By Eddie Pipkin
As we conclude our series on discipleship made relevant for modern culture, I saved for the finale what I think of as one of our most hopeful and practical assertions. For people who are struggling to find economic stability, a life of generosity and stewardship is the path to sanity. It’s utterly counter-intuitive for those who have limited exposure to the teachings of Jesus. And frankly, it’s a continuing struggle to fully grasp even for those of us who have been in church for decades, but it is the truest of truths that the more we deeply understand biblical stewardship and the more we joyously choose generosity as our operating system, the more we are freed from the tyranny of the dollar. People are tired of the stress of feeling like they can never make ends meet, but discipleship done right offers pragmatic prescriptions and peace of mind.
The problem for many of our churches is that they have, over years of habit, conditioned members and visitors alike to think about generosity and stewardship as being exclusively about donating money to the operating costs of the local congregation. When people hear stewardship mentioned, they think of it as the local church asking for more money to pay the bills or fund some new initiative. This linkage occurs because far too many churches continue to relegate the discussion of stewardship to a yearly marketing campaign (most often in the fall, at exactly the same time) based on collecting pledge cards for the upcoming year’s budget needs. So regular and routine is the “stewardship campaign” schedule that a congregation member who wants to avoid it could safely schedule an extended vacation for that month – and it is a running joke, even from the pulpit, that congregation members want to avoid it like the plague. They’re not the only ones: stewardship campaign planning has devolved into an onerous process for staff and leadership as they contort themselves to find a new or creative approach to the same old begrudged but unavoidable chore. So desperate is this quest that there is a thriving stewardship-industrial complex of consultants, media packages, and stewardship-whisperers available for hire (for a reasonable percentage of those pledge card totals).
I just spent a long paragraph writing about how the process is broken. But there is a better way. The joy of the Acts 2 community in which the believers shared “everything in common” and lived and worked together with “glad and sincere hearts” is intended as the model to inspire us, not an extraordinary special case, exceptional to its time and place in history.
Here are the basic ways we promote a re-thinking of stewardship:
- Stewardship should be a year-round emphasis.
- Stewardship themes should be seamlessly integrated into the life of the church (in worship, in small group settings, in educational offerings, and in communications, especially social media).
- Stewardship, as modeled by the leadership of the church in decision-making and vision-casting, should be transparent (clearly communicated and easily accessible). The people of the church should be considered partners in planning and execution, not “customers” to be persuaded (or more cynically, manipulated).
- Stewardship should always be communicated and nurtured as an integral part of discipleship: not an add-on or an a-la-carte item or a graduate level option for mature Jesus-followers only. It’s a basic part of the discipleship deal (not as a duty, but as a key to joyful collaborative ownership of the ministry vision).
Those practices, as related to stewardship, are geared for the people who are already part of a congregation. Done well and with consistency, they will produce stability both in the lives of those disciples and in the life of the local church itself. They are biblical principles that can get us off the roller coaster of the annual budged panic.
But for people outside the church and people who are curious-adjacent to the church, they arrive with their bundle of anxieties and life challenges with the hope that the church will help them navigate those in practical ways. Money is definitely on their minds. Whether they come through our doors burdened with broken relationships, health concerns, unresolved grief, crashed careers, or generalized existential angst, it is astonishing how often issues with money are at the base of these problems or inextricably intertwined with them.
Therefore, the local church, as a relevant member of the surrounding community, should be offering a whole lot more practical help where money management is concerned.
We can help people understand how to have a healthy relationship with money, because as evidenced by many Bible-based financial gurus who have broken out into the mainstream secular media space, a biblical approach to money management is a path to sanity even if you never mention the Bible. The underlying principles are common sense and positively focused.
- We can offer a steady stream of financial management classes, seminars, and workshops, and we can make them equally available to our congregation members and to the greater community (just like we do programs like GriefShare and addiction support groups).
- We can provide people with a context in which they see how many people are struggling with the same issues with which they are struggling. Many people feel alone when facing financial challenges. They are uncomfortably talking honestly about finances within the normal circles of friends and family. They perhaps feel like putting themselves down for their choices or mistakes. It is a great comfort to be with a group of people – potential accountability partners – who are sharing the same fears and confusion. It helps people feel they are not alone and to take encouragement from others who are working to move ahead in a positive direction.
- We can release the potential of those among us who are gifted at coaching others in financial management. This is an untapped resource. There are people in your congregation who really have a handle on personal financial management and love sharing their expertise. They can do this in the form of classes, small group settings, or one-on-one counseling. These are people who often are not good at other types of prioritized ministry like working with children or youth or singing or playing instruments or leading a Bible study, and no one has ever shown them that their expertise is also a powerful ministry option.
- We can act as a clearinghouse of information and resources for those struggling financially. It is difficult and sometimes intimidating for those who are struggling financially to figure out what their options are. Because there are so many players who are seeking to take even more money under a pretense of providing help, the church can be a safe and comforting environment for helping them work through options.
- We can partner with community organizations that want to address financial issues but don’t have a place to do it. As always with any community initiative, we can be literally be a place where people can find help. But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it. There are already financial literacy groups out there who are seeking partners.
All of these potential initiatives, of course, work equally well for our own church friends and family. We can layer upon them Bible studies and disciple-oriented stewardship programming, so that people can go deeper. We can also be a catalyst for people thinking about what it means live with generosity:
- We can celebrate the joy that generosity brings. We can do this not only in a general church wide sense (celebrating successful congregational funding initiatives), but we can provide opportunities for people to celebrate their own generosity journeys and encourage them to share their stories.
- We can promote narratives of how generosity changes lives – both the effects on the receivers and the givers.
- We can help people embrace the values of simplicity and combat the scourge of “affluenza.” We can routinely fight against the expectations of materialism. We can help people see the negatives of materialism more clearly, share regular examples of people who have gotten off the materialism treadmill, and promote the positive effects of abandoning the consumerism mindset.
The basic principles of living within our means – and beyond that, below our means – frees us from financial stress us and releases us to be generous in ways that bring us joy and purpose beyond the acquisition of the next shiny thing. This is good news for the neighborhood and great news for those who are partnering with fellow believers on the discipleship walk.
Do you think people driving by our local churches think of them as a place to escape their financial pressures, or do they just assume that to walk through the doors would be one more place that is trying to shake them down? Share your thoughts.