No one likes a sermon about money. The people in the pews don’t like them for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because they have felt manipulated or scammed by a preacher trying to line his own pockets. Other times they feel convicted because they don’t give as much as they should and hearing a sermon on stewardship only reminds them of their sin. Preachers don’t like giving sermons on money because we know members of the congregation don’t like listening to them. It creates tension in the worship service. And we don’t want that. Stewardship sermons often feel like something to be endured rather than a vital opportunity to grow in grace and faith as a follower of Jesus. But what if there is a way to reframe sermons on money so that they proved to be a joy rather than a burden? What if preachers and their congregations actually looked forward to the stewardship series instead of dreading it? I believe it can be done. Here are three things keys for getting started.
Generosity Begins with Jesus
Generosity is grounded in the gospel. If we start anywhere else, we start in the wrong place. Here’s what I mean. In 2 Corinthians 8, as Paul invited the letter recipients to participate in the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, he substantiated his appeal by pointing to the cross. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor,” (2 Cor 8:9, NRSV). Paul is thinking of the Incarnation, in which the Son of God humbled himself to take up a fully human life and offered himself in love to die for our sins. For a time, Christ gave up the riches of heaven for a life of poverty. Paul sees this as an expression of generosity. He understands that the self-giving love of Christ reveals the heart of God as a heart of extravagant generosity. And Paul’s invitation to give is a call to embody the generous character of God revealed through Jesus.
The preacher’s task then is to point to the cross and help the congregation to see it as an expression of the generosity of Jesus. He suffered so that we could be redeemed and reconciled to God. He denied himself in order to lavish us with grace. His body was broken so that we could be made whole. Isn’t generosity an excellent way to describe the grace that comes to us through Jesus? Preaching that inspires generosity will be preaching that points people to the cross.
Generosity Is About Discipleship
If the life of Jesus is characterized by generosity, then the call to follow Jesus means generosity is a matter of discipleship. Jesus calls his followers to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow” him (Mark 8:34, NRSV). We’ve already seen that the cross is an expression of godly generosity. That means the call of Jesus to take up the cross is a call to embody godly generosity. Money is not an area of life exempt from the call to follow Jesus. All of life must be surrendered to the Lordship of Christ, including the way we use the financial resources God has entrusted to us. Preachers must endeavor to help their congregations see their use of money as an opportunity to honor Christ by obeying the command to take up the cross and follow.
Generosity Generates Growth
If generosity is a matter of following Jesus, then resistance to growing more generous puts limits on the level of spiritual maturity we may attain. Paul makes this point in 2 Corinthians 9 when he says, the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully,” (2 Cor 9:6, NRSV). We should avoid the temptation to think that Paul means those who give a lot of money will make a lot of money. What he means is this: those who embody the generosity of God by sowing extravagantly with their finances will reap the harvest of growing in godliness. God, Paul says, will “increase the harvest of your righteousness,” and “you will be enriched in every way for your great generosity,” (2 Cor 8:10-11, NRSV). Those who imitate Jesus by giving generously will grow in godliness as they grow closer to God in Christ. Without this attitude of generosity, then there are aspects of the character of Christ into which we will never grow. Preaching that inspires generosity will make clear the potential for growth in Christian maturity.
Preachers don’t have to dread preaching on money. Instead, we should see it as an opportunity to help those under our pastoral care understand the gospel more clearly, follow Jesus more closely, and grow into increasingly mature believers. If we implement these strategies in our stewardship sermons, we just may find our people looking forward to them rather than looking for a reason to stay home.
Rev. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Ala., and an adjunct member of the faculties at Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect with him at MattOReilly.net or follow @MPOReilly.