Giving is at the heart of the Christian faith, and to the life we really want

The state of giving in the church is in trouble, and part of the problem are the myths we perpetuate about our money.

By Ronald E. Keener

Stephen B. McSwain has written a thoughtful book in The Giving Myths: Giving Then Getting the Life You’re Always Wanted  (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2007) that comes out of his personal interests and professional work as a vice president of Cargill Associates Inc., a philanthropy and fundraising firm. He puts the proceeds from the sale of the book into The Foundation for Excellence in Giving that he established to make donations to various Christian charities “in the belief that God gave me this book, its contents, and the stories.”

He says that since God gave him the book he has an agreement with God to “give the book away as my gift,” and consequently takes nothing from the sale of the book. In his speaking engagements on the giving theme, he can arrange for the church where he speaks to donate his royalties from the sale of the book to a cause important to the church.

Church Executive posed several questions to him about giving:

You write that “the life you’ve always wanted will be found in one way only — in giving.” And you’ve noted that “what God gives is for the purpose of giving it away.” What do you mean by that?

At the very heart of the Christian faith is the idea of “giving.” John 3:16 reads “For God so loved the world that he gave …” In scripture you find the unfolding story of God’s gifts to the human family. Central to the Christian faith is the expression of the greatest gift when Jesus willingly laid down his life and bore the sin of the world.

The fastest way to a life of joy and fulfillment — to the life you really want — is in giving.  If you want to find life, give your life away. Isn’t that what Jesus said, “He who would hold on to his life will lose it [apply that to your money, too] but he who gives his life away finds it?” It’s one of the greatest mysteries and paradoxes of the human experience. But it’s the way life works.

You say that “the state of giving in the American church is anything but healthy.” You work in that world every day. What is the state of giving in today’s church?

For more than a decade now, I have worked in virtually every denomination in America — Evangelical, Protestant, Catholic. But, in every context, giving is in trouble. What’s strange is that, almost without exception, philanthropy has been increasing every year in the nonprofit world but, giving through the local church has been on the decline almost every year. That is to say, charitable giving will this year reach an all-time high. Yet, while the collective total dollars given in and through the church might be more this year than last, the overall percentage of giving by individual households has been on the decline for many years. The old 80/20 rule that 80 percent of a church’s income is given by 20 percent of the membership is much closer to 90/10 today. Fewer and fewer people in the local church are giving the lion’s share of support to that church.

In most churches, the “fewer” giving the most are from the “older” segment of the church population (what is known as the Silent generation). The Boomers don’t give, not even remotely close to their older counterparts, as a percentage of income, that is; even when those of the older generation were themselves the age of the Boomers. What’s even more alarming is that the Survivors and Millennials (the children and grandchildren of the Boomers) are even less interested in giving these days. We have virtually lost a generation and maybe two.

The veil of secrecy that has surrounded the subject of stewardship and giving in the local church has to change, if the present trends are to be reversed. Bottom line here is our strategy must be reversed. The only strategy for positive change that I know will work is openness about giving — the freedom people should be given to tell their stories of what they are learning through giving and sharing what God has given them. Preaching a sermon two or three times a year and  telling people they “ought” to tithe because the Bible “expects” it is neither accurate or will work. Those days are gone.

You believe that churches talk about money “more for the church’s need for financial support and less about the personal benefits of generous living.” Is this driving people away from the church?

Yes, the church has succeeded in doing one thing — creating the idea in the minds of people that we should give because the church needs the money to operate. That may be true but I can assure you that will not motivate the Boomer, Survivor, and Millennial generations to give — and, that’s 80 percent to 90 percent of your congregation. That approach will motivate the Silent (older) generation but they are a rapidly diminishing segment of most churches. Of course, there are churches in America where 80 percent to 90 percent of their church is made up of the Silent generation. They have other problems related to sheer survival of the church and many of them are not even addressing that issue much less the financial needs of the church.

But, the fact is the church has created this culture of expectation so that giving is not viewed as a lifestyle, with radically life-changing personal benefits — which, of course, is the approach I would favor — but giving is regarded as helping the church reach its ever-increasing budget which translates in the minds of people as paying its bills, salaries, etc.

Now, all of that is true. The church must have money to operate. But, we’re talking about the approach we have taken for so long in promoting giving that people are turned off.

People are never offended when the meeting of human needs through ministry is tied to the financial support the same people provide. If anything, that inspires them to give more. Today’s generation is not motivated by “demands” “shoulds” and “oughts.” Telling people to tithe because “the Bible demands it” is not only false, it’s de-motivating.

The approach to giving today must focus on the life-changing results in individual lives that our generosity is making possible through support of the church’s ministries.

Likewise, the approach to giving today must focus on the personal benefits there is to giving — that is, the difference generosity makes in the lives of those who practice it.

All of this translates into a different sort of methodology we bring to how we teach giving and how we model generosity in our churches. People have to be free to talk about their own giving and what they’re learning from a generous lifestyle. And, that doesn’t mean just standing up and glibly saying, “You can’t out-give God. He will bless you if you give.” What does that mean? No, what must happen is that people have to be given freedom to talk about the specifics regarding the changes that are happening in their lives and in their world because of a lifestyle of generosity they are developing. What difference is my generosity making in my lifestyle? My priorities? My ambitions in life?

What steps should churches be taking to encourage members in generous giving? Recalling your comment: “The discipline of giving must be given a higher priority in the church than any other discipline in the church’s life.”

Stewardship, as a discipline of the Christian life, must be given as high a priority, maybe higher, than any other discipline of the Christian faith. Why? Because it’s the one discipline of the Christian life most everyone has the hardest time mastering and bringing under the control of the Holy Spirit. It’s a whole lot easier to develop a consistent prayer life or Bible-reading life, than it is to develop into generous Christian people when it comes to our possessions. So, why would we not want to spend a great proportion of time in the new member orientation class on the difficulty of growing into generous Christians?

First, pastors must get over their anxiety about offending people by talking about money. I don’t think any minister or church leader should let the least generous people in the church dictate, through their complaints, the frequency with which the minister addresses the subject from the pulpit. Genuinely generous people are never offended by sermons on generosity.

The second thing churches could do is stop relegating stewardship to a couple sermons or Sundays a year. Stewardship should be a year-round subject. I’m not suggesting that every fourth Sunday be devoted to a stewardship theme or subject but I’m suggesting that the church leaders find creative ways of demonstrating to the congregation throughout the year how the church’s budget, pledged once each year, is being lived out throughout the year.

How do you define token giving — what most churches receive — from generous giving, “giving that often defies rational thinking,” as you say?

Token giving is what’s practiced in most churches today. In almost all churches in America, there are three types of giving: No-level giving (that comprises about 35 percent to 50 percent of every church in America). This means that in every church, there are up to half the households who attend the church but give nothing. Low-level giving is token giving. It’s giving without much thought, if any thought. It’s like tipping in a restaurant; it’s pocket change giving. Same-level giving is practiced by many of those persons or households who may have decided years before to give a certain amount, and it may even be an amount much higher than the average gift in the church. The problem is these people have never grown beyond that level of giving. So, while their incomes have grown over the year, the level of their generosity has not. It’s remained the same. Now, for these people, what happens is that giving loses its significance and meaningfulness over time and becomes more like a habit, a reoccurring bill they pay each month like the water bill, electric bill, and so forth.

When I speak of token giving versus generous giving I’m referring to all those in the church who either give nothing (of course, these wouldn’t even qualify for the token category), or give little, or give at the same level over and over each year. I once heard someone say, “If your giving is something you can do this Sunday and then forget about until next Sunday, you’re not giving enough.” It suggests that generous giving is the kind of giving that causes you to take pause, consider, pray, and then live by faith that God is going to provide you with what you need for the coming week.

You write that there is a “culture of silence about giving” in the church. What approach should a church take about the sharing of giving to the congregation?

I remember reading once that, when Martin Luther King Sr. went to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL he put an end to the long-standing tradition of secrecy when it came to what people gave. He started opening pledge cards and making them available for everyone to see. He argued, “The practice of anonymous giving leads to the practice of anonymous non-giving.”

I’m not advocating that we go back to such days as that. But, it is true, what Michael Durall says in his book, Creating Congregations of Generous People, “The higher the level of secrecy in giving, the lower the level of giving.” What am I advocating? I think it is time the church get over this culture of silence and secrecy about giving. We need more talk about it. Some of the most generous people in the church today are middle-income, and sometimes, lower-income people, who, proportionately or from a percentage standpoint, give staggering amounts of money and are never recognized for it. I think you’d discover most of them are generous and want no recognition. But, I think they both deserve it and will serve as role models of giving that many of the higher income people and wealthier people could learn from.  [McSwain writes in his book at greater length about commonly held views on public giving and public prayer.]

A recent poll said that 66 percent of those polled believed the Old Testament says more about tithing and that little is said about it in the New Testament?

Any time you take a poll, you’ll discover that people believe tithing is taught in the New Testament. There are two more important questions the pollsters need to ask the next time. One question is, “Where do you think people have gotten the idea that tithing is taught in the New Testament?” Regardless of how they might answer, clearly they did not learn it from the New Testament because tithing is not taught in the New Testament. Not even remotely or vaguely taught.

What is taught, however, at least in the writings of the Apostle Paul, is proportionate giving, giving on the basis of how God has blessed you. If we learn anything from the teachings and example of Jesus it is, surely, that we are to give everything but few of us are ready to do that.

The other question the pollsters should ask is, “Since everyone assumes tithing is a New Testament teaching, why do you think most people do not tithe?” That kind of question might reveal something worth discussing. Tithing has been held up as the standard for giving. Now, I don’t disagree that tithing is a worthy standard to encourage people to aspire to but I think it’s time the focus of our teaching get more biblical.

By always talking about tithing, we’ve created in the church a culture of arrogance and pride among the few who do.

‘We’ve got to do a better job about generosity’

“What we’re tapping into is a very fresh commitment on the part of forward thinking, right thinking leaders that we’ve got to do a better job of teaching about generosity and stewardship in our churches.”

Chris Willard is speaking about the Generous Communities unit of Leadership Network that he heads up for the Dallas, TX, large church think tank.

“The idea has been that you only talk about money when you need to raise more money. And what we’re saying is we want to talk about generosity giving and stewardship because it’s a fundamental part of discipleship,” Willard says.

The Leadership Network approach is to work with a group of churches who are already doing the stewardship function well, pulling them together in several meetings over the course of months, and to share and learn from each other. A paper is produced that gathers, and advances, the body of knowledge on the topic that is available free on the LeadNet Web site.

The next group of churches will be the fourth group that is being assembled in April, and a fifth one will come in the fall. All the churches are hand selected and are already innovative, already effective churches that meet for a two-year process of peer-to-peer learning in an atmosphere that allows them to dig into the issues.

Member of first group

Willard knows the process well since he was in the first church group three years ago when he was executive pastor at Discovery Church in Orlando, FL. He was asked in March of last year to join LeadNet and lead the unit.
Willard said that Discovery Church was “a growing church that was in significant need of resources” and in David Loveless, has a senior pastor “who is very good at teaching the message of generosity and stewardship.”

Willard says that pastors who “get it,” are those “who realize that the goal is not increased revenue; the goal is transformation in the lives of your people in your church. The happy byproduct is that giving will also go up, but as Andy Stanley says, the goal is not what we can get from our people but what we can get for them.

“We want them to experience the blessings of generosity and following the Lord in that way,” he says.
In forming the groups, interviews may be made with some 60 to 80 churches and then pared down to the 10 to 15 where there is a good chemistry with those that will work best together.

One of the things being measured in these generous communities is the year over year increase in giving by the individual churches — measured on a per capita as opposed to a total church basis.

Numerical growth considered

The former approach is used because most of the churches involved are growing and if only real dollars were measured some of the increase in giving could be attributed to the numerical growth of the congregation.

“It’s a pretty significant indication that we’re being successful if the per capita giving is up,” Willard says. Another measure is the number of people involved in a church’s generosity and stewardship ministry — whether in small group studies or budget counseling sessions, for example. “We measure the increase in the number of people who are being ministered to and encouraged and taught in the church.

Another important result sought in the program is to identify teaching churches.

“They will promote this generosity and stewardship agenda through conferences or seminars or other events that the churches would undertake to other churches,” he says.

The goal of Leadership Network is to achieve the maximum amount of innovation distributed throughout the church. “The way we go about that is not by working with the maximum number of churches but rather by working with the churches most capable of influencing others,” he says. “We work with churches that have the ability to become teaching churches. We believe we can see more innovation spread throughout the Kingdom by working with a few, not the many.”

Churches have expertise

LeadNet, he says, is not the expert, but rather “wants to work with the churches that have the expertise and help them to become more effective in teaching others.”

One issue of churches, he says, is that they’re asking their people to give money to their church, and not encouraging people to have a Kingdom mindset.

Churches too often have a scarcity mentality as opposed to an abundance mentality, Willard says. “Churches are constantly saying we don’t have enough, we need more, instead of believing that there is an abundance of resources in the Kingdom and if we would just teach and preach and celebrate and model generosity for our people we wouldn’t have any problem with the annual budget at our church.”     —RK


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