Turnaround Fellowship, part 4 – Generosity Toward the Local Church

Business Odyssey 010 I want to acknowledge the generosity of many Christians who
have made enormous sacrifices for churches, colleges, parachurch ministries, and other worthy causes. We have some phenomenal stories of radical generosity in Churches of Christ. George Pepperdine, the namesake of my alma mater, is one such story among hundreds that could be told. He gave literally everything he had away, and not only birthed Pepperdine University, but saved many churches and other Christian
colleges from closing their doors as well.

There are many more stories of Christians who have sacrificed unbelievably for the cause of Christ, for the poor, for the young, and for the orphan. I know that many of my colleagues
believe strongly that Churches of Christ need to increase their awareness of and ministry to the poor. At one level, this will always be true. When can churches stop trying to increase their ministry in such ways? However, I actually see care for the poor—orphans and disaster victims in particular—as a strength
of our fellowship of churches. When one takes even a cursory look at sheer volume of ministries the Churches of Christ have toward the poor and marginal, it’s actually rather mind-boggling. Think for just a moment about the number of children’s homes Churches of Christ sponsor, the disaster relief agencies, etc., and the emergence more recently of urban ministries, it’s encouraging. Obviously, we can always do more, but I’m proud to the good Churches of Christ do around the world.

Nevertheless, this remarkable legacy has not translated into a culture of generosity that pervades the heart of every Christian for the local church. In even the most “generous” churches, only a miniscule number of Christians tithe, even fewer give above and beyond the tithe, and this holds the local church back significantly. Even if you don’t believe that Christians are “bound” to tithe (notice the language), we all hopefully believe that regular, generous giving to the local church is a good idea, and something God would want us to do. I’m only providing data on church giving to debunk the myth that everyone is giving all they can…and to show the difference it would make if Christians began taking Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to heart. I’ve been working on a doctoral project on the spiritual formation of generosity for quite some time now…so perhaps I’m more sensitive to this than others. But…

Here are the facts about giving nationally: Regardless of geography, socio-economic makeup, average age, or any other factor one might conjure, the following is true within a 5% margin of error nationally (in every church).

  • In the average church, 1/3 of people give $500 per year (roughly 10 dollars per week) or more; 1/3 give between 0 and $500 per year, and 1/3 give 0 (recordable) per year to their local church. This formula is generally true across denominational lines, though Evangelical Protestants give slightly more than members of mainline denominations. 

Experts have a hard time figuring out exactly why this is, though the dynamics of it may be similar to the well known “80/20” rule—in which 20% of the congregation does 80% of the ministry. But, think about what this means in terms of giving. This means that 2/3 of the people in the average church likely spend as much in gas getting back and forth to the church building as they do offering to the Lord. 

A must read for every church leader is Passing the Plate: Why Americans Don’t Give Away More Money, by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. It’s not particularly uplifting, but it’s a marvelous study on Christian giving patterns by two leading sociologists. It will blow you away. For instance, America’s regular churchgoers earn more than 2.5 trillion dollars per year. If they formed a nation, they could be admitted to the G7 (the world’s 7 largest economies). If we tithed, we could not only
meet every church budget and increase them significantly…we could end world
hunger.

Many churches are held back by reinforcing a couple of common myths:  One is the infamous, “I
don’t give to the church, I give elsewhere,” myth. Statistically, this is rarely the case. More than 90% of people who do not give regularly to their local church do not give a recordable dime elsewhere. This doesn’t mean that non-Christians are not generous toward charities, etc., but that Christians who give to charities and the like also give regularly to their local church. In fact, it’s one of the leading indicators of whether a person will give generously outside the church. Why? Because generosity is a worldview, not the product of socio-economic realities. This is why the poor proportionately give a higher percentage of their income away than do the wealthy.

It’s not about how much money one has, it’s about how a person views the money God entrusts to them. When a person views what they have as entrusted to them by God, they live generously. When they believe they are proprietors of “what they’ve earned,” they aren’t.

Some may also wonder about people who don’t have the means to give. It is a common myth that when times are tough, people don’t have the money to give or shouldn’t have to give. This is biblically off-base, and logically off-base. Among others in Scripture, the story Jesus tells of the Widow’s Mite should put to rest the idea that God doesn’t expect us to give when things are tough. Jesus could have run up to the box and told the widow that she didn’t need to give, but he doesn’t. Instead, he praises her, particularly in comparison to those who give more in total, but don’t give
sacrificially.

Second, reality says the money is there to be given. This Sunday, look at the parking lot and see the cars. That, in most churches, will put to rest the idea that most people at the average church are living in poverty. It’s just not the case—even in these difficult times. We need to own up to reality, and to the need to challenge Christians to honor God first with the money and possessions he has
entrusted to them. We need to do this with gentleness, understanding and wisdom. But we need to do it. The gospel demands it.

Some local churches literally could meet their annual budget in a single Sunday, two at the most, if the entire congregation actually tithed! This much is true, virtually every church can assume reasonably that tithing would increase offerings by a minimum of quadruple. Can you imagine the difference it would make?

Here’s an ever more modest example: Let’s say a church of 150 or so has 50 families in it. A typically “ambitious” annual budget for that church might be $100,000 per year. If the church tithed, assuming the average family had an income of $75,000 per year (still modest, considering regular
church attenders are among the wealthiest demographics in the country), the church would receive $375,000…meeting the church’s needs and giving it $275,000 above budget to do ministry with. Don’t you think it could bless the Kingdom immensely? I do. I also believe that local church has a much better chance of prevailing because it’s people put the Kingdom first financially (bringing
God’s blessing) and because God will use the extra resources to build His Kingdom. The church in my example could use an extra $100,000 on local ministry and still spend an extra $75,000 on missions and $100,000 on serving the poor (for example). That’s if just those 50 families chose to tithe. Can we imagine the difference it would make for every church in every place if every Christian
chose to give God the first-fruits of what He had provided them?

I know that the local church sometimes isn’t the most compelling place to give resources, though it should be. I know that people get touchy when the church talks about money. I know the church doesn’t always do the best job of talking about it, or talking about it enough. Yet, it seems to me that we need to we have got to start speaking honestly about money in the church if we’re ever going to get anywhere…because, as Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” and “You cannot serve both God and money.” This means that when we don’t talk about it, or we don’t speak honestly about it, we are surrendering God’s people to the spiritual forces of money rather than calling them appropriately to put the Kingdom first. It’s not just about providing resources for the church. Jesus says our attitudes and practices regarding money and possessions are about Lordship.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t Christians who give sacrificially for Christ’s cause through the church. I’m saying Churches of Christ (all all other Christian fellowships) have an awful lot of growing to do in this area of discipleship. If all members of Churches of Christ simply made the decision to tithe (let alone give generously beyond that point), it would release hundreds of millions of dollars for God’s purposes in the local church and around the world—even as we continue all of what’s happening now. If all Christians simply made the decision to put the Kingdom first financially, it would literally change the world.

Churches of Christ don’t lack resources. We, like all fellowships apparently, need more generosity—directed toward the local church. If Churches of Christ want to turn things around it’s going to begin in the heart, and Jesus says there’s a link between our hearts and our wallets and purses. If that’s true, we need to seek God’s heart on the issue, tell the truth more when we talk about money, and begin to view money as the profoundly spiritual issue He does. As we begin to, we will notice a leavening of fellowship because our hearts and treasures will be in the right place, and God will use the resources in staggering, mind-blowing ways. I have no doubt that if we will give Him the loaves and fish we have, He will take them, break them, and use them to bless many. 

 

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Share Your Thoughts

6 thoughts on “Turnaround Fellowship, part 4 – Generosity Toward the Local Church

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Tim. To Matt, you’re right on with those numbers. I work for Dave Ramsey helping churches do Financial Peace University classes and the average amount of debt I hear about from those surveys is $45,000-$60,000 per family in non-mortgage debt. And when you look at it realistically, what is debt? It’s the illusion of wealth. We finance stuff we can’t afford with money we don’t yet have to impress people we don’t even know.
    One survey I read said that 2.9% of Christians actually tithe. In an interesting coincidence, the average Christian gives about 2.9% of their income to the local church. It would be amazing to see what would happen if Christians would step up on both fronts.

  2. Dean, I am not saying that being obedient to God is sad, by no means. If that was/is not important (obedience to God) then it seems we’d be making up our own rules on life. What I meant by what I said is that it seems that no one (at least from what I gathered from your post) said that I give because I want to further God’s kingdom, because it is a JOY to give! And then on the contrary, it is sad to see that people do not give, or give so little, when they are blessed so much! As Tim stated, we could really advance the kingdom so much if EVERYONE put had the heart and joy to give out of the abundance of blessings received – not just monetary. I can personally say that God has really been tugging at my heart a lot lately and I keep asking myself… what more can I give? How can I better serve? Anyways, just my thoughts/perception.

  3. It saddens me that obedience to God would be regarded as a sad, and inferior, motivation. Especially when the New Testament is filled with passages that link faith and obedience (including Jesus’ words). Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best – “Only he (or she) who believes is obedient and only he (or she) who is obedient believes.” It occurs to me that this might be a clue to what is wrong with Western Christianity.

  4. Hope I don’t step on anyone’s toes here…
    Whoa to what Matt Soper said – an average of $50,000??!! Yikes – that is scary. Next class – Contentment and Peace University?
    I’m not sure whether to be sad about what Dean said about Willow Creek, or not. Yes, it is important to give because God tells us too, but it should be on all of our hearts to give because we want to bless God’s Kingdom and the work that is going on in and around our congregations!
    Tim, great post! I sure hope I get to read your Doctoral Thesis. Interesting stuff.

  5. Tim,
    I agree with you wholeheartedly. Great post. Last fall we launched a Financial Peace University (Dave Ramsey) class at my congregation. Over a hundred people signed up. At the beginning of the class we asked people to anonymously write down the amount of NON-MORTGAGE debt they were carrying (i.e., student loans, cars, credit cards). The amount came to about $50,000 per family unit, and that’s factoring in some of us who had no non-mortgage debt. I believe most Christians in the local church want to give more, but they are choking on their consumer debt and are in spiritual bondage to materialism and stuff-itis. I look forward to reading your doctoral thesis because this is a huge issue for American Christians and for the most part we aren’t talking about it. — Matt Soper

  6. Willow Creek did a survey of their members to determine, among many other things, why people did or did not give. They expected to find that the reasons for giving, or not giving, had to do with the church’s perceived stewardship or the way they talked about giving, but what they discovered was very simple. Those that gave did so, most of the time, for one very simple reason – they believed it was commanded by God. The church searched for other, more complicated and sophisticated reasons, but, in the end, it came down to obedience (or disobedience). It was just that simple.