Why Should You Not Give
One morning, Philippe Petit decided to take a walk. It was 1974. He decided that he would like to walk from one of the newly constructed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York to the other. No big deal. Except, he decided to do it 1,350 feet above the ground on a tightrope, without any safety net whatsoever. And to make it even more insane, he walked from roof to roof without any permission whatsoever from anyone. I strongly recommend that you watch the movie (The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) or the documentary (Man on Wire) to get a sense for what Petit did, because it is nothing short of terrifying. See, there is something about keeping your balanced when you are a quarter of a mile above the ground that is really difficult (I tried to figure out how long it would take to hit the ground if you fell from a height of 412 meters, but I think my square root got twisted in my Newtonian flux capacitor calculator. In any case, the answer is a long yell and then, “splat”). In case you could not guess, keeping your balance on a thin cable is incredibly difficult. One misstep to the right and off you go. Splat. A stumble to the left and you’re toast (or more appropriately here, jam). Martin Luther understood this: he argued that a drunk man can fall off his horse in either direction. And he was absolutely right. The hard part in tightrope walking, in riding a horse when drunk, and in articulating principles of giving is staying balanced. Please note: never in the history of the church have these three things been linked together before. And to think, you were here when it happened! All that to say, if we are even slightly off center, there will be a splat.
See, without a doubt, giving is extremely important and for a whole host of reasons (I just enumerated six of them in my previous blog!). But if we are not careful when we talk about giving, we can actually harm the very people we are called to serve. See, people come from diverse starting points; and as a result, they hear things differently. And if we assume everyone sees things the way we do and thinks the same way we do, when we touch on topics that are intensely personal (like money), we will only confuse and infuriate them. They will not understand us, and we will not understand their reaction. Now, if our goal is to push people off the rope and splat them on the ground, we can just demand they think like us. However, if we want to be sensitive and caring so that they can learn about the rich opportunity in front of them (partnering with God to change the world), then we have to speak in a way that is sympathetic to their sensibilities.
Perhaps, part of the problem here at River’s Edge is we have heard my “offering spiel” for so long, it has become meaningless. But that spiel (e.g., God has plenty of money so you don’t need to give), isn’t meant for you (necessarily). It’s for visitors and people who have given up on church or people who have been burned by the church in the past (and their number is legion). It’s for people who are skeptical of my previous blog and aren’t so sure that the church is a safe place. And isn’t it wonderful that we have had a steady stream of people who fit into each one of those categories! But you may not have ever thought about how people may see giving differently (especially if you were raised in the church), and so let me take a few minutes to describe some very, very common perspectives.
First, a lot of people (both unchurched and churched) feel that the church is overly concerned about money. In fact, numerous surveys have reported that the big three criticisms about the church is that it is (1) irrelevant, (2) boring, and (3) always asking for money. Not so long ago, I wondered if these surveys were now outdated and that people no longer felt that way. And then just recently, I heard an interview on the radio with a best-selling author who reiterated that the reason he stopped going to church (and at one time he was a very enthusiastic church-goer) was because the church was primarily concerned about money. Let’s suppose people who believe this decide to give church a try one more time. How are they going to respond to an offering? Answer: it is going to reinforce their already negative view of the church. You may still want to take an offering, but you had better add all sorts of verbiage to make sure no one walks away thinking all the church is really interested in is other people’s money. If we don’t, beware of the splat.
Second, most postmoderns (meaning the majority of people around us) look at life through the lens of suspicion, cynicism and abusive power. As a result, when we take an offering, which is by definition given to God, their suspicion meter goes off. They would be fine if the money collected was to alleviate the needs of the poor and needy. They could applaud that and even see how giving an offering to God that ends up helping the poor would make sense. But when we talk about giving an offering and the money goes to support our salaries, pay our mortgage, make our lives easier, there is a major disconnect. For them all this talk about giving to God is just lies and more lies covering up the fact that we want them to give to us. And there is a lot of truth to this. Bottom line: trying to put a holy spin on our desires for faster, bigger, better and more drives postmoderns out of the church, and that is simply unacceptable. Back in seminary I studied Greek. When I told my father-in-law this (who was very antagonistic towards the church anyhow), he replied, “If you are going to learn a language, why don’t you at least learn one that is useful.” To many postmoderns, our “offerings” are ways we can fund our own concerns and interests instead of supporting “useful” things that will alleviate poverty, cure diseases and bring justice and peace to the world. And that often reinforces their already negative view. Now, we may still want to take an offering, but we’d better be honest and open about all of our financial dealings and be able to show that most of the money that comes in is not spent on self-interests, but on helping people. If we don’t, beware of the splat.
Third, many people misconstrue the offering as a type of business transaction. They see their offering as payment for services rendered. They give; but in return, they expect a good worship service, great programs for the kids, a clean, well-organized and safe nursery, and a congregation that will improve their social status. For people like this, offerings are simply dues to be paid. Sadly, the country club is often more up front and honest about charging their dues, but it is the same process. And if one of these elements is not present (“the music in the worship service is just not my style”), these people feel we have violated our contract to them and then they leave and start searching for a church that will meet their needs (after all, they have paid to have them met). And so when we take an offering inviting people to give, many people give with this mistaken notion that they have purchased something (sometimes they even think they have made a deal with God that their kids will turn out okay). That’s why it is so important to stress that God’s favor cannot be bought, earned or cajoled, but can only be received by grace. If we don’t, beware of the splat.
Fourth, while Jesus talked a lot about giving, much of it was directed at the Pharisees. Here’s the problem: the Pharisees were great givers (every church would love to have a handful of Pharisees in their congregation – everything would be funded!). Here’s the bigger problem: they gave liberally, but for all the wrong reasons. They loved to give standing on the street corners to be seen by all. They loved having their gift announced with trumpets. They loved the roar of the crowd and the applause of the people. And as a result of their faithful giving, their hearts became like stone. Don’t miss this: their giving welled up within them and made them self-righteous, proud, unloving (they were angry at those who didn’t give like they did and jealous of those who gave more) and self-centered (it was all about them). It also encouraged them to be even more self-deceived so that they saw themselves as deeply spiritual, when in fact, they were deeply broken. Harping on people to give, holding big campaigns, using guilt and manipulating people to give usually don’t inspire people to be cheerful givers. Instead, it makes Pharisees. The church may make money, but it loses disciples. That’s why it is so important to steer clear of any form of manipulation and speak only of grace. If we don’t, trust me, there will be a huge splat.
Here’s the truth. Many, many people come into church with all sorts of mistaken ideas about what we are doing when we take an offering. And while we do not want to rob our people of the privilege of giving, we must make sure we lovingly divest people of these and other misunderstandings. To quote Jesus here, we must be as shrewd as serpents, but innocent as doves. And to quote Paul, we need to be about grace from first to last, even when we are taking an offering. And to misstep in this regard, well, let’s just say it is a long way down.