Fall is fast approaching and with it the time when most congregations make a significant missional choice either to raise money or to develop disciples who treat money and things in the ways that Jesus taught us. This may seem like just putting a spiritual spin on paying the bills, but the two options are radically different. The first starts with the congregation’s need for money. The second starts with people’s needs to have a God-honoring relationship with money and stuff.
Jesus talked more about our relationship with money and stuff than about prayer or forgiveness or love or anything else except the Kingdom of God. Ultimately, Jesus sees how we deal with our possessions as a spiritual issue: “For where your treasure is there your heart will be also. . . . No one can serve two masters.” (see Matt. 6:19-20,24)
The results of people’s financial lives being spiritually out of balance are evident in every congregation – and not just because of our recent economic downturn. We live in a culture characterized by materialism (It’s all about the stuff), consumerism (we got to have more and more stuff) and easy credit (more stuff than we can afford now). The results of this unbiblical way of living are widespread: idolatry, damage to the earth, living anxiously without financial margins, relationship destroying work practices and enslaving debt – to name a few.
· 87% of Americans report feeling highly anxious about money at least once a year.
· 65% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
· 53% of Americans have less than $25,000 in retirement savings. 43% of these people are over 55.
· 32% of Americans are unable to cover a $5,000 emergency with cash without going into debt.
· Over half of American families do not pay off their credit cards each month.
· Yet Americans work more hours weekly than people in any other industrial nation.
Is there any good news for people whose financial lives are distorting the good life God wants for them? Are we offering people the alternative perspectives that Jesus taught?
· Material blessings are to be received trustingly and thankfully as gifts from God.
· We should not seek our purpose, self-esteem, fulfillment or security in greedily accumulating or anxiously clinging to money or things. (see Luke 12:15-31)
· We shouldn’t use all of our material blessings on ourselves – ignoring the needs of our neighbors.
· Rather, trusting in God’s continuing care, we should choose a lifestyle with margins that frees us to respond generously to our neighbor. (Luke 6:30, 16:19-31)
John Wesley taught early Methodists: Make all you can, save all you can and give all that you can. One of his biggest concerns for Methodists in his later years was that he saw them making and saving without giving. After watching the result of this in people’s lives he repeatedly taught that a lack of generosity results in a spiritual de-formation involving pride, greed and materialism which seriously undermines our love of neighbor and of God.
Truthfully, I spent way too many years as a pastor raising the budget, rather than helping people learn to obey the good news that Jesus taught regarding how we relate to stuff – a Godly alternative to what our culture teaches us is normal. And then as I was catching on to just how different a lifestyle Jesus exemplified, I began preaching about it without recognizing how most people don’t know how to live differently and really need support to change their financial lives so that they can be extravagantly generous.
I heard a sermon preached to a bunch of preachers by Andy Stanley on cultivating generosity in which he encouraged them to “Preach it, Teach it and Celebrate it.” When we preach we cast vision and motivate people to live differently. But unless we teach people how to do this – unless we give them the tools, skills and support to change their financial lives – we are only doing part of the job of discipling in this critical area. We also, according to Stanley, need to look for ways constantly to spotlight and reinforce generosity publically: to connect the dots between people’s giving and effective ministry.
One of the best ways I have seen for teaching people how to reorder their financial lives in a more God-honoring fashion is through the use of Financial Peace University. FPU is a video based, small group extended workshop by Dave Ramsey (http://www.daveramsey.com/fpu/). Ramsey is a Christian who teaches essentially the same Biblical principles as the Crown Financial Ministry (http://www.crown.org/), only in a way that is both engaging and more effective with people today. Many congregations have offered FPU and, because Dave Ramsey is so well known (and the need is so great), have found that many of the persons who sign up for the course are unchurched persons from the community. When led by committed disciples who have been liberated themselves to live on less in order to bless others more, FPU can be an extremely effective way of discipling in this often overlooked dimension of our walk with Christ.
I bet other readers would be interested in hearing how your congregation is cultivating extravagant generosity, rather than just raising the church budget. Take a moment and share what your church leaders are doing.
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence