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“I chose to come to this church because it was known to give fifty percent to missions.” The speaker was an elderly man in my congregation, now gone to glory for many years already.
I really didn’t know what to make of his statement. “Weird way to select a church” didn’t seem like an appropriate response. I had almost no framework in which to place his comment. I had never heard of churches keeping such statistics, let alone taking pride in their stats. A congregation strutting its stuff about the percentage it gives away probably isn’t too healthy.
But that gentleman was letting me know that the twenty-something percent we gave away didn’t meet his standards; that we were spending too much on ourselves. The fact that it wasn’t 1954 anymore, that costs for everything from insurance to staff had increased drastically, that the way we do church was different, that the world was different—it was all more than we could talk about at the time.
A lot has changed over the past decades, from the techniques of fundraising to the role of the church in society. Are these the real issues? As a reformed Christian, I am always suspicious of my own motives. Are my concerns actually just selfish, a ploy to hang-on to more of my congregation’s money? No doubt our motives are always mixed, but I don’t think this is just a case of me trying to grab more.
In lo those many the years since my congregation apparently gave fifty percent away, fundraising has changed. Back in the day, it is my impression that the church functioned as collection-central, almost a religious version of the United Way, the funnel through which almost all charitable giving flowed. Then, it was a task of the Deacons, like a United Way board, to distribute the money to all sorts of worthy causes.
And that’s important—they are worthy causes. My point isn’t to call into question whether mission agencies, colleges and seminaries, disaster relief, local social service agencies do good work and merit our support. Of course they do.
Today, many of these same good and worthy organizations have development staffs of four and six or fifteen fulltime people. The days when people gave their charitable giving primarily to their local congregation is long over. All sorts of groups and causes solicit the people in my congregation directly via mail, phone, and electronic means. And, I would guess, they get all sorts of generous support. Some of these good organizations have multi-million dollar budgets that dwarf my congregation’s spending. The gift we give to many of these worthy causes is “big money”—relatively speaking—to us, but vapors that are burned off before breakfast by the big organization.
The idea of congregations giving away funds to other groups is rooted in the valid notion that churches should be generous, other-and outward focused. In sending away funds, churches are simply practicing what they preach. Yet, I’ve never heard anyone say seminaries or disaster relief groups should tithe. Maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe there is a clear categorical difference between a church and various mission and parachurch organizations, explaining why churches should give away money, yet a disaster relief agency need not. Ask some worthy organization why they don’t give some of their funds to other outside groups and I suspect you would receive a puzzled look and a response like, “We use all our money to help people.” Couldn’t congregations say the same thing?
Why do I pull up my nose at the idea of measuring a congregation’s “mission mindedness” by the amount it gives away? It seems a little crass. Too simple. These days, we’re more sophisticated than that. Aren’t todays congregation’s learning, often painfully, that mission isn’t something far away that you send money to? Still, I wonder if we aren’t deceiving ourselves, in a sort of moralistic, almost docetic way, with our new found thinking that mission is not about money. I’m reminded of a scene from the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence the angel says to George Bailey, “We don’t use money in heaven.” George retorts, “Yeah, well it comes in real handy down here, bud!”
As congregations assimilate an understanding of mission as everything they do, not what they send away, aren’t we discovering that this sort of church is considerably more expensive? So-called missional churches have many priorities and expenses that preclude much giving to other causes. It that a cheap excuse or a new and true reality?
Lots of questions, and not many definitive answers. But when the topic at hand is money, the conversation seems especially prone toward pious platitudes and self-justifying half-truths. “Follow the money,” was the advice to journalists from the top secret source “Deep Throat” during the Watergate scandal. Is Jesus’ invitation “Follow me” a counter proposal? Or, in this case, just another pious platitude?