Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gifts from the Giver - Christian Congregations and Stewardship Programs

Churches need money. It's a fact of life. There are bills to pay. There is payroll to meet. There are laborers to hire, insurance to pay, office supplies to purchase. There is postage, missions programs, Bible Study and Sunday School materials to purchase. The list is virtually endless. As an "institution" that exists, in some part, in the Kingdom of the Left Hand, churches need to set budgets and plan for income. To that end, churches are dependent upon the generosity of their membership. Enter the "Stewardship Program".

Being a pastor, there are almost daily offerings of new stewardship programs that come across my desk. Some are slick, with nice websites and full color brochures. Some, in the vain of good stewardship, are more spartan. Each will make lots of promises. Each comes with multiple testimonials. Each promises to increase giving at your congregation.

Now this is not necessarily bad. The Bible talks about money. It talks about Christians giving their money for use in the church. In fact, God even wants Christians to give their money in the church. The problem, however, with many if not most of these stewardship programs is that they find the solution not in the Spiritual power of the Word of God, rather they locate that power in the worldly means of the law.

There is a song that plays in high school gymnasiums and reception halls called the “Cha Cha Slide”. The song calls out for those on the dance floor to “Slide to the left, Slide to the Right”. I think the church dances sometimes with two left feet. We are of the Right Hand Kingdom but also in the Left Hand. We spend too much time in the left hand and not enough in the right. It shows up in our stewardship programs.

Businesses and corporations live in the Kingdom of the Left. They exist to generate revenue by selling a product so they can pay their bills, expand their influence in the marketplace, and earn income. Often Churches mistake themselves to be a business. They view their pastor as their CEO who guides them into the market place as they seek to generate revenue (offerings), increase market share (expand membership), and grow their bottom line (“build the ministry”). Stewardship programs are often geared toward this crass commercialism.

Yet, even those that are more spiritual do share a similar flaw. They, like their secularized counterparts, view the main goal of the stewardship program to be the growth of the bottom line and ultimately the good of the institution. Stewardship Programs promise that your church will have more money. The pastors offering the testimonials claim that their church saw an increased revenue of so many thousands of dollars over a period of time. Pastors encourage their members to give because the church needs their money and unless they give the church will shut down and their programs will not continue. Congregation Inc. should not exist for the sake of itself. It should exist for the sake of the Gospel, to preach the Gospel for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, for the sake of the sinner. Remember, Jesus did not come to seek and to save the local congregation. He came to seek and to save the lost!

A second flaw of Stewardship Programs is that they confuse various doctrines of Scripture. Namely, stewardship programs often confuse law and gospel. Stewardship programs confuse Biblical Stewardship with the Doctrine of Vocation.

I believe the confusion is accidental. I believe that pastors are hesitant to preach the full force of the law against sins that have to do with people money. People don't like the Sunday Sermon to hit them in their wallet and often will complain when it does. Pastors want to soften the blow so they will preach that stewardship is also about your time and your talents in addition to your treasure.

Scripture already has a doctrine that has to do with your time and your talents. It is the Doctrine of Vocation. The Doctrine of Vocation teaches Christians that they are a kingdom of Priests called into service of their God and their neighbor. Christian serve their God in their calling as parents and workers and employers and employees. By virtue of their vocation they already serve God. They don't need to be told that they can only serve God at Church (and heaven forbid, in worship!). To do so confuses law and gospel and creates fear and terror in the conscience of the Christian.

A third flaw of Stewardship Programs is that they deny the power of the Gospel to change the hearts of Christian to become generous supporters of the congregations ministry. The power to change selfish and self serving sinners into open handed and generous givers lies in the life giving Word of the Gospel. Christian give because they are moved by the Spirit to acts of love and

Christians hold on to their money because they are sinners. Christians are selfish and greedy and they want to keep their money for themselves. Christians are also idolaters who fear the economy or job loss or disasters instead of God and they look to their money to save them. Only God according to His Gospel can calm the fears of the fearful and only God by means of the Power of the Spirit working in the Means of Grace can create generosity out of greed and idolatry.

Instead Churches fall to the temptation to treat stewardship as information. They say that Christians need to be "trained" to give. They give Christians "principles for giving". They believe that ff they have the right information then the appropriate stewardship will follow. If this is true than the power for Christian living lies in the human heart, the ability to change lies in our ability to make the right decision. No wonder so many congregations and ministries flounder.

Christian Stewardship is a spiritual matter. It is a matter of faith. Christians struggle with stewardship because we are sinners, we are selfish and we are idolatrous. The Word of God provides Christians with the solution to sin. It is the Gospel. It is the power of the Holy Spirit. It is God's Gifts of Word and Sacrament that washes away our sin and then create in us a desire to share those lesser gifts with our neighbor who needs them. Instead of sewing sparingly, let us sew with generosity and read the blessings our God has to give.