“Nemo gave it all so that Jesus could teach us about sacrificial giving.”
With a straight face, this line was delivered by a well-known minister to a youth conference I was attending. He had somehow crowbarred Peter catching a fish with a coin in its mouth into an appeal for a youth conference of 1,400 delegates to give generously. I was a teenager at the time, but I still remember cringing as this message was delivered and received ecstatically. The fact is that this example, and indeed the overall culture of giving currently being exercised in mainstream churches goes against three very basic principles that should be guiding us. All of these lessons I learnt when I was 15, and they’re still relevant today.
Opportunity Cost: Whenever we choose to do something, we pass up the opportunity to do something else.
Yes it sounds basic enough, but it’s true. There will always be costs associated with running a church, such as building costs, chairs, staff salaries, etc. Whilst the basic, and even a number of the not-so-basic things we buy for church are perfectly justifiable, we need to ask ourselves – what are we prepared to give up in order to run our local church? In large churches around the Western world, we invest multiplied millions of dollars in buildings, stage equipment and salary costs each year – and each dollar we choose to spend internally is a dollar that we cannot use to help those the Bible is clear should be our priority as Christians – the poor, the needy, the oppressed. This is especially evident in the costs associated with salaries and guest speakers.
The Bible is clear that we should treat our leaders well; however the culture of itinerant ministry in large churches has become a highly convenient merry-go-round. Standard arrangements that I’ve witnessed include large payments for visiting speakers (with guaranteed minimum love offerings amounts), regular business class airfares and five star accommodation. Salaries for Mega church ministers are regularly in the high six figures before speaking payments, book deals and television appearances are factored in. Now I do sincerely believe we should look after those who give up so much to serve the church, but all of this money doesn’t make it to those who need it most – it funds private jets instead of aid missions, and expensive dinners instead of feeding the hungry. There’s a very real cost to every spending decision we make as a body of believers.
The Law of Diminishing Returns: As we repeat the same thing again and again, we reduce its value.
Think of it like this: I’m hungry, and I decide to make myself some sandwiches. The first sandwich I eat fills me with elation, and reduces my hunger significantly. If I proceed to eat a second sandwich, the fulfilment is less, and so on with every sandwich I consume.
It’s struck me recently that for the past twenty or so years I have endured a phenomenal amount of offering messages in church. Mainstream churches will tell you that weekly offering messages during each service are important in establishing a culture of generous giving, and I think there’s real truth in that – Jesus talked about money and possessions regularly, especially in relation to our heart attitude. As a body of believers, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about money, because if we’re not setting the narrative, someone else is. But one does have to seriously question that value of giving significant time to an offering message 52 times a year.
Even though the concept of talking about money is both necessary and practical, it’s similar to the sandwich example: repeating a small number of scriptures over and over again does not actually achieve a lot by the sixteenth time (Seriously, if I hear about Malachi 3:10 one more time, I’m going to bust some storehouse windows myself). We drill in the message of giving so much that people switch off. And we’re talking about valuable time in a church gathering that runs for 90 minutes, and is not primarily designed to focus on money, but on Jesus. Offering messages could be a lot more effective if we set aside time semi-regularly and thoughtfully planned them in the context of having a great attitude to earthly possessions.
You cannot serve both God and money: The exact words of Jesus in Matthew 6:24.
As the playwright once put it, you gotta serve somebody. Jesus understood the lure and temptation of money and how it can be a great servant, but a terrible master. As a church body, need to decide where money sits in our priorities. Do we want to serve money? If we do, then let’s do it right. Let’s set up churches with business-style structures and complex tax systems. Let’s put a large amount of dedicated time and focus on money when we meet together, and let’s ensure that we equip people in leadership positions to help us serve money better by giving them lots of money so they understand how to serve it effectively.
But, if we decide that we want to serve the God of all things, who dedicates a significant amount of the Bible to talking about poverty and injustice, then we need to make a call and be intentional in how we talk about money. The tactics of repeating the same message over and over are not effective in the long term, and when we, as a church body, use our money, we need to decide what the priority should be – our wants and comforts, or the needs of the poor and oppressed.
Perhaps the best test of we could give to our financial culture in church would be to try it on a new audience. Recently I’ve wondered how it would go if I stood in front of a crowd in the slums of Delhi, or in the dilapidated infrastructure of Myanmar and talked to Christians there about money in the same way we talk about it back home. I could talk about the storehouses of heaven, and the need to raise $10,000 for a new oak boardroom table, and how it’s an admirable thing for a Christian leader to own a different Rolex for every day of the week. In the moment of delivering that speech, something tells me that I would be struck by the confused looks on the faces of people who struggle to get by day to day, whose children work to earn enough to eat, and whose future is uncertain due to rapid change around them. Yes, this message about honouring leadership with large payments outweighing the need to help those living in extreme poverty would seem a little odd as it tumbled from my lips. In a moment like that I could not, in good conscience, continue to subscribe to an economy of faith that ignores the oppressed. At that moment I would want to change this culture with everything I had. And at that moment I would weep at my lack of courage to stand up to this financial culture we currently accept in mainstream churches.
Let’s ask ourselves today – when was the last time we actually gave up an opportunity in our local church so we could serve those in need instead? What would change if we created a new way to talk about money openly in church? And how can we ensure that money is made to serve God’s kingdom effectively? It’s time for a church leadership culture that will put these questions to the test, and serve those in need before satisfying our own wants.
Because in the end, we’ll always find money for what’s important to us.