How Much Should I Give to the Church?
‘Tis the season when trees get trimmed, halls decked and church commitment cards arrive in the mail. Right now annual reports are being written, and as soon as the last verse of Auld Lang Syne is sung, budgets will get their first drafts. It is part of the necessary work of all non-profit institutions. And it is particularly the work of the people of God who are called to the discipline of financial giving as a dimension our share in the larger project of care for the world. And so commitment cards and stewardship brochures will be coming. And as they do the annual question returns: How much should I give to my church???
It is a question that has been asked for at least 2,000 years. And the good news/bad news is that there is no “right” answer. Which is not to say the Bible doesn’t have plenty to say on the subject of money and giving. But formulas and calculators are hard to find in the pages of scripture.
This is especially true in the New Testament, where the emphasis is entirely on generosity. Jesus and, following his example, Paul spend a great deal of time describing our obligations to God, to each other’s welfare, to the needs of the church, and care for the poor. But they offer no quick and easy guide for giving. The focus is always on the practice of virtue and encouragement for Christians to do all that they can, giving quite sacrificially when the need arises.
By contrast, the Old Testament does spell out some basic rules for giving, particularly: the “tithe” – the obligation to give one-tenth of a household’s annual income to the work of God. If one grew crops they were to bring ten-percent of the harvest. If they sold goods, ten-percent of the profits… This was the most basic level of giving, usually added to with special offerings (e.g., a “thank” offering given in response to an unexpected blessing). Such giving was used to support the rabbis and priest who had no other source of livelihood, and also to make provision for the poor. Given this clarity, many Christians have simply adopted the tithe as defining what they “should” give.
The trouble is, Jesus does not seem to be a fan of tithing, at least not in terms of making it the rule (see Matt. 23:23-34). It turns out that formulas and spreadsheets have the tendency to turn us towards obligation, not love. We start seeing our giving as some sort of tax, not a form of sharing, as family members, in our Father’s work of redemption. And giving from this perspective takes are farther from God, not closer. After all, we give out of relationship not obligation.
And it is the relational answer that brings us far closer to the real question: “What is God calling me to give at this moment in time?” Right now, what are the resources that have been entrusted to your stewardship? What are your responsibilities? And what are you called to contribute directly to the church as your part in the family business of salvation? Indeed, some have suggested that the real question is not, “How much should I give?” but “How much should I keep?” In this model, there is there is no universal rule, there is only call. And call requires discernment – listening to God and being faithful to respond.
Discernment, of course, is a lifelong process. As with any relationship the more we work at it and the more time we spend, the clearer our communication becomes. And over many years, the specific call of God does become, if not clear, at least clearer. So while we give in response to a call, we must give before that calling becomes obvious. What to do?
Here are a few ideas. They are not rules or formulas. They will not calculate anything. But here are some key questions that the church has been reflecting upon for generations as we seek to grow in faith and love. Ask these prayerfully and respond honestly:
• Do you see your financial resources primarily as “yours” or as “God’s”? If they are God’s, how does that change your thinking on giving?
• How confident are you in the goodness of God? Do you trust that God knows what you need and that the blessing you received yesterday is unlikely to be the last to come your way?
• In things other than money, have you found joy in relying on God’s calling? Have you experienced the delight of seeing that your trust resulted in good for you and others? What would that kind of trust look like with regard to your finances?
• In honest terms, where are you on the need/surplus scale? Wise stewardship takes into account our legitimate responsibilities to care for ourselves, our families and our future. And rarely does God call us to give to the point of actual, financial distress. But we can also take on levels of expense that place us unnecessarily into the “need” category. Funding your IRA (to a degree) or providing medical insurance is good stewardship. Keeping up with the overly-spendy Joneses is not (and will only make us feel worse as there is always another Jones). If you organized your life around legitimate need (including good self care!), what would you be able to give?
• Do you see the connection between love and sacrifice? Mere sacrifice is not always loving. But when we love, we will release some things that we desire to be a benefit to others. If we want to grow in love, we must grow our ability to make sacrifices. (And the beauty is that as we do this, we find the sacrifices less and less painful and the joy in giving far more joyful!)
• Where do you see your security? Is your confidence in your bank account or in the God and the family of faith? Are you trying to escape dependence on God? (If so, anxiety only increases, as we are dependent on God; which is good as God is love!)
• What would be a good stretch for you? Virtue is like a muscle. It is built with regular exercise, and thus as we go we increase the “weight.” So what level of giving is easy for you? What would be impossible? Where is the point in between that will promote growth and not set you up for injury? Perhaps it is helpful to use the language of psychological growth, what therapists call “constructive anxiety.” What pushes you towards maturity?
• Who can you talk this over with? Discernment – biblically – is never individual. We always have to test our discernment in community. So what do others – especially trusted mentors – think about your level of giving? That is not to say the decision lies with others. But in any important matter, we should not try to listen in seclusion.
• And finally “feels” right? Intuition is not everything, but our inner voice often has a lot to say. So in your heart of hearts, what do you think is right for you? And are you okay with making an adjustment as you go? If you find yourself constantly wondering if you are giving enough, perhaps you aren’t. If you find yourself truly losing sleep about your giving, you might have gone too far. Can you trust it’s okay to make a change?
The list could go on and on. And there is clearly no calculator into which we can put our answers and arrive at a number. But if we accept that all learning is done by trial and error, that God is good, and that love is the goal we will be plenty close enough.
At the end of the day, what truly matters now is that we act. We grow by engaging, by stretching and striving. Far better to act consciously and adjust as we go, than to wait until we have it all figured out to take the first step.
Take the card, get a pen and do your best. God will bless the effort and you will grow as a result.
Now pass the eggnog…!