The Cheerful Giver

29 Nov

“God loves a cheerful giver.”  Anytime I’ve heard that phrase, I’ve pretty much known what was coming next.  Someone at some religiously affiliated gathering, or working on behalf of some religiously affiliated organization, was going to ask me to cough up a donation.   I don’t mind so much the giving part.  In fact, more often than not, I’m eager to give.  I just wish people of faith weren’t so cheesy and predictable about it.

Exhibit A would be the annual stewardship campaigns that have become familiar to me after worshipping in mainline Presbyterian congregations for years now.  When congregation members drop pledge cards in the basket for stewardship Sunday, the battle for precious dollars is considered mostly done, and if enough money is raised, just about won.  But if we are concerned about the wider implications of giving and charity, then the act of pledging is just the beginning.  And as I want to contend, it really shouldn’t even be the beginning.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way Edgewater Presbyterian ended their stewardship drive a couple weeks ago.  The congregation, encouraged by their African immigrant members, incorporated elements of traditional African church worship and harvest time activities.  People were invited to parade and dance as they brought their offering and yearly pledges to the communion table.  The festive rhythms and smooth sway of an African praise song boomed out from stereo speakers.  Those who knew the tune spontaneously began to sing along or respond with shouts of “Amen” and “Hallejulah” as they would clap or strut their way forward.   I couldn not help but be swept up in the mood.  It made me wistful- as I’m sure it did others -for the kind of worship I experienced with Nigerien Christians in West African. What struck me during these acts of worship, whether in Chicago or Africa,  and the bountiful meal held afterward was the pervading sense of triumph.  I heard triumph in the tone of those voices and  shouts.  I heard victory in the tapping of feet and the clapping of hands.  The theology behind the moment seemed resoundingly clear:  we have made it through this year.  No matter our condition we have arrived at this moment and in this season we will rejoice.  I give because in Christ ‘we are more than conquerers’.  I give because my graciousness toward a church or a community in need reflects the almighty hand that has steadied me through the perils of the year.  Giving as perserverance is indeed cheerful giving.  Even more encouraging, no one seemed to be expecting anything in return.  This was no quid pro quo with God performance akin to a prosperity gospel.  But they sure weren’t the kind of stoic, dutiful but gloomy givers that often characterize mainline Christians.

The whole experience has me wondering if there is a deeper way that churches need to engage the issues of stewardship, giving and money in general.  Besides cheerleading our own cause and doing our own salespitch, should we not be addressing the more foundational issues that cause or prevent people to give, no matter the cause or purpose?

Does our insistance about giving have any theology behind it or is it merely to keep the lights on?  The kind of worship I experienced seems to say there is indeed something more going on.

Presbyterian blogger Drew Tatsuko gets at the heart of the matter in a recent blog post.  Dissatisfied with the lack of theological attention to financial issues, he asks:

How can the church raise assets for local economies rather than find ways to break even in order to maintain payrolls and property costs? How does the church add value to local economies rather than absorb value from those economies?

These are the same types of questions I find myself struggling with a lot these days.  They are the kinds of questions that get raised when you hope the Church will more vigorously engage the surrounding world.   But this is also so far from where many church folks are at that to ask them will produce many blank faces.  It’s not that they don’t care about money matters, or care about learning how to deal with their own money.  Presbyterians in particular have a lot of financial assets and large incomes as American Christians go.  They just don’t talk about it in church.  Culturally, they’d rather talk with their financial advisor or banker about money matters.  Sometimes they even play these roles for other people.  And let’s face it, the average person would rather trust a favored media personality, HR Department, or just rely on whatever mom and pop told them, before they would even think to ask what any of this has to do with God.  So religious leaders (pastors, elders and trustees) just stick to requesting assistance rather than offering it.  We assume you have done the home work of figuring out how you should budget or spend your money and then cast out our sales pitch, just like a dozen other non-profits to see if you’ll bite.

Let me say that there is nothing necessaryly wrong with this story, not every issue has to be discussed in Church.  But let’s be honest that it is indeed a minimalist approach.  There is a wealth of untapped theological knowledge and personal histories that are ignored in the clamor for pledges and keeping the lights on.  The pledging system within mainline religious circles is a second order institution that, having left first order issues unaddressed, is increasingly unstable atop its cracked foundation.

The foundation I’m speaking of is comprised of those first order issues hardly ever discussed in a religious setting.  Let’s name them: what is the value of money? How much should I try to make? Why and how should I go along sharing my financial resources?  What should I regard as an important life asset? (Property? Business?) What is the most effective way to give?  … The list could go on, but I think you see the point.

Most charities don’t spend their time explaining the whole financial system.  Understandably they just want to focus on their enterprise and why you should help fund it.  But what a difference it would make if we knew how to answer these larger, more basic questions first, or at least stop assuming everyone else does.  The truth is, among Americans there is a frightening low rate of financial literacy not just among  young adults, but the society as a whole.  The financial crisis and recession we’re currently in offers ample evidence of how ignorant many of us are about money and how poor our decision making has become.

What if we began offering more financial literacy opportunities as worshipping communities?  What if we began to share in circles of trust, the causes and people we give to and why?  What if we agreed to hold one another more accountable in our giving and encourage one another to be more creative in maximizing the value of what we give?  These can be more than what ifs, they can be a concerted effort to build the foundation both intellectually and spiritually for growing charitable and cheerful givers, whose parade of joyful giving will not be limited to a worship service or pledge drive, but fan out at every junction of their lives.

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One Response to “The Cheerful Giver”

  1. Josh March 3, 2010 at 3:24 am #

    Hi Joe,

    This is not in response to this post but to your questions at Scot’s blog.

    I’m just a “regular” Senior Pastor with many emerging sympathies at a fairly traditional bilingual evangelical church.

    One major project I’m involved in at the moment is trying to establish a facility and program aimed at long-term solutions to help the homelesss in our part of the city. We’re trying to implement the housing-first philosophy which has proven most effective in other cities as well.

    Some major administrative hurdles have been cleared and now we’re working on getting broad support from Christian congregations across the denominational spectrum (not just financially but also through volunteering and establishing relationships).

    Maybe further down the road I’d like to be involved in a teaching capacity (training future pastors) but I feel I still have many lessons to learn before I’m ready for that stage.

    Warm greetings and God’s best to you,

    Josh Mueller

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