As I write this, I’m three weeks into teaching a course at Luther Seminary called Money and Mission of the Church. I’m thrilled to report it’s a lively class with smart, engaged, eager students asking thoughtful questions about stewardship leadership in the church today. Today I consider a question that came up in class.
Adam J. Copeland, Director
Center for Stewardship Leaders
How should Christians approach funding the church?
Adam J. Copeland
In the second week of our Money and Mission of the Church course I paired two books with slightly different emphases. We read J. Clif Christopher’s, Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate alongside Henri Nouwen’s booklet entitled A Spirituality of Fundraising (though a wise student noted that the word “spirituality” is not actually in Nouwen’s text).
Perhaps it’s because the question has been nagging me for weeks, but I was particularly drawn to a common area of interest: in a culture with multiple worthy options for receiving charitable gifts, how should Christians approach funding the church? Is the church in competition with the local food pantry, homeless shelter, and even church-related non-profits? Is the most faithful way for charitable dollars to flow though the church to these organizations? What’s a stewardship leader to do?
The class readings suggest two responses. First, Christopher’s basic message to the church is that we’ve become lackluster at asking our members to give to the church itself. As non-profits have proliferated and as the best ones have honed their giving strategy, the church has fallen well behind.
“To compete is not something most of our churches are prepared to do, and many even resent the implication that they should,” writes Christopher. Plus, he says, many pastors are not prepared–or, worse, they’re freaked out by the suggestion that they’re called–to lead congregational fundraising efforts. Nevertheless, Christopher says it’s time for churches to catch-up. To put it simply: we need to get in the game.
Christopher does see a distinct place for congregations in the larger ecology of giving. Congregations have a particular mission to bring people into relationship with God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. But church leaders must not pretend we do this apart from any competition with other non-profits. In fact, Christopher includes several stories of large gifts going to community organizations like hospitals and universities because the church simply didn’t ask.
Pivot now to Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Fundraising. Perhaps because of his audience, Nouwen’s work is less concerned about competition among charitable giving options, and more about fundraising broadly. He emphasizes that fundraising is all about God’s realm: “asking people for money is giving them the opportunity to put their resources at the disposal of the Kingdom.” The kingdom is a place, Nouwen says, where God provides for all our needs. Nouwen writes about fueling the Kingdom, not running the church. And yet I don’t think Christopher would disagree. Both broader Kingdom work, and particular church work, are important.
These two emphases, related but different, highlight the tension present as many of our church members consider where to direct the resources God has given them to steward. At the end of the day, we in the church must do our best to cast the mission and vision of the church in a way that inspires generosity. We can do this high task even while we appreciate that there’s Kingdom work to be done outside our walls.
I’d like to suggest, however, that we fail to connect to people’s deep concerns if we don’t address these realities. Pretending they don’t exist won’t help our members as they discern.
I’ve heard some church leaders wonder aloud about asking members to move toward giving 5% of income to the church and 5% to non-profits beyond the church. While I’m not suggesting this as a new giving rule for all, it’d certainly be a vast improvement in giving rates for most of our members. And, to these leaders’ credit, they at least brought it up! Speaking to the question in public goes a long way towards addressing members’ wonders about church vs. charitable giving.
Whatever the numbers, let’s lift up this basic tension–preach on it, consider it in bible study, talk through it in small groups, wonder together over coffee hour. Claiming the challenging questions of our day, let’s support our members as God works in them to give generously to the work of the church and beyond.
Adam Copeland is the Director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary.
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