be a resource gap of some kind, the place to start is to ask what God wants to happen here.
Secondly, the church is comprised of disciples of Christ Jesus for whom giving is an act of surrender to Christ’s Lordship in our lives. Because Jesus gave up every bit of himself for us, we do the same for others. Our sin limits us from doing this fully, so we rely on the grace of God to help us grow in the process we know as “sanctification.” Sanctification, or growing in discipleship, means freely giving away more and more of ourselves so that Christ can live more and more fully through us. We do not do this because we are required to; we do this because we choose to.
And ultimately, the priorities of the church are shaped by the understanding that everything in our possession belongs to the Creator of the cosmos. We hold it temporarily, take care of it, build stuff out of it, but first and foremost it all belongs to God. And so there really is no such thing as giving something away, since it was never really mine to begin with. This truth is what made it possible for Jesus to teach his followers to “give them your cloak as well,” for example.
The radical implication of living by these divine priorities is that during a financial crisis (in earthly terms) is in fact the very best time to increase discipleship giving. Would there be a more powerful statement of faith in God? Would there be a profounder embodiment of the hope offered in Jesus? Would there be a more meaningful way to announce to the world that the Spirit is alive and at work in the world?
At Campbell UMC, giving overall is up thanks to an ongoing capital campaign we call “Imagine,” but discipleship giving specifically is down this year. (The “Imagine” campaign is designated for facility improvement and debt.)
So when it came right down to it, we were just barely able to pay the bills last month. I can’t help but wonder if that is partly due to the fear created by the political bickering in our nation. People sense the anxiety of the national system, and assume there is anxiety in all systems.
I know that congregations are decreasing activities, eliminating staff positions, cutting corners and trying to figure out creative ways to raise funds. I also know that there is a combination of factors involved with congregational health, and many of those factors are contextual. But I really wonder how much the financial issues of the nation and the world are impacting the financial decisions of Christians, specifically the offerings that are made in churches around the country and across the globe.
So when the plate goes by this week, remember that Christian discipleship has a claim on our whole lives, including the money we have in our pockets, or our bank accounts, or sewn into our mattresses, or wherever you keep it. Don’t throw that check into the plate thinking of it as your church tax, paid to ensure that services are delivered.
It isn’t a tax. It isn’t budget support. It is discipleship - a promise to give away everything you have if that’s what it takes to follow your Lord and Master, Jesus - who after all did the very same for you.
Our financial discipleship is a joyous response to the good news that there is no debt ceiling on the grace of God!