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People resist unwanted change in many ways. Sometimes in the church that resistance comes in the form of people threatening to withhold their offerings. Here’s how my husband has responded to someone making such a threat when the church was contemplating a decision she didn’t like: “What you do with your offering is between you and God. If you want to hold God to ransom, go ahead. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it, but that’s your decision.”

Behind the threat is the notion that the church is a ‘service’ for which customers pay a fee. If they don’t like the service they’re getting, they’ll take their business elsewhere. It’s a sad thing when church boards and ministers capitulate to such threats. It’s sad because bullying is never a good strategy for discerning where the Holy Spirit is leading a church. It’s sad because succumbing to such threats cuts short the conversations that need to happen in order to discern what God is trying to say to a congregation.

The fact that members of a congregation think that making such threats is an appropriate way to be the church signifies a number of things; among them is the power of consumer culture to form us. When Christians start thinking of themselves as ‘paying customers’ and their offerings as leverage to get what they want, it means that we have a lot of spiritual formation work to do. Members of a church are not ‘customers’ or even ‘clients’ of some voluntary organization. They are baptized children of God and followers of Jesus Christ. They are participants in God’s mission with others in the community of faith into which the Holy Spirit has gathered them. Their offerings are not the price they pay for certain religious services. Their offerings are an expression of their gratitude to God for God’s abundant, extravagant grace in their lives. Their offerings are a token of their commitment to the holy purposes of God in the world.

If your church is taking a direction that you do not like, figure out what is driving your opinions and your feelings. Is it a genuine concern that the church is departing from faithful obedience to God? Is it a fear of any change which you are not controlling or managing? Is the conversation triggering some unresolved emotional issues? Are you afraid that there won’t be a place for you in the ‘new’ that is emerging? Are you concerned that you will lose the power you think you currently have? Have you counted on the church to be a ‘safe port’ in the tidal wave of changes that are happening in your life and in our world? Are you feeling like you don’t have a voice (or that your concerns are not being taken seriously) in the discussions? Is this genuinely a new direction in which the Holy Spirit is leading you — one that feels strange and unsettling, but is making you grow and mature in Christ?

Whatever it is, figure it out! Work with your brothers and sisters in Christ to work through the issue. Just don’t hold God to ransom.

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Money

Both the gospel lesson (Luke 16: 19-31) and the epistle lesson (1 Timothy 6: 6-19) this Sunday address the issue of money. Here’s a few of my favourite quotes about money and our stewardship of it:

Money won’t buy you happiness, it’ll just let you be unhappy in nice places.

“They say it’s better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable. But couldn’t something be worked out, such as being moderately wealthy and just a little moody?” John M. Henry quoted in Attitude of Abundance, a sermon by Craig Watts.

Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.
Saint Augustine

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Church Finances

I’ve been posting some convictions I’ve developed about core activities of the church. Here’s what I’ve learned about finances in the church:

The way a congregation deals with money issues needs to be seen as ministry, not management. People’s relationship with money needs to be spiritually formed on an ongoing basis.

As long as the focus is on ‘meeting the budget’, there will always be a deficit

Monetary issues need to be framed and articulated in terms of the mission that money makes possible. A narrative budget is one way in which the people of the congregation are equipped to think of money in terms of mission

People give for a variety of reasons. Guilt or duty is the least effective way of motivating people to donate.


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I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated because, in so many of the churches I have served, the budget is constantly underfinanced. There is no need for this. There are people in these congregations who could give more, but they don’t. They don’t for a variety of reasons: some of them are overextended in their own lives, spending more than they bring in; some just aren’t very generous in any area of their lives; some think they’ll do their ‘fair share’ but not more, although their ‘fair share’ is often less than what the budget needs.

I’ve come to believe that, ultimately, people don’t contribute to the church’s finances at the level they could because they don’t believe in the church’s mission. The mission may not be clear or it may not be clearly and regularly articulated. For many years, mainline congregations could get away with operating as if they were social clubs. There were enough people in the ‘club’ that the budget was made easily. Now, with fewer and fewer people wanting to join their ‘club’, those who remain have to reconsider how much it is worth to them to be part of that club. Part of the problem is that the buildings that house these clubs were constructed to serve many more people. They’re older now than they used to be and require a lot of maintenance.

Churches will continue to struggle to ‘meet the budget’ until they reframe their perspective in terms of mission. Invite people in to supporting the mission rather than paying the bills.
I’m not certain why I have had such a hard time convincing the leadership of the congregations that this is a critical shift that needs to be made. Part of it, I suspect, is that they don’t know what the mission of the church is. Circumstances and contexts have changed and the work hasn’t been done to figure out who and what they are in the new context. That has to be done, or the congregation will continue to drift.

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The Institutes of Lactantius recognize the central place of right worship in our shaping a faithful ethic in regards to wealth: “humankind was created for sharing, not as a matter of obligation, but as a matter of compassion – the result of our sharing a common human nature.  This was destroyed…. by the fall, when the true worship of God was lost and with it the knowledge of good and evil… restoration must be based on that worship and love…. justice must be reestablished and … this can be done only through the true worship of God” (Faith and Wealth, Justo Gonzalez, p. 138).

Our relationship to wealth is primarily a spiritual issue – a question of what or who it is we worship with our lives. Would it not follow, then, that richer, deeper, more robust worship on Sunday would equip us better to resist idolatry the rest of the week?  And, would it not also follow that it is critical that we give more explicit attention in our worship services to the relationship of faith to the use of wealth, since worship is (or should be) a powerful arena in which our Christian character gets formed?  At the very least, Christians need to be made aware that the practice of weekly corporate worship keeps them turning their hearts toward God, reminding them whose they are – even as they experience enormous pressures all week long that would have them forget.

In The Ethics of Freedom, Jacques Ellul identifies the power of money in our age as a battle for the allegiance of people’s hearts:
“as institutions in our society become stricter and tighter, they also become weaker at the psychological level.  They can function only if they have the allegiance of the heart of man.  This is why the true issue in contemporary society is the attempt to achieve intellectual integration, or to win the allegiance of the heart, by psychological means, e.g., propaganda, publicity, television, entertainment, human and public relations, ideology, management participation, recycling, modern pedagogy, systematic acculturation, and the like.  This is where the true battle of social freedom is being fought…. Now Christians seem to be in a very favorable position in relation to this issue…. they can resist psychological integration because their ‘psyche;’ belongs to another Lord.  Hence they have to aware of the problem and on the watch at this point.” (p. 480)
The issue of what we do with our wealth begins not with urging people to be more generous or to live differently but with repeatedly bringing them into the presence of the living God and having their hearts set ablaze with a glimpse of God’s glory so that they will settle for nothing less.

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