A Madison Avenue advertising firm surveyed non-churched people a few years ago and asked them their impressions of church. “The problem with church,” respondents said, “is that the people are always sad, or they talk about death, or they ask for money.”
In response, many churches today are upbeat, don’t say much about death, and rarely broach the offensive subject of money.
Of course, a desire for evangelistic effectiveness is not the only reason we preachers are reluctant to talk about money. Many people, both inside the church and out, feel money is filthy lucre. One layman boasted to me that in the ten years his pastor had been there, the pastor had never preached on money, but the church had done well financially. The thinking seems to be, If we can get by without talking about money, all the better.
Finally, there’s the ever-present nervousness that listeners will perceive we are benefiting personally, that we have a vested interest in speaking on the topic.
The result, in my perception, is that today’s growing-up generation has not been challenged about giving. Statistics reveal that people under age forty contribute only about two percent of their income to charitable causes.
If you were to ask people over age fifty who have grown up in the church, “What should a Christian give?” they’d say, “A tithe.” I don’t think you’d get that response from the younger generation. Whether or not they agree with tithing, they have not been taught to give.
Giving in church, for many of them, is seen as paying admission: You pay $15 to go to a hockey game, and $6 for a movie, so this service is worth about $10 to me. Because it’s unpopular, the idea that giving is a theological matter and a major expression of your Christian faith has been, for the most part, lost.
How do we begin to recover the ministry of giving for our congregations? How can we talk about money in a wholly faithful yet winsome way? Over the years I’ve wrestled with those questions. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about how to — and how not to — bring up the subject of money.
First, I realize that I face subtle temptations whenever I prepare a message on giving. Here are four snares I try to avoid.
– To unwittingly use guilt to motivate.
The New Testament’s motivation for giving is grace; giving is an act of worship in response to the generosity of God to us. You are to give, Paul says, “as God has prospered you.” If we really understand what God has given us, there will be a red streak of blood in our giving.
But often in preaching, we pound home a strong sense of ought: “Because of what God has given, you ought to give more. You ought to give ten percent.” Or we foster guilt through comparisons: “Look at the house you live in; look at the car you drive; look at the clothes you wear. And then look at all of the need in the world, the hungry people and the destitute.”
Those contrasts are enormous, but if we’re not careful, such comparisons create only a feeling of guilt rather than gratitude. And gratitude is the healthy, biblical impetus for giving.
– To not clearly define the scriptural promise that givers will receive.
Second Corinthians 8 and 9 teaches clearly, in the context of discussing money, that “he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” God blesses those who give with generosity.
Personally, if my wife, Bonnie, and I were listing empirical evidences for the Christian faith, one would be the resurrection of Christ, but another would be in this area of giving. We have been astonished that again and again when we have given — with pain — God has supplied money for us from an unexpected source later.
But we must beware of using that as motivation. We dare not turn giving into a business deal with God. To give ten percent in order to get back twenty percent runs contrary to the whole ethic of the gospel. Anybody who’s got a lick of sense would be glad to double her money, but the spiritual principle doesn’t work that way. It’s not tit-for-tat, one for one.
In society, you give to an art museum so you can have your name on the new wing, but in God’s family, you give to please your Father in heaven. The question is not “What do I get out of it?” but “What does God get out of it?”
– To overemphasize the truth that everything belongs to God.
It’s true that everything I have belongs to God. The Bible teaches that. But if I’m not careful, I can produce from that theological statement the implication that a person, if he’s wholly committed, will put his entire paycheck in the offering plate.
I don’t know anyone who on a consistent basis can give everything he or she has to God without starving to death. It becomes an impossible ethic: the bar is always at eighteen feet, and I can jump only five. When we preach the impossible dream, people don’t take it seriously.
– To teach on money primarily when it’s needed.
I know of a church that, in order to erect some buildings, went out on a four-million-dollar limb. The leaders have committed the church to the entire amount and borrowed the money from the banks. They are still three million dollars short. That shortage stares the pastor in the face every month, so he’s constantly on his people about money.
His preaching insinuates, “If you folks were giving as God wants you to give, we would have no problem.” This kind of scolding, for the person in the pew, is like meeting a bill collector at church every Sunday. Ultimately such preaching on money becomes counterproductive.
While that may be an extreme case, the principle holds true. When you’re trying to raise money and you continually preach on money because you need it, people sense your desperation.
As a seminary president, I understand well the importance of asking for money, but teaching on money only when it’s needed too easily begins to pressure rather than instruct. I accomplish more when someone can hear the sermon and say, “He talked about my money, but he wasn’t begging for my money for his emergency.”
Connect with People’s Needs
Fortunately, we can sidestep these temptations and step forward with confidence — provided we follow a few key principles.
The first borrows a fundamental idea from communication: identify a need in the audience and speak to it. Most preachers do this every Sunday, connecting the timeless truths of the Bible with contemporary needs. But when it’s time to preach on money, too often we think, “What do people really want to hear about money? They don’t want me telling them they’ve got to give more. The need to give is not a need anyone feels.”
But giving does connect with two deep human needs. I try to emphasize these needs when speaking about money.
1. People need to have something of value to sacrifice for.
Somewhere I must find a cause greater than myself that is worthy of my life, if I am going to count for something. And one way to express commitment to that cause is to give. When you give your money, you really have given yourself.
I think that when Jesus comes to church on Sunday morning, He still sits “over against the treasury” to see what we put into the offering. As a measure of our commitment, our pocketbook beats our hymnbook. If I can read a person’s checkbook for a couple of years, I know what he or she thinks is important.
We desperately need to be committed. Otherwise, we have this awful sense of anomie; we sense our lives don’t count. Bob Richards, the pole vaulter, used to ask Olympic athletes, “How do you handle the pain?” They never said, “What pain?” They explained that part of the thrill of victory is that it was gut wrenching to achieve.
Part of the thrill of our lives comes when we find a cause worth sacrificing for, and then give to the hilt for it.
2. People need a way to express thanks.
When someone helps us, we want to say thanks, to tell the person how much we appreciated the help. Giving is a tangible, effective way to thank a God of grace and generosity.” As God has prospered you, give,” Paul says. The question is not, “How much do I give to stay in the club?” or “What are the dues?” but “How can I say thanks?” Giving is a perfectly appropriate means of thanking God.
When I preach on money with these two needs in mind, it frees me. No longer am I laying on people an unwanted burden. Instead, I am offering people a thirst-quenching opportunity to involve themselves in something that outlasts them, and to express their gratitude to God.
See the Long-term Goal
Second, if I can give someone a new mindset about money, I have built a new person. As a preacher, that’s my goal: to implant a new mindset about how our money relates us to God. There are times when I say, “This is the cause, and this is what we need,” but that’s the short-term goal. My true goal, the long-range goal, is to change people’s mindset about money, and that’s what good preaching will do.
The first major argument for most couples, for example, is about money. That was true for Bonnie and me. For my parents, in the New York ghetto, money was security, so they saved it. Bonnie’s middle-class parents thought the purpose of money was to use it.
After we got married, Bonnie wanted to buy a set of dishes for thirty dollars, a great deal of money in those days. The thought of putting out that kind of money for a set of dishes drove me wacky. And so we had our first major conflict over buying dishes. The conflict came from differing mindsets — not principles our parents had sat down and taught us, but feelings and values we had picked up intuitively.
Many conflicts in the Christian life come because people approach money with a mindset different from God’s. My goal as a preacher is to bring their thinking in line with His.
Knowing this takes the pressure off both me and my listeners. I realize such a change is going to take a long time, and I need to work on it purposefully, not frantically. Without immediate pressure, though, remarkable change does occur. With defenses down, a person alters his or her view over time. Conversion seems sudden, but it’s usually the result of a process.
When I taught a businessman’s Bible study in Dallas, a CEO of a computer company attended. Others in the group knew he wasn’t a Christian. One day I invited the man to lunch, and I asked him, “Wally, are you a Christian?” “Yes I am.”
I thought he may have confused Christian with gentleman. So I asked him, “When did it happen?”
He replied, “I don’t know.”
So I said, “Tell me why you call yourself a Christian then.”
“When I came to your class, I wasn’t a Christian,” Wally told me. “One day as I was shaving, I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, You know, if I stood before God and He said, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ I would say, ‘I’m betting my life on Jesus Christ.’ I wouldn’t have said that several weeks ago,” he said, “but I know that’s what I would say to God now. Sometime in the last month or two, I crossed the line.”
Similarly, when teaching on money, I need to teach for the distance rather than the dash, knowing that over time people can change their attitudes and their giving dramatically.
Emphasize Attitude, Not Amount
A third principle I follow is to deemphasize the amount — even the percentage — that someone gives. Instead, I try to emphasize the element that from a biblical perspective is more critical: the giver’s attitude and level of sacrifice.
The gold-medal giver in the New Testament turns out to be a woman who contributed less than a nickel. And on the day she was singled out, wealthy contributors cast generous, lavish gifts into the temple treasury. But this woman slipped in just a couple of coins, and Jesus awarded her the trophy for giving.
According to rabbinic law, a giver could not give just one mite; the smallest gift permitted was two mites. On that day, for her, giving to God was more important than a crust of bread, a bit of honey, or a sip of milk. Giving to God was more important than her necessary food. That was worship. Jesus jumped to His feet when He saw her contribution. He shouted to His disciples, “Mark her. She’s someone special.”
I believe God honors many poor people who don’t give a tenth, because what they do give is a sacrificial amount in relationship to what they earn. Similarly, for many wealthy people, giving a tenth is a way of robbing God. Their tithe becomes a tip.
I’m impressed by the formula of John Wesley, who, when he made thirty pounds, lived on twenty-eight pounds and gave away two. Then he made sixty pounds, but he knew he could live on twenty-eight pounds, so he gave away thirty-two. The next year his income rose to ninety pounds, but still he lived on twenty-eight pounds and gave away the rest.
As we preach, therefore, the key is not to focus on amounts or percentages, but the attitude and commitment the giver displays.
Teach “Investment” Principles
Fourth, I believe we have a responsibility to teach people how to invest their money in God’s kingdom. People need sound investment advice, which the Bible provides. Here are some of the strategies I teach.
– First cover your obligations. If you ask, “According to the New Testament, what am I obligated to give to?” the answer would include four areas, concentric circles:
1. To provide food and shelter for your family. To not support them is to be worse than a heretic.
2. To support those who teach you the Word of God.
3. To help those who are poor in the church.
4. To do good to all men and women, as much as you have opportunity.
– Give thoughtfully and with preparation. We are taught to “lay aside on the first day of the week” what we will give, so it’s irresponsible to get to church and think, “Oh! The offering!” grab your wallet, and throw in a five-dollar bill.
People should thoughtfully consider their own church’s ministries and consider other Christian ministries. Do the leaders demonstrate integrity? Do they issue a financial statement showing the way the organization has used their money? Is their money producing spiritual dividends?
As Christians, when we give to causes beyond our church, we ought not to give simply because an orphan choir has touched our emotions. We should weigh thoughtfully the ministries we support.
– Invest in sound ministries that will produce dividends. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is actually a thank-you letter. He wrote the letter to thank the folks at Philippi for their most recent gift. And in this letter, Paul sees money as investment in God’s work — “I’m grateful for this gift, because I know it will bring dividends to your account” (4:17).
If you tie that passage into the Parable of the Unjust Steward, the focus of which is to be shrewd and make friends for heaven, you find this: One way in which to make friends who will welcome you into heaven is by investing in the ministry of other people.
I believe that when Bonnie and I get to heaven, we will be welcomed by people from Kenya — a country we have never visited and a culture we don’t know anything about. Why? Because for years we have helped to support a productive missionary couple there. We bought into that ministry, and one day we will withdraw our equity.
That’s one of the problems of investing in certain ministries that have been scandal ridden: they didn’t make it, spiritually speaking. They failed to produce spiritual dividends. If we had invested money in those ministries, we would have suffered like an investor after a stock market crash.
– Diversify your kingdom portfolio. The serious investor is going to put some money in bonds, some in money markets, and some in high-risk venture capital. But he or she is going to diversify for maximum effectiveness.
Similarly, I think it’s wise for Christians to have a kingdom portfolio. First, we give to our local church; that’s a basic obligation because we are ministered to there and want to support those who teach us God’s Word. But then, I want to give some money to an individual or group skilled in evangelism. One such group for Bonnie and me is the Black Evangelistic Enterprise, which has an active and effective ministry in black communities throughout the United States.
Then I want to support groups that our impacting our society. As a Christian, I want to be involved in helping where I can’t be physically. I personally can’t be involved in most worthwhile causes. But I can support a few of them financially as a way of saying, “I’m for you.” For example, Bonnie and I have given to groups serving battered women and to ministries working with college students.
I don’t want to sound self-serving, but I think it’s wise to invest in a seminary as a long-term investment. It takes years for a crop of students to mature, but eventually the students you support today are going to become missionaries, pastors, and teachers, and they’re going to touch many people.
Now, I recognize that many pastors teach the “storehouse” concept, that the tithe belongs to the local church. In a way, a good church with a wide and varied missionary program can be like a mutual fund. Because there are many people investing in the fund, the congregation has power to do things one person couldn’t do on his own, and it invests money in valid ministries he or she might not know about otherwise. Many people trust the leaders of the church to manage their kingdom investment. But the principle is the same: they should see to it that their leaders oversee and effective diversified program of giving.
Let me close by discussing two areas that are particularly thorny for the person who preaches about money: (1) illustrations, and (2) applications.
Recently someone said to me, “Haddon, when I contemplate standing up and talking about money, the thought of illustrations scares me to death. If I talk about the rich giver, I lose my people. If I talk about the super-poor in Bangladesh, I lose them. If I talk about me, I can lose them because they say, ‘Well, you’re a preacher. You should do that.’ Where can I get credible, real-life illustrations about giving?”
That’s a touchy problem. But the first area I mine for illustrations, the mother lode, is the Bible itself. Of the thirty-eight parables of Jesus, at least a dozen are devoted to money and to our use of material goods. The Gospels speak a tremendous amount on money; approximately one of every eight verses deals with the subject. As I mentioned, the Philippian letter is a thank-you letter for financial support, and it teaches much. From these sources, we can draw not only insights, but effective illustrations.
Second, I share my own experiences with giving. I want people to know I’m not asking them to do anything I’m not willing to do. But I speak of my giving in a broad way, as I did explaining my “kingdom investments.” Usually, specific amounts only become stumbling blocks.
Third, I draw from stories of friends or situations from society. But which of these do I select? With every illustration, I ask, “What is the hidden message? What does this really convey?” Here are some of the messages I want an illustration to get across:
– Generous people are attractive. God loves a generous giver, someone who enjoys giving. That’s not hard to understand, because so do we. Being generous does something for a person’s spirit. I want the illustration to ask, in effect, “Which word would you like to have applied to you: tight-fisted or generous?
– Giving enables wonderful things to happen in the lives of others. I want illustrations to show how giving pays off in people’s lives. That’s what we do at missions conferences: missionaries report the impact our giving has had on people. Paul, for example, could tell the Philippians, “Your giving has enabled me to minister. While I’ve been here, the Gospel has reached the Praetorian Guard.”
– Giving brings us benefits, but not necessarily material ones. The danger in the illustration of a person who gave $10 and got $50 back is that it encourages a motivation of “give in order to get.” But we can show the rich, nonmaterial blessings that accrue from giving.
For example, because we love our children, we tried to give them a good education. We were willing to sacrifice our home — anything — to give them that, and we didn’t expect anything in return. But now there’s great delight for Bonnie and me seeing what that education has produced in the lives of our children and in the people they reach.
– God can enable us to give more than we thought possible. When I was board chairman at Twin City Bible Church in Urbana, Illinois, the congregation decided to purchase land and build next to the campus of the University of Illinois, because that’s where we believed we could have the greatest impact. But that was an expensive decision, and the congregation really had to stretch.
As I moved among the congregation, talking to people about this commitment, I was amazed at how many would say something like, “I’m working for Kimberly-Clark, and I just got a promotion that almost doubled my salary.” I’d say, “Is that an accident? Or is God allowing you to help fulfill His mission for this church?’
The testimony of God’s people is often that having determined to give a gift, God enabled them to give it. I think it’s legitimate to use illustrations that demonstrate God’s provision in enabling people to give.
Applications That Stick
Although it’s wisest to preach on money when it’s not needed, often money is needed, and usually preachers are the ones assigned the task to ask for it. How do you present the need? What do you ask for?
Perhaps you’ll resonate with a few of the lessons I have learned:
– Ask, and do it boldly.
It should be obvious that if the church has a need, and I talk to you about it, at some point, I have to make a request. And I need to do it boldly. Otherwise, I’m like an evangelist presenting the Gospel but not asking people to commit themselves to Christ.
I paid a high tuition to learn this lesson. When I came to Denver Seminary, the school had a phone system that was like two cans on a string. We desperately needed a new one, so I visited a businessman, and I told him we needed to raise twenty thousand dollars for the new phone system. We talked for a while about it, and then he asked, “How much would you like me to give?”
I said, “Well, could you give a thousand dollars?”
He pulled out his checkbook, wrote me a check for a thousand dollars, pushed it across the desk, and said, “You insulted me.”
I thought, “I’ve offended him. I shouldn’t have asked him for money.”
But he said, “You asked me for a thousand dollars, but you needed twenty thousand. Either you felt that I wasn’t able to give much money, in which case you underestimated where I am financially, or worse, you thought I had the money but wouldn’t give you more, in which case you insulted my generosity.”
What you need to know is that if a person believes in the cause, you never insult him by asking him to do the big thing. If he can’t do the big thing, he can come back and tell you what he can give. But you always suffer and you insult the person when you ask for less rather than more.
What I appreciated about him is that he didn’t say, “Now, give me back the check and let me write you another.” It cost me money to learn the lesson.
– Focus on the cause you believe in.
Sometimes I speak on behalf of Denver Seminary. I am not at all embarrassed to ask people to give. I see it as a tremendous opportunity for people, because I believe in the cause.
Frankly, I’d have a difficult time raising money for myself. But is there a more important cause than the church of Jesus Christ? As preachers, we have committed our lives to it, and it only makes sense to ask other to join us in support of it.
– Lead the way.
Whenever I preach about giving, I had better be giving with liberality. How else can I ask others to give? At Denver Seminary, we have our trustees ask people for contributions. We know that the first thing these trustees must do is give a significant gift. Otherwise, they can’t sit across the desk from other people and ask them to sacrifice.
– Emphasize that this is a joint effort.
Sometimes a congregation looks at the missionary program as something the missionary committee put together, or the building program as something the elders put together. That’s why it is so important that when a church decides its giving, a wide group of people in the church have a voice in it. Then you can honestly say, “We have committed ourselves to this, and now we need to give to support our commitment.”
– Give non-Christians and visitors the freedom not to give.
While a church budget or project is for the whole church family, it is for the family only. I believe it is critical for church leaders to say, “If you’re still on the way to faith, please feel free to pass the offering plate by. The offering, like Communion, is for those who have committed themselves to God. For you, God has a gift: eternal life. We do not want you to think that God is soliciting funds from you. You honor us by being here.”
I have found, oddly enough, that when you say that, and people know you mean it, Christians give with greater generosity, and non-Christians are impressed with the free gift God offers them.
Money = Commitment
Why must preachers continue to bring up the difficult subject of money? Why do we teach our people to give, when we know it can be misunderstood?
Because when we discuss money, we’re talking about commitment, and commitment is our domain. A commitment is only cheap talk unless a person puts her money behind it. We want people to be serious about Jesus Christ. And we know that if they are serious about Jesus Christ, they will show it in their giving. @
From the book Mastering Contemporary Preaching by Bill Hybels, Stuart Briscoe, and Haddon Robinson, copyrighted 1989 by Christianity Today, Inc. Published by Multnomah Press, Portland, Oregon 97266. Used by permission.
A Madison Avenue advertising firm surveyed non-churched people a few years ago and asked them their impressions of church. “The problem with church,” respondents said, “is that the people are always sad, or they talk about death, or they ask for money.”