The last person I heard speak to a group of Christians about raising money for ministry polarized the room. This was partly to do with how that person insisted on getting Bible references to support their ideas. As a result, it seemed to me that half the group couldn’t stop talking about what they saw as bad exegesis, while the other half were wondering why they weren’t taught this at theological college. So I approach this topic with some trepidation, because things you say on a topic such as this can sometimes lead people to tar you with a certain brush.
But, as I like to say, what’s a bit of tar between friends?
I’m addressing this article primarily to pastors and leaders to prompt some serious thinking about our ministries and finances, but I hope it will have lots of things to say to anyone and everyone about living generously and encouraging others to do so too.
One of our issues in thinking through finances and ministry is that our modern-day church situations and financial structures are so far removed from the world of the New Testament. Our culture at large—in which many of our churches sit—is made up of largely comfortable middle-class folk who expect to earn more than enough to live by, while also having a massive amount of wealth stored up in one asset—their home.
Our church culture is also very different. The idea of full-time ministry staff or teams, who are paid a stipend (which is effectively a salary, rather than a contribution to living expenses) and who are provided with a house, all by their congregation’s generosity alone— this was not the dominant model at the time of the New Testament. “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (1 Cor 9:9, 1 Tim 5:18) set up a principle to provide for those giving their time to gospel work, but it is much more likely this was a way of making sure they had meals and a bed, rather than a salary and a house.
What then should we say from the Scriptures? We have are a number of biblical principles:
- contentment instead of greed
- generosity rather than covetousness
- encouragement to provide for the
- poor (first and foremost in the church)
- partnership with gospel work elsewhere
- warnings about the danger of pride and greed.
It’s not as if the Bible has nothing to say on the topic. When we teach these principles, however, we often have to take one or two steps before we get to the questions we want to ask. How much is generous in a world where people don’t live hand-to-mouth? What priority should a Christian give to supporting their own church, versus the poor, or other Christian work? What proportion of the church budget, or my personal budget, should I allocate to supporting mission? At the ‘pointy end’ of application to church finances there’s something of a biblical vacuum. Yet these issues are exactly the ones that ministers like me want to give very clear teaching on as we lead churches and groups of Christians. For example, in my own church when I want to push the growth of the gospel in our parish and employ another worker, I want to give my congregation challenges and guidance on these types of questions—but there isn’t a verse or chapter I can turn to that explicitly says what I want it to say!
It is into this gap that a lot of literature and guidance on the topic of money speaks. Successful practitioners are invited to share with us the steps to take in order to raise more money, put on more staff, and get a bigger building.
There are many things to say here. The key thing is to cast a vision. We are told that people will not give generously just out of their sense of obligation or the call to not muzzle the ox. They need a specific, attainable-but-out-of-reach, visionary agenda to give towards. They need to know why their church is worth giving more than a token amount to.
Then, once you’ve given people the vision, there are a whole host of techniques to use. The most important one our churches have used over the last 20 years has been introducing electronic giving. By switching people over to this we get that regular inflow that previous generations didn’t have. More than that, you help get past the barrier of notes: cash givers think that a $50 note is generous, but electronic giving stops that being a barrier.
Then there’s the technique of giving people fundraising targets and goals—the theory is that if people don’t see a shortfall then they won’t be moved to give. So you put it out there in front of them and let them know how far behind they are.
Then there’s the technique of giving people specific things to give towards. Don’t just say, “we need $65,000 per month”; invite people to give towards the youth minister, or the ministry training program. I joked with one of our staffing appointments that he was like an African goat for many people: a concrete goal they loved giving to specifically.
These sorts of things are the guidance that most “leadership in finances” seminars or articles will give. It’s worldly wisdom. Now I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, I just mean that it’s the same wisdom that The Smith Family or Amnesty International or World Vision apply to their fundraising. As a result, we have to critique these techniques, and make sure they’re consistent with our biblical principles. We need to think them through from the bottom up, and apply biblical rigour to them. But what we really need to do is to recognise what they are—aspects of worldly wisdom—and use them if they are appropriate while resisting the temptation to baptize them and give them a (forced) scriptural warrant.
However, the problem with all of these techniques is not so much that they’re worldly, but that they often distract us from the real leadership in finances that Jesus calls for us to do. Let me show you what I mean in two areas.
Casting a vision
Firstly, we do need to cast a vision. As I say, even the world knows that it’s just good sociology that recognizes that people will give towards a vision.
We as Christians, however, know something far more important than that. We know that Jesus wants us to take hold of his vision, and teach his vision for all of creation. If you really want to see change in people, whether it’s in finances, or speech, or any area of godliness, what they really need is to be transformed by the gospel vision. They need to be amazed and captivated by a vision of Christ and his gospel.
In the end true generosity and contentment only flow out of knowing Christ better.
That means that the most important passages on money actually don’t mention money at all! The most important passages are those such as Ephesians 2, where we learn that, apart from Christ, we are dead in transgressions and sins. Even so, despite our sin, we are saved by grace alone. We need to be amazed that we are a new creation in Christ, created to do good works. We need to understand Ephesians 2:10 as the end point of Jesus’ plan of salvation for us. If you understand that, then you cannot help but be radically changed, and you can’t help but be generous.
Revelation 1 is another important passage on money that doesn’t mention money. I am sure you can visualise that incredible picture of the Son of Man dressed in white and with a sword coming out of his mouth—it was that image that made John drop to the ground as if dead because he was so overawed and so aware of his own unworthiness. It’s understanding that this is the Christ we worship that will lead to the radical discipleship that Jesus calls for. Radical disciples of Jesus can’t help but be generous.
I have been working through the book of Colossians with a group of men. We’ve had a truly great time together as we have been convicted that the gospel is not first and foremost about us being saved. It’s about Christ being glorified.
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15-20)
As that particular penny has dropped, we’ve realized that radical sacrifices for Jesus are actually the most logical thing in the world. When people understand that picture of reality—that everything (including them) was created by Christ and for Christ—their thinking is revolutionized about everything, not least money and generosity.
That is Christian leadership, whether in finances or anything else: living as people who truly believe and live by Ephesians 2, Revelation 1, Colossians 1 and other passages that set out God’s cosmic plan for the world and our place in it. In the end Christian leadership is helping people truly grasp, be amazed by, and trust in their Lord.
Sadly, statistics from the Australian National Church Life Survey (and the like) suggest that there is not an overwhelming outpouring of generosity in our churches, at least in regards to people giving to their church. We are nowhere near hitting an average giving of 5%, let alone a tithe of 10%. What does that say?
Some would say we need to send our ministers off for fundraising training. Others suggest that our training colleges need to be more practical. No doubt some of this would be helpful—but what this says to me is that there is a deep spiritual problem in our churches.
And the answer to a spiritual problem isn’t techniques. Techniques will only maximise the giving of an unchanged heart. The real answer is giving people a bigger and better picture of their Lord, and inviting them to know and trust him. It’s calling for a life of repentance and faith in Jesus.
Of course this is the same answer for motivating people to read the Bible, pray, evangelize or any other area of godliness—it’s not just about finances.
The vision we need to cast for our people is a bigger vision of Jesus.
Take Jesus seriously
The second point about real leading in finances I want to make is that we need to take seriously the hard-hitting calls that Jesus does make about money.
Earlier I claimed that the most important passages don’t mention money at all—and that’s true—but the fact remains that a lot do mention money.
When we look at those passages that do talk about money we should see immediately that the call they make is radical, especially to us living in this materialistic culture. However, as shepherds of God’s flock, are we teaching this radical call? More importantly, are we living it?
Take the rich young ruler in Luke 18 as an example. After you have (rightly) pointed out that Jesus’ demand to sell everything and give it to the poor is not a universal command, and (again, rightly) explained that not everyone has to give away everything to follow Jesus, do you still feel the power of Jesus’ words that it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? Do you still hear that radical call, or have you middle-class-ified Jesus’ words? Think for a moment what this episode in the Gospel of Luke means for a family in Sydney, earning $150,000 a year, and living in a 4-bedroom house. It cannot just mean they should give 10% of their income to church, can it?
Or think about the saints sharing everything in common in Acts 2. After you have (again, rightly) pointed out that descriptive parts of the Bible are not necessarily prescriptive for us, do you still feel the power of what gospel generosity looks like in that situation? And again, for that family living in Sydney, surely this cannot just mean they should give 10% of their income to church, can it?
Many of us love this wonderful passage from Proverbs:
Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the LORD?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God. (Prov 30:7-9)
It’s such a wise passage: don’t give me too much God, so that I forget you! But look closely: “feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you”. How many people in your church honestly have only “ the food that is needful for me”? That is all that the wise man prays for, because any more than that leaves him in danger of denying the Lord.
In our church we have some who are really struggling at the moment: they’ve lost their jobs. But often their struggle is whether they might have to sell their $700,000 house and become renters. There is no doubt this is a horrible experience, yet we treat it like a tragedy. Very few are in danger of not being able to feed their families.
I have so much more than my daily bread. I have riches. I am in no danger of becoming poor and stealing, but I am most certainly in danger of the other.
The New Testament has even harder challenges than this one from Proverbs. Consider 1 Timothy 6:6-10:
But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:6-10)
If you are reading this I suspect there’s a very good argument to be made that you are rich just like me. Do we feel the danger of wealth (and do we teach the danger) with the urgency of Paul?
In recent times I’ve been teaching on Proverbs in my church, and at one point I decided to look at what it had to say on money. As I effectively did a biblical theology of money beginning in Proverbs, I was convicted that the Bible is less concerned with techniques for raising finances, and more concerned with radical repentance and discipleship in the area of money. Yet I looked at my church and myself and I fear that I have lived and taught a comfortable, middle-class Christianity.
I’ve been so concerned to say that we’re not called to share all our wealth—because the rich young ruler and the churches in Acts 2 are special cases—that I’ve encouraged a gentle repentance that compares itself favourably to the greed of our world rather than radically distinguishes itself from the world in the way the New Testament demands.
I have been convicted that greed, covetousness, and a lack of generosity are the sins of our age.
They are the besetting sins of our congregations—of every Baby-boomer/Gen X/Gen Y congregation in modern-day Sydney. As a society, and sadly as a generation of Christians, we are marked by our greed, our love of money, and our lack of contentment. Our idols are real estate and whatever Apple or Microsoft put out next, yet we don’t even realize it. We compare ourselves to the world around us, and we’re usually better (although not always). But what we’re meant to be doing is comparing ourselves to God’s word, God’s wisdom, and Jesus’ call to radical discipleship—especially in the area of money.
As I’ve tried to apply this to myself and to my church, I’ve come up with some thoughts to get the ball rolling. I think what follows represents what we need to think through—and what we need to help our people think through—if we are really going to lead in this area. You might disagree with some of what follows, but what I want is for you to think it through, and have a reason if you disagree.
We need to challenge people to find contentment where we should find it. Our contentment must come from the gospel. Too often we find our contentment and joy in our work, or in the things our work helps us buy. We need to challenge the assumption that capital accumulation is a good thing. We need to challenge the consumerism of our age where people spend $400 on a phone and then get another one 6 or 12 months later. We need to be amazed by Christ and know him better, rather than always seeking things from this world.
That’s the vision thing again, and it’s the key point.
We need to get serious about encouraging thankfulness as the mark of the Christian. We need to get serious about thanking God for how blessed we are. We need to stop thinking that all that we have is ours, and see it for what it is—a blessing from God. We need to get serious about having an eternal perspective rather than being so caught up in this world. We need to remind people constantly that the things we idolize will burn away when Christ returns.
If that happens people will be generous. We will be people who give the first fruits of our income and our wealth to gospel work, giving not out of obligation but out of joy. We’ll want to use God’s blessings to do things that last for eternity.
We really need to not just encourage generosity, but to give people models of real, kingdom-shaped generosity. When I first left university and landed in a reasonably high-paying job I remember putting $50 in the plate each week, thinking to myself, “Gee, I am really generous!” The world may well think I was. Someone, however, had the backbone to challenge me and suggest that on a decent income $50 could not possibly be generous. They pointed out that a Pharisee would give 10% according to Old Testament law, but here I was—someone who understood the grace of Christ—giving far less.
The thing about this episode that really strikes me even now is that on this occasion I didn’t have a heart problem—I was on fire for Christ. I wanted to be generous, and I really thought I was; I just didn’t know what to do. People need models, and to be discipled in this area, just as in every other area of godliness.
Sadly, Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 about giving have often been used as a proof-text for secrecy in giving, which has largely stopped this form of discipleship from happening. Jesus is saying that secrecy guards against pride, yet often this passage has been used to say that how I use my money is between God and me, and it’s none of your business.
I think it’s fair to say that Satan uses secrets. Every Christian should be accountable to at least one other Christian in the area of how they use their money—just like they should be about pornography on their computer, or how their marriage is going. This is doubly so if you are a leader of God’s people. How much do you give? And who besides me is asking you that question?
Using our homes
I really think we need to talk to people about how they use their homes for the Gospel. We’re at a strange moment in economic history where not only is a massive proportion of people’s wealth tied up in their home, but also homes are coveted and focused on in a unique way. We need to challenge that—Christians should be marked by their hospitality. If God has blessed a Christian with a home, then they should use it to bless others. I think if we are followers of Christ our homes should be less our castle and more like a community drop-in centre.
Finally, we need to ask why the mothers of our children are going back to paid employment. It’s certainly not a sin, and sometimes it’s financially necessary. But if it’s not necessary to pay for our daily bread and for a roof over our family, then why do we so often do it? Is it because it gives a sense of worth and contentment that is not found elsewhere? If that is the case—and it will require some honest reflection to work out—then that needs to be challenged, because our contentment and worth should come from knowing and serving Christ. We need to ask if this work is actually to pay for a level of living that we think is our right but that God would really call greed (and therefore idolatry)?
I’ve floated these ideas about radical discipleship to challenge us all to think deeply on this issue. My broader point, however, is that Christian leadership means applying the Bible to our flock. If greed really is the sin of our age, then we need to poke it aggressively, and challenge people with the radically counter-cultural call that the Scriptures make.
Furthermore, if we are true shepherds we need to recognize our own greed for what it is, and repent of it. I write this not in judgement but in solidarity, as a fellow sinner saved only by the grace of Christ by his death for me, and as one now seeking to live for him. I need to repent in this area, my church needs to repent in this area, and I suspect you and your church probably do too.
Leading is not just teaching. If we preach what the Bible says in this area and we’re living unchanged middle-class lives, we’re hypocrites. If we ask people to be generous but we ourselves are not giving generously, we’re hypocrites.
Leading in finances is not just using neat techniques to raise money to put on a youth worker, as good as that is. It’s bringing to bear those hard-hitting calls to repentance from the Scriptures on ourselves and our flock. Teach it boldly, and in repentance live it out.