God Loves a Cheerful Giver
With declines in giving, churches must teach holistic stewardship strategy
March 1st, 2017 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments
It’s the sermon topic that causes eyes to roll and necks to stiffen. The sporadic churchgoer and the inattentive faithful both heave sighs and mutter behind their bulletins, “This is all the church talks about.”
Stewardship is the crazy uncle of sermon topics—everyone knows it needs to be addressed but pastors hesitate to broach the subject. Do pastors shy away from the matter out of deference to those who might take offense or because they struggle financially themselves? Pastors who preach about stewardship do not dismiss the inherent difficulty their peers have addressing the giant piggy bank in the room, but they understand that not meeting budget—personally or corporately—will be the least of their worries if their congregations are not taught to faithfully steward what God has entrusted to them.
According to a 2015 Empty Tomb, Inc. report, less than 3 percent of all Christians tithe; the median annual gift to a church is $200; and Americans give 2.2 percent from their disposable income, which is less than they gave during the Great Depression.
In an Oct. 2015 blog, former SBC President Ronnie Floyd didn’t pull any punches in his analysis of the situation.
“I find this data somewhat disgusting,” he wrote. “It shows the selfishness and narcissistic reality of millions of professing Christians today. The money to reach our towns, cities, regions, states, nation and the world is in the pockets of God’s people. We need to repent now and call people back to God with boldness and compassion.”
What is faithful financial stewardship?
Regarding stewardship, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states, “According to the Scriptures, Christians should contribute of their means cheerfully, regularly, systematically, proportionately and liberally for the advancement of the Redeemer’s cause on earth.”
In an interview with the TEXAN, Malcolm Yarnell, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary research professor of Systematic Theology, defined “faithful financial stewardship” as “taking and submitting my finances to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Not doing so is disobedience; it is sin, he said.
Steve Gaines, SBC president and senior pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, said, “At the end of the day, like a Monopoly game, it all goes back in the box. We don’t take anything out of this world with us except what we have invested in the kingdom of God.”
“I believe every prompting to give is from the Lord. You are never more like God than when you’re giving.”
—Steve Gaines, SBC president and senior pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis
So why are some pastors hesitant to preach on money and possessions, which are addressed more frequently in Scripture than love or prayer?
“They are scared,” Gaines told the TEXAN.
When every stewardship sermon is perceived by the congregation as a money grab by the pastor instead of an admonition to obey God’s commands, pastors back off, he said. But citing an oft-quoted statistic by Christian financial advisor Dave Ramsey, Gaines said financial problems are the most frequently cited cause for stress in marriage leading to divorce.
“Why wouldn’t we preach it?” Gaines asked. “I feel like I’m helping people out of bondage.”
Yarnell, who earned a bachelor’s in finance, suggested some pastors shy away from the topic because they lack the education to address the issue. Pastors are called to not only preach but also operate a financially sound, non-profit organization, and many are ill equipped for the task.
Bart McDonald, a former pastor and currently executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Foundation (SBTF), said “deliberate training” for pastors in the area of financial administration is crucial.
“Most of those who respond to the call to preach pursue a Master of Divinity with biblical languages,” he told the TEXAN. “When I went through that curriculum, there was no required course that prepared or exposed potential pastors to matters of finance, budgeting and/or administration.”
Evan Lenow, a SWBTS associate professor of ethics and director of the Center for Biblical Stewardship, told the TEXAN personal struggles with debt can also inhibit a pastor’s ability to preach confidently on the subject.
“My evidence is mainly anecdotal, but I see a significant number of our students graduating with debt of all sorts,” Lenow said. “I also think students who graduate with debt and pastors who carry significant debt with them in ministry also struggle with how to manage the church’s money.”
Management of church and personal finances are connected, and it is essential that church staff model faithful financial stewardship, McDonald said. If trust “between the pew and pulpit” is eroded, it is difficult to restore. Disengagement from giving precedes disengagement from the church, he said.
Whether the poor financial health of a church is precipitated by eroding membership, crushing debt, or a combination of the two, McDonald said a lack of faithful financial stewardship by the church and its members is, predictably, at the heart of the problem. But he said an adage learned from his mentor John Bisagno, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church Houston, has proven true: “God’s people, given the facts, will normally do the right thing.”
McDonald’s assistance to cash-strapped churches begins with a willing leadership and the creation of a “managed crisis”—a convincing and compelling layout of the problem couched in the assurance that it is not insurmountable.
“A managed crisis avoids panic but compels corrective action,” he said.
As with personal finances McDonald said churches must learn to live within their means, plan responsibly for future needs and remain committed to God’s will. Those that do end up in financial dire straits must have willing pastoral leadership if corrective measures are to be effective. The SBTF can help churches assess the best approach to turning the ship.
“By and large,” McDonald said, “I would suggest that finance issues never close the doors of a church. Churches close due to lack of leadership that will respond to change. When that happens, finances deteriorate.”
Should Christians Tithe?
God’s call for faithful financial stewardship is not about what God needs but what he wants, Campus Pastor Matt Blackwell told members of The Austin Stone Community Church during a four-part sermon series on money. Drawing primarily from Exodus the pastoral team at Austin Stone told the predominantly college-age, multi-campus congregation that there was a greater purpose in God’s call to his people to bring offerings for the construction of the Tabernacle.
“God doesn’t need our money or possessions,” Blackwell said in a Nov. 13 worship service. “God’s talking about our money and possessions because he wants our hearts. And our hearts are wrapped up in our treasures, so God goes after our treasures to grab our hearts.”
But how much of one’s treasure does God want? Ten percent? Out of an abundance?
“That’s where it gets sticky,” Yarnell said. “You’re going to get different answers from different theologians.”
Tithing—10 percent—is an Old Testament standard. The New Testament speaks of giving with a cheerful heart, “which could mean more than 10 percent,” Yarnell said.
“I think we’re supposed to outdo the Old Testament,” Gaines quipped, noting Jesus’s tendency to “amp up” Old Testament laws or admonitions. Gaines and Yarnell urge congregations to use the tithe as a benchmark, a starting point, giving to the church first and then to other ministries.
“The problem of a lack of biblical stewardship within the churches will be solved by the people when they are convicted by the Spirit of God to address the issue,” Yarnell said. “This brings us back to the Word of God.”
Pastors who do not preach stewardship and churches that do not incorporate it into their small group studies are not preaching and teaching the full counsel of God, he said.
When church members fail to submit to God’s call to give, a trickle-down effect occurs. Church budgets aren’t met, giving to the Cooperative Program declines, and a host of gospel-teaching ministries are impacted. And Christians miss the opportunity to be at work alongside God.
All of the men agreed the blessing of giving is the fruit of faithful financial stewardship regardless of how much someone makes. Blackwell warned his young congregation against equating wealth with worth. Even a small budget, well maintained, can include charitable giving.
Yarnell said the poor should not be held to a different standard of giving than the wealthy. They shouldn’t be given a “pass” and not be expected to contribute to the work of the church. In fact, his experience has shown that the poor are often more generous with their money than the rich.
At a church he once served, a pastor and deacons thought they were helping a poor widow member when they returned her regularly generous offerings. Her response stunned and humbled them.
“You can’t take that away from me,” she told them.
Yarnell said, “Giving really is a deep spiritual issue. She saw it as a great privilege.”
Churches that offer financial planning workshops help their members—poor and rich— break the bonds of debt and waste, which creates opportunities for gracious giving. Gaines said 4,000 people from his church and community have participated in Ramsey’s Financial Peace University course at Bellevue Baptist Church. McDonald said the SBTF offers assistance to churches looking to develop a holistic stewardship strategy.
Yarnell said there is no one-size-fits all solution but believes “that as a church enters the conversation, it will discern and implement exactly what God has for the church.”
Churches and their members who are giving faithfully should be encouraged to maintain that standard.
The goal of living by a biblical standard of financial stewardship is not to become rich or simply save more money. Gaines said the objective is to do something that goes against one’s very nature: give away his hard-earned money.
“I believe every prompting to give is from the Lord,” Gaines said. “You are never more like God than when you’re giving.”