In the past few weeks I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on the topic ‘Helping My Church to Grow’. We’ve been thinking about the subject of ‘growth’ in the widest possible sense: not just numerical growth – although that’s important too – but also our own individual growth as followers of Jesus, our growth in love as a community of disciples, and our growth in influence on the world around us. I’ve been identifying some things that every single one of us can do to help this growth happen in our church. So far we’ve mentioned making a commitment to our own growth as disciples of Jesus, making a commitment to welcoming newcomers to our church as if they were the guests of Jesus – which they are – and making a commitment to ministry. Today I want to go on to the fourth thing we can do to help our church grow: making a commitment to generosity.
Let me start by pointing out to you three aspects of our call as Christians.
First, I believe that God is calling us to the joy of stewardship. What is stewardship? Stewardship is the idea that we don’t own anything; everything that exists belongs to God, and he has entrusted it to us to use according to his will. Psalm 24 says,
‘The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it on the rivers’ (Psalm 24:1-2).
That seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? If I make something on my own time, using my own materials, it belongs to me unless I sell it or give it away. God made the earth and everything in it – including me, my body, my gifts and talents, and every second of my life. He hasn’t sold it or given it away, so it all belongs to him.
This principle runs counter to the way most of us see money and possessions, or even our time and talents. I tend to think of my life and everything in it as belonging to me. It’s mine to do with as I choose. But that’s the creed of a rebel, not a worshipper of the one Creator God. My house, my books, my guitars, my life and everything in it – it all belongs to God. I’m not an owner; I’m a steward.
Stewards manage resources for the true owners. In medieval Europe, when the lord of a manor went away on a journey, he would commit the care of his estate to his steward. The steward would be charged with running everything in his master’s absence, and when the master returned, the steward would be asked to give account for his stewardship. In the same way, God has entrusted his possessions to our care, and one day we will be asked to give account for our stewardship. Christians know this. More than that: Christians rejoice in this. We have been called by God into partnership; we’ve been called to use God’s possessions to do God’s good will in the world. That’s an awesome privilege, and an awesome responsibility.
So we’re called to the joy of stewardship. Secondly, we’re called to the joy of contentment. In 1 Timothy 6 Paul says,
‘Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it, but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction’ (1 Timothy 6:6-9).
Again, Paul’s words here run counter to the way our society teaches us to live: never to be content with what we have, but always wanting ‘more’. But if we stop for a moment, most of us will have to admit that the ‘more’ we’ve gained so far hasn’t taken away the itch we feel to get even more ‘more’ in the future. There’s this empty hole inside, and all the possessions in the world don’t seem to be able to fill it.
Jesus loves us, and so he calls us to kick this addiction to ‘more’. He knows that contentment is the way of true joy. So he tells us ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:19-21).
Do we believe him? After all, we call ourselves Christians, and we think of Jesus as our Lord. Well, our Lord tells us that the way of joy is not the way of acquiring more and bigger and better; it’s the way of having only a little, and being content with what we have. Are we willing to trust that he knows what he’s talking about?
So we’re called to the joy of stewardship, and the joy of contentment. Thirdly, we’re called to the joy of generosity. Listen to the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:9:
‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’.
Jesus’ whole life was a life of generosity. He was probably the one person in the world who had the right to say “mine” about anything at all, and yet he was willing to leave his glory behind, to become a human being, to serve those in need, and to give himself to death, even death on a Cross, as a free gift for us. Jesus’ whole life was an act of generosity. And what does this tell us about the nature of God? It tells us that God loves to give. God knows that selfishness destroys life, but generosity is life-giving.
So we’re told in the Bible over and over again to give generously, because that is the way of true joy. Psalm 37:21 says, ‘The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving’. Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Luke 6:38). I don’t think we should understand Jesus to mean literally that if we give a hundred dollars we’ll get a thousand back. He means that the true treasure in heaven – the joy of discovering the life we were designed for – will be ours, and it will be more than enough for us.
I think that when we’re talking about generosity we really need to focus on this joy. Sometimes we’re told ‘Give until it hurts’, but I don’t think that’s true Christian giving. If it is true that all we can feel when we give is pain, then our hands may be giving but our hearts aren’t really in it yet. We need to pray for an inner transformation as well – a growth to the point where the greatest joy of our lives is to be generous, to bring blessing to others. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, ‘Each of you must give as you have made up your own mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7). And of course I know that in this congregation many of you have experienced this for yourselves; you’ve demonstrated over and over again that you are well aware of the joy of true generosity.
So here are three aspects of our call as Christian disciples: we’re called to the joy of stewardship, the joy of contentment, and the joy of generosity. This is a big part of the journey that we’re on as followers of Jesus.
Alright, you say, I accept that I’m called to conversion from a life of selfishness to a life of generosity. But what should I be generous to? What should be the direction of my giving? Does the Bible give us any guidance about this? Yes, it does. It encourages us to give in two directions: to care for the poor and needy, and to support the work of the Church.
Caring for the poor and needy is a theme which runs throughout the Bible, as we’ve already seen. Today, of course, the needs are very great, and there are many avenues for generous giving. In terms of international aid there are organizations like the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, World Vision, Doctors without Borders and so on. There are also local organizations like the Mustard Seed, Hope Mission, the Bissell Centre, and Habitat for Humanity. All of these organizations have a good reputation for using money well to meet the needs of the people they serve. Many of them need our practical help too; they couldn’t do their work without legions of committed volunteers who give selflessly of their time and talents to be a blessing to others. So it’s up to us to do our research, find an organization we can believe in, and then do all we can to get behind it.
The second avenue for our generosity is supporting the work of the church. Of course, the earliest Christians in New Testament times had no church buildings, so their expenses in that way were very low. There was also considerable variety in how their pastors and workers were supported. But Paul’s instruction on the subject is clear; in 1 Corinthians 9:14 he says ‘In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’.
If the work of the Church is to continue it needs to be financed. Whether we are talking about paying staff, upkeep of buildings, or support for programs, the need is always there. And this is true not just at the local level; the Church is a family, and in that family the richer parts ought to help the poorer. When I was the pastor of a small church in the far north I was very grateful that I was part of the Anglican Church of Canada, in which money given by people in larger and wealthier churches down south could be used to help support our ministry. If it had not been for that support our church could not have survived financially. It’s tempting to think only of the needs of our own congregation, but we should resist that temptation.
We’ve talked about our call to the joy of stewardship, the joy of contentment, and the joy of generosity. We’ve talked about two possible avenues for our generosity: the care of the poor and needy, and the support of the work of the Church. Now, lastly, let’s think about the steps that most people go through as they learn to embrace a life of Christian generosity.
Years ago a friend of mine who had recently become a churchgoer told me that on the first Sunday he came to church, he was alarmed because his wife put a two-dollar bill in the offering plate (in those days we still had two-dollar bills!). To him, that was extravagant giving! After he had been a member for a while he gained a greater understanding of the needs of the congregation and the way it was financed, and then his giving became more realistic. Eventually, he got to the point of adopting the Old Testament standard for his giving: ten percent of his income.
When it comes to giving, sometimes dollar amounts can be misleading. In the Gospels Jesus watched a poor widow putting two silver coins into the collection boxes in the Temple. He told his followers that she had given more than all the rich people who threw in enormous amounts of money, because they had only given their leftovers, but she had given all she had to live on. You might say that the message of that story is that the amount we give isn’t as significant to God as the amount we keep for ourselves.
I think there are three steps we tend to go through as we grow in our understanding of giving. We start with casual giving, like my friend who thought that two dollars was generous. Let’s be frank; when we start out in the Christian life, giving in church is rather like tipping the waiter in a restaurant. If the service has been good, we might leave a more generous tip, but it’s never going to amount to much.
If we start to get involved in the congregation, eventually we get a better understanding of its finances, its income and its expenses. We look around us on a Sunday, get some idea of how many people attend church, do a bit of math in our heads and figure out what a reasonable offering on our part might be. I call this kind of approach responsible giving; I’m trying to do my bit as a responsible member of the church. Responsible giving is a big improvement over ‘Jesus tipping’, but it still falls short of the Christian ideal in one thing: it’s based on the need of the church to receive so that it can survive, rather than on my need to give in order that I can grow into a loving and generous person.
The third step is called proportionate giving. At this stage, the amount I give has nothing to do with the needs of the organization; it has to do with my level of income. I don’t care what percentage you choose - five, ten, fifteen - proportionate givers choose a level and build their budget around it.
How do I choose my level of giving? That’s something each of us has to decide for ourselves. But let me warn you against one thing. Some Christians say “Right now my income is low and my expenses are high, so I can’t give very much, but once things get under control I’ll be able to give more”. I tell you honestly: that’s a myth. What happens in practice is that the more my income increases, the more my lifestyle expands, and I still won’t have enough. If I wait to give until I think I can can afford it, I’m never going to start. What’s happening is that the false god of wealth is quietly wrapping his chains around my heart, and the richer I get, the more surely I’m going to be hooked.
The truth is that if I don’t give generously when I’m poor, I won’t give generously when I’m rich either. Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10). So the time to learn generosity is always now.
Let me finish by coming back to our starting point. We’re talking about things that all of us can do to help our church grow in the widest possible sense. This topic of generosity is very relevant here. If we’re thinking of our own individual growth as disciples of Jesus, then this transformation from selfishness to generosity is a central part of that. The long and the short of it is that we’re going to be happier and holier disciples of Jesus as we learn the joy of generosity.
It’s also relevant to our church’s growth in numbers, and in influence on the world around us. Churches full of generous Christians are churches that can make an incredible difference. It’s not just they can support paid staff who can do more outreach work in the community. It’s not even just that they can partner with organizations like World Vision to save lives around the world. Both of these statements are true, but beyond that, churches full of generous Christians have a joy and optimism about them. They don’t feel drab and dark and stingy; they feel like fun places to be around! There’s an excitement, a ‘can-do’ attitude, and a sense of expectancy about what God is going to do among the people of this congregation. There’s a buzz in the air, and it’s tremendously attractive to people who are looking for a church home to belong to!
Paul said, ‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9). May you and I follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ and continue to grow in the joy of true generosity. In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Amen.