Your Church and Money: How To Talk or Not to Talk?

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 7.25.08 AMBy Michelle Van Loon

It’s possible over four decades of church attendance that I may have missed the larger messages about the “Why?” in many of the sermons I’ve heard about the way in which believers are to steward their money, time, and spiritual gifts. We who are involved in discipling ministry (which is all of us who follow Jesus) may find it a worthwhile exercise to consider the way in which we talk about stewardship of these resources. As I reflect on what I’ve heard in dozens of churches through the years, I realize that much of the teaching I’ve heard on this theme is strong on how, and light on why.

Take giving, for example. Over my four decades of church attendance, it would be safe to say that I’ve heard at least one sermon a year where the message is about money. In some congregations, those messages were about why we needed to tithe 10% of our income to our local church a la Malachi 3:10. In other congregations, I’ve heard messages about the importance of sacrificial giving, but it was often in conjunction with a building program that would boost the physical footprint of our local church in the community. I’ve also heard many messages about the importance of “over and above” giving to support a missionary or one-time outreach of the church.

I’m not here to debate whether the church should be using Malachi’s language to talk about supporting the work of a local congregation. I’m using this space to consider that when stewardship of our individual resources comes up, the accent is on what we’re supposed to do, rather than why we’re called to do it. In the case of sermons addressing financial issues, too many of these messages come off as thinly-veiled attempts to inspire (or guilt) members toward opening up their wallets in order to fund a leader’s vision. Because the emphasis is on what to do instead of why we do it, many believers I know give because someone tells them they’re supposed to, or because if they do, they’ll be blessed with job security, material provision, or maybe a pony.

To be fair, at least half of the teaching I’ve heard on the subject of giving begins with the truth that it all belongs to God, and returning a portion to him honors him, frees resources to help others in need, and forces us to curb our tendencies toward pride, selfishness and greed. But those truths are usually the quick preamble to the messages. Most of the time, these messages leave me with a single conclusion: Give more.

Money isn’t the only thing that gets this treatment. Time, our most important non-renewable resource, tends to be discussed and sermonized primarily in individualistic terms. Even when a message starts with the truth that our eternal God is the giver of every moment of our finite lives, the shift toward what we need to do in response kicks in. We are charged by our leaders with making time in our personal schedules to serve the church, read our Bibles devotionally, pray, or gather with other believers in church-sanctioned groups for study and fellowship. While specific prompts about doing each of these things are an essential component of a disciple’s life, when we focus on faith-as-task by speaking of our time usage solely in terms of our personal Day-Timers or Google calendars, we are encouraging compartmentalization instead of shalom. Whether by implication or by outright overselling, many believers I know hear a spiritual “to do” list they must accomplish in addition to their other responsibilities in order to guarantee a certain #blessed outcome in their lives.

That individual emphasis carries through to the way in which we speak of spiritual gifts. Though Scripture speaks clearly of gifts as something God gives us for the building up of the whole body of believers, most of the teaching I’ve heard about the subject begins with the pronoun “my”, as in “my spiritual gift”, or its mirror image, “your”, as in “discover your spiritual gift”. Again, shrinking it to the individual level misses the purpose of these Spirit-given gifts, which don’t have much of anything to do with “me”, but everything to do with “we”, the Church.

Certainly the consequences of a leader’s desire to speak in “to do” lists or focus only on individual application is much larger than the issue of stewardship of resources. But here’s a modest proposal: perhaps instead of rushing to tell people what they can do to be “successful” at stewarding the resources God has given them, reducing them to check lists or personal goals, it would cultivate maturity by instead spending more of our energies on helping one another to see why stewardship of our resources matters to us as individuals, to the counter-cultural community – the Church – to which he calls us, and to a watching world.

Has your experience with teaching on the subject of stewardship of the resources of money, time, and spiritual gifts had a stronger emphasis on what a believer is supposed to do or why he or she is doing it? In your current church, what is the approach to discussions of stewardship? And what other stewardship issues would you add to my starter list of three?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.