Monday, May 09, 2011

Well Maybe It IS My Parents' Offering Plate, After All

There is a lot to like about “Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate,” a book about money and the church by J. Clif Christopher.

People give to support a mission that is making a difference in people’s lives and that they can therefore truly believe in - yes.

It is not a great idea to appeal to “making our budget” as a way to get people to give - yes.

There are multiple ways to give, including regular income, capital, and estate giving - yes.

It doesn’t make sense to describe a poor financial situation and then expect people to give to a “failing” project - yes.

Sending regular “thank yous” to people who have given significantly to the church is always a good idea - yes.

All good stuff, all very helpful.

But when he tries to ground his ideas theologically and scripturally, I do not find it to be quite so helpful. In fact, I’m not quite sure how his ideas are connected to the theology he offers. The theological concerns I have with this book are the same two theological concerns I have with much of the contemporary church - Christology and ecclesiology.

The Church today adheres to a dramatically impoverished Christology. I believe this to be the central issue confronting church leaders today. We have no idea who Jesus really is, but we like to pretend that we do, and in the process often use Jesus as a means to achieve our desired end.

As it seems this book does when we are told that Jesus “had a great concern for the wealthy” in that he “knew how easily money could draw them away from their heavenly Father.” The rhetorical question is then posed: “With whom was Jesus more concerned about being able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven … the rich or the poor?” The argument is then made that we as pastors are supposed to get people to give money to the church as a way to “save their souls.”

Ah! Nothing like a little works righteousness to get your heart pumping, is there? I find it very difficult to agree with the notion that Jesus has a preferential option for the wealthy.

We must not minimize Jesus into a convenient means to get what we want. In this case, what the author wants is for people to give money to the church, and so Jesus becomes a fundraiser for heaven, skillfully convincing them to relinquish their resources in order to win God’s favor. Or in another case, what we might want is a congregation with a bigger worship attendance, so Jesus becomes the recruitment officer for God’s army, whose only purpose is to get people enrolled in the organization.

And speaking of the organization, since when did the church become an entity inhabiting a separate location than the people? Isn’t it true anymore that “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together”? Or was that just a cute little Sunday School song that we are using to brainwash our kiddies into thinking they are actually important? (he said sarcastically.)

Throughout the book, the people are considered to be separate from the church. This is just plain bad ecclesiology. The entire premise is that “people” give to “the church,” and that just doesn’t make any sense to me. A representative sentence: “We must learn to answer the question our donors are asking us, ‘Why should I give to you?’”

Offering isn’t giving “to the church,” it is Christian discipleship. It is an act of worship. It is the church giving of itself in order to accomplish God’s mission. It is a part of our response to the grace of God given to us through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and enlivened by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Or to put it another way, “Growing in the grace of giving is a response Christian disciples offer to God’s call to make a difference in the world.” (Bishop Robert Schnase)

To me, this is a more faithful approach to finances, and I know from experience that it is an approach that works. It is the approach we have taken in two different congregations in which I have served, and it has been effective at both of them. Both congregations were actively engaged in local and global ministries, and continue to make significant and transformative impact in the lives of people. (That’s not nearly as much experience as Clif Christopher has, but it ought to count for something.)

My ecclesiology does not make it possible for me to think in terms of the church as an organization, but more as an organism. (I can’t remember where I originally heard this distinction, but it’s not mine originally, that’s for sure.) I know that there are structures everywhere; even clouds have structure (thank you Dr. Robert Martin). And yet we shouldn’t think that the people are separate from that structure. Far from it - the people comprise the structure itself.

And so, what do I do with a book that has some excellent practical suggestions but derives them from a theology that I personally cannot agree with? Plus, I’m not so sure that Christopher makes the connection between the theology he holds and the practical suggestions he derives. It almost feels like he came up with some practical ideas and then tried to justify them scripturally and theologically.

It’s a tough one for me, too, because coming from my own theological perspective, I have arrived at many of the very same practical suggestions that this book does. Now how did that happen?

Maybe it says something about trying to universalize ideas that really are very contextual. My approach has worked in the places I have served, but probably wouldn’t elsewhere.

One of the things I have heard over and over in the places I have served is how tired people are of the church “asking for money” all the time. To me, this book feels like just another way to ask people for money, rather than infusing the church with an attitude of extravagant generosity.

If anyone is still reading by this point, I welcome your thoughts…


Tom said...


I just stumbled myself onto your blog and wanted to say that I really enjoyed... Well I liked this article, and have not read anything else yet.

But I am sure the rest is just as good!

I particularly like your breakdown of the Christology of the book.

I have to admit that books like this make me a little uneasy. Well actually I am being polite... They make me feel physically sick. A book designed to help churches get more money from people? My gut reaction (not having read the book, but in talking generally and no longer specifically about this book) is to equate it with hiring a whore to give my daughter tips on fashion... I.E something that I would not be keen to do.

ndrwcn said...

Hey -

The theological concerns that you point out are the reason that I will not be circulating this book among my laity. While I also agree with much of the practical recommendations, I would rather root the appeal to those with money in a love of brother/sister.

This book again reminds me of the need for pastors to be resident theologians and biblical scholars. I assume the author does have a pastor, and I wish that pastor could have (and may have, for all I know) been part of the process of reviewing this work. I fear that his reading of the Zacchaeus story does stumble into isogesis.

Your title intrigued me - Is this your parents offering plate? What made you think of that?

ndrwcn said...

ndrwcn = Andrew Coon

I didnt realize that my name would not be automatically posted, sorry.

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