Situational Poverty and Generational Poverty Are Not Useful Categories

This post is based, in part, on this post from 2017. It also incorporates some ideas from Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church).

One of the strangest things that poverty skeptics try to do is redefine poverty. Most of us have a pretty intuitive definition of ‘poverty’: it means something like ‘not having enough money’ or ‘not having enough wealth’. Charity skeptics tend to make poverty about something other than money. Ruby Payne, for example, writes that “the ability to leave poverty is more dependent upon other resources than it is upon financial resources.” These other resources include emotional resources, mental resources, spiritual resources, physical resources, support systems, relationships, knowledge of the hidden rules of class, and coping strategies. For Payne, poverty is a little bit about money, but it’s mostly about attitude and culture.1Ruby Payne et al. Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc., 2009. Kindle locations 196-237.

That way of defining poverty is problematic enough, but what I want to talk about here is a particular way that charity skeptics define different kinds of poverty.

When we think about poverty as not having enough money, it’s natural to ask, “Enough money to do what?” And that makes it natural to distinguish between absolute poverty and relative poverty. Someone who lives in absolute poverty doesn’t have enough money to meet basic needs. Someone who lives in relative poverty doesn’t have enough money to participate meaningfully in their community. It’s a simple enough distinction, and it does a good job of answering the question.

Similarly, when we think about poverty as not having enough wealth, it’s natural to ask, “What kind of wealth?” Here, we might distinguish between income poverty, asset poverty, and liquid asset poverty. income is how we normally measure poverty: a household income below a certain threshold means that a family is poor. Asset poverty expands on that idea to include the household’s potential financial cushion: someone who lives in asset poverty doesn’t have a big enough net worth to stay above the poverty line for three months without income. Liquid asset poverty expands on that idea even further to include savings: someone who lives in liquid asset poverty doesn’t have enough savings to remain above the poverty line for three months without income and without losing important assets like a home or business. Again, it’s a simple enough distinction, and it does a good job of answering the question.

But charity skeptics don’t use these distinctions. Instead, they favor a popular distinction that speaks to the cultural aspects of poverty: generational poverty and situational poverty. Under this rubric, generational poverty is present when one family has had two or more generations born into poverty. So if you were born into poverty and your parents were born into poverty, you live in generational poverty (and the same is true if your grandparents and great-grandparents were born into poverty, as well). Situational poverty covers everyone else who lives in poverty.

It’s easy to see how this distinction plays into the idea of poverty culture. Payne occasionally uses immigration as a crude metaphor for the movement from one economic class to another. Payne suggests that people moving from one economic class to another need to learn new languages, customs, and practices, just like people who move from one country to another. And, of course, over a couple of generations, the ‘immigrant’ family might find their place in their new setting (or they might not). Class is culture, poverty is one kind of class culture, and moving from one class to another is just as daunting as moving from one country to another.2Payne et al. Bridges Out of Poverty. Kindle locations 1118-1164.

Of course, we wouldn’t imagine that we could divide all visitors from a foreign country either as tourists or immigrants and leave it at that. Those categories aren’t useful on their own. And categories like situational poverty and generational poverty also are not useful. And they’re not useful for two major reasons.

First, there is too much internal variety in each of these categories. For example, someone who has lived in poverty for three months and someone who is in the first generation of their family born into poverty both live in situational poverty. Putting both of those people in one category strikes me as ridiculous on its face. Their experiences are obviously going to be very different. Similarly, someone who is in the second generation of their family born into poverty and someone whose family has been living in poverty since time immemorial both live in generational poverty. And again, their experiences are almost certainly very different. Two categories that are this broad obscure important differences within each of them.

Second, these categories are asked to explain too much. For example, a page at Portland State University, which adds ‘working class poverty’ to the mix, makes claims like:

  • People living in generational poverty “never knew anyone who benefited from education,” and
  • People living in generational poverty “never knew anyone who moved up or was respected in a job.”

Similarly, Payne ascribes different cultures and linguistic traditions to the two groups. In fact, one of the key differences for her is that “the attitude in generational poverty is that society owes one a living,” while “in situational poverty the attitude is often one of pride and a refusal to accept charity.”3Payne et al. Bridges Out of Poverty. Kindle locations 699-700.

These are what we might call bold claims. Someone who lives in generational poverty might not have personally benefitted from a post-secondary education, but the idea that they would never have known anyone who benefitted from education seems… unlikely. Similarly, the idea that people in one kind of poverty almost universally have an attitude of utter entitlement while people in the other kind of poverty almost universally have an attitude of pride is nothing more that classist stereotyping.

Effectively, the distinction between situational and generational poverty is asked to explain everything about why some people successfully navigate the path out of the poverty while others don’t. At the very least, it tells people where to put the blame: the situationally poor person with a sense of pride is probably kept down by the social systems arrayed against them; the generationally poor person who feels that society owes them a living is kept in poverty by their own bad attitude.

In the end, the distinction between situational and generational poverty—and especially the heavy reliance on these categories—does little more than provide a way to make quick, value-laden, evidence-free judgments (as Payne and other charity skeptics routinely do). We have so many other ways to classify and sub-classify poverty that we can safely abandon these useless and prejudicial categories.

Footnotes   [ + ]

A Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory

For Lent this year, a group of us is reading Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday. I’ve read it before, of course. But one of the joys of having a book group for Lent is that I get to re-read it… carefully… with and eye toward talking about it.

And one of the things that Held Evans does really well is describe why she—who has struggled with her conservative evangelical upbringing and with the wider church for years—is still a part of the Christian church.

She writes this:

At its best, the church functions much like a recovery group, a safe place where a bunch of struggling, imperfect people come together to speak difficult truths to one another. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned as individuals. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned corporately, as a people. Sometimes the truth is we’re hurting because of another person’s sin or as a result of forces beyond our control. Sometimes the truth is we’re just hurting, and we’re not even sure why. 1Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Kindle ed. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015. pp. 67-68.

Yeah. That sounds about right.

This is the third Sunday of Lent. If the church, at its best, is a recovery group for struggling and imperfect people—if church is a recovery group for sinners—then one of the things that we do during Lent is make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

If the church, at its best, is a recovery group for struggling and imperfect people—if church is a recovery group for sinners—then one of the things that we do during Lent is admit that we are broken people in desperate need of help.

If the church, at its best, is a recovery group for struggling and imperfect people—if church is a recovery group for sinners—then one of the things that we do during Lent is confess. And we have things to confess.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, we get another parable.

The kingdom of heaven is like this.

There was a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. When the time for the banquet had come, he sent his slaves out to gather those who had been invited. But those who had been invited would not come.

So the king sent more slaves to entreat those who had been invited to come, “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But those who had been invited would not come. They made light of it… they went on with their lives… they seized the slaves who had been sent to them and killed them.

So the king gathered his troops. And he sent them to those who had been invited. And the king’s armies killed the murderers and burned their city to the ground.

And then the king send his slaves out into the streets to gather everyone they could find and invite them to the banquet. And they did. They gathered everyone they could find, the good and the bad, and they filled the banquet hall.

And then… well… the king walked through the hall and spotted a man who had just been invited to a wedding banquet on the spur of the moment, and who was not dressed appropriately. And the king had him bound hand and foot… and thrown into the outer darkness… where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

For many are called. But few are chosen.

The kingdom of heaven is like that.

There is a lot going on in that parable. I could write sermons for a whole season on that parable. But what I’ve been thinking about this week—as I contemplate this searching and fearless moral inventory of Lent—is this: who in this parable am I?

Because I would like to believe that I am one of those people who is just minding his own business, maybe hearing about a city down the way that had just been burned to the ground, when someone runs up and invites me to a wedding banquet. 

And I would like to believe that I am prepared for just this sort of thing, and that I can just rip off my street clothes to reveal the tuxedo that I am wearing at all times. And that I am ready to walk into the kingdom of heaven.

I would like to believe that. But this is Lent. And the truth is that I am a sinner.

I have sinned against God and my neighbor. I have sinned in what I have thought and left unthought, in what I have said and left unsaid, and in what I have done and left undone. I have not loved God with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself.

I have heard God’s invitation to the kingdom of heaven and I have ignored it. I have heard God entreat me to enter the kingdom of heaven and I have gone on with my life. I have even followed the invitation and set foot in the kingdom of heaven and found my self ill-prepared and inappropriately dressed.

And, I am sorry to tell you this, but I am sure that if we each made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, we would discover the same thing. We would discover it as individuals, as a church, and as a community.

And if you want to make that inventory, just watch the news.

A little more than a week ago, an Australian man went to the Al Noor Mosque, and a little later to the Linwood Islamic Center, in Christchurch, New Zealand. And he shot people. As I wrote this sermon on Monday, somewhere around 50 people were dead and more were missing or hospitalized. People from a half a dozen countries. Children as young as 3 years old.

And I want to be painfully clear about this. This was an attack rooted in white supremacy. 

This was an attack rooted in the same toxic and hateful ideology as the massacres at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; the Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada; and the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas.

And while it might be nice to believe that white supremacy is only at play when some mass murderer leaves us a manifesto, it is the same toxic and hateful ideology that has led to the deaths of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and Lacquan McDonald, among others. It is the same toxic and hateful ideology that creates and sustains the school-to-prison pipeline for Black and Latinx youth.

It is the same toxic and hateful ideology that is found in a million systems and behaviors and assumptions—many of which are invisible to us—that ensure that power and wealth are concentrated among people who look like me, and serve people who look like me.

And it is not the only toxic and hateful and violent ideology out there. I could just as easily preach on Islamaphobia, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ageism, classism, or a thousand other ideologies that make some of us say about others of us, “They should not be equal to us. We should be privileged. We are entitled to that.”

But the truth is that, most of the time, these ideologies don’t make us say that. I am sure that none of us would say that. And I am sure that, certainly, none of us would say that about our friends and neighbors of other races, ethnicities, cultures, socio-economic statuses, sexual orientations, gender identities, faiths, creeds, family statuses, ages, or abilities. 

We have a plaque in the hallway and a statement on our website that says so.

But… sometimes… maybe even often… when we see the violence of these ideologies… when we see the things that are thought and left unthought, said and left unsaid, done and left undone… we stand aside.

Sometimes… maybe even often… we hear the voice of God calling us to do something about the violence being done in the name of these ideologies, and we ignore it. And we go on about our days. And if it keeps nagging us, we push it down.

I know I do. I know I do not speak up. I know I do not speak out. And I know that I benefit from that. Thinking nothing, saying nothing, and doing nothing is safe and easy… and not at all what God has called me to.

Thinking nothing, saying nothing, and doing nothing is safe and easy… and not at all what God has called us to.

This is the third Sunday of Lent. If the church, at its best, is a recovery group for struggling and imperfect people—if church is a recovery group for sinners—then one of the things that we do during Lent is make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

If the church, at its best, is a recovery group for struggling and imperfect people—if church is a recovery group for sinners—then one of the things that we do during Lent is confess.

And I confess… I have sinned against God and my neighbor. I have sinned in what I have thought, in what I have said, and in what I have done. But, mostly, I have sinned in what I have left unthought, in what I have left unsaid, and in what I have left undone. I have not loved God with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself.

I have not stood up against the voices of hatred and intolerance. I have not stood up for the oppressed and the marginalized. I have not done these things when the stakes have been big… and I have not done these things when the stakes have been small. I have turned a blind eye… I have walked away… I have gotten on with my life.

I have taken the path that is easy and comfortable, that doesn’t hurt me at all, and that leaves others in their suffering.

But I also know two things.

First, that this is a church. It is a place where broken people can tell their truths. It is a recovery group for sinners like me. Where we can make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves; and then turn ourselves over to God’s care; and humbly ask her to wash our sins away, to forgive our debts, to heal us and to make us whole.

Second, that I am called to more than the path that is easy and comfortable. I have been invited to a wedding banquet. And somewhere under all this sin—under the fear, and the drive to seek the approval of others, and the yearning for the comforts of this world—is the clothing that God has made for my soul. And it is as splendid as any tuxedo.

You see, my name is Chris and I am a sinner. But I do not have to stay that way. Thanks be to God.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Membership and Engagement

This post is based, in part, on this post from 2017.

Lent is a season of confession and penance, fasting and self-denial. Lent is a season of preparation for the greatest celebration on the church calendar. Lent is a season of preparing for Easter and the declaration of our faith: “Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed!”

Lent is also the season when I receive the most emails promising the perfect method to turn visitors into lifelong members of my congregation. You see, there will be more people than usual in attendance at our Easter morning service—heck, we’ll even have two services that morning—and the weeks after Easter are the perfect time to get those visitors to come back and join our congregation. The weeks after Easter are the perfect time to get those membership numbers to go up!

And there are people in my congregation who are concerned about membership. There are people who ask, “When is so-and-so going to finally join the church? They’ve been attending for years.” There are people who seem to think that the measure of our success as a little consulate of the kingdom of God are those numbers that are printed in our annual report: total membership, new members, confirmations, and baptisms.

I’m just not one of those people.

Don’t get me wrong, I think new members are great. I would love to see the number of official members in my congregation go up. Seeing numbers like that increase get a certain part of my brain to light up and release happy chemicals. I’m all for it.

But I also know two important things about membership.

First, membership is a formality. It doesn’t really confer any additional rights or responsibilities, except that non-members can’t vote in congregational meetings or serve on committees, and they have to pay a little more to rent the church for weddings. Non-members can still be part of Sunday School and Bible study, and the Lenten program and the choir and all of that. They can still be part of our church family.

And, to be entirely fair, there are plenty of members who barely darken the church door. I suspect that a lot of those ‘visitors’ on Easter Sunday will be members who we just haven’t seen in a while.

Second, membership is an outmoded idea. I know that the World-War-Two generation really liked to join organizations and institutions. There are reasons that fraternal organizations, bowling leagues, and, yes, even churches enjoyed a boom when that generation was at its peak. But the Baby Boomers were less inclined to do that, and Gen-Xers like myself even less so, and Millennials even less so. We just aren’t a nation of joiners anymore.

And that means that all of those nice young families who are faithfully in worship on Sunday morning, and helping out with Sunday School, and singing in the choir, tend to just not see the point in formal membership.

And that makes me think that membership isn’t the right number to focus on. The right number is—really, the right numbers are—engagement. Instead of measuring the number of people who have made a formal commitment to our church communities, we should measure the number of people who are actively engaged in the lives of our church communities. And, if we’re in a position where we can collect the data, we should be measure how engaged with our church communities the average person is.

So, instead of asking, “How many people have become formal members,” we might ask questions like this:

  • How many people are in worship?
  • How many people are showing up to special seasonal programs like Lenten studies or Advent studies?
  • How many people are engaged in regular programs like Bible studies?
  • How many people are volunteering for different tasks, from reading the scriptures during worship to going on mission trips?
  • How many people are doing informal volunteering like making casseroles and visiting homebound members of our community?

And, as I wrote above, if we’re really good about collecting data, we could keep track of what each person in our community is doing and get a good gauge of how engaged in person is. (Though that may be a bit much for most churches).

Focusing on these numbers would tell us a lot more than who has made a formal decision to join our congregations. It would tell us how active people are in our congregations. And don’t we want people who are active and engaged in the lives of our communities—even if they aren’t formal members—more than we want long official lists of people who may or may not be active and engaged?

I think we do.

A Simple Truth

A simple truth: someone else having enough does not hurt me.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa, the smart and justice-oriented daughter of the title family accuses her hapless and dimwitted dad, Homer, or being jealous of Apu, the proprietor of the local Kwik-E-Mart, for… reasons.

And Homer replies, “I’m not jealous, I’m envious. Jealousy is when you worry someone will take what you have. Envy is wanting what someone else has. What I feel is envy.”

And Lisa checks a dictionary and is astonished to discover that Homer—again, hapless and dimwitted—is right.

You will probably never need to know the difference between jealousy and envy. But that difference makes me wonder if there’s a word… not for when you’re worried that someone will take what you have, that’s jealousy… and not for when you want what someone else has, that’s envy… but for when you just don’t want someone else to have what they have.

I looked. I couldn’t find one. Even in German.

But, let’s admit it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all had that feeling sometimes, when we’ve looked at what someone else has and wanted it taken away from them.

In today’s reading, we don’t get any flourishes. We just get a parable. There’s no miracle. There’s no tricky question. There’s no dire prediction. There’s just a story. 

The kingdom of heaven is like this landowner.

You see, there was a landowner who had a vineyard. Early in the morning, he went out to hire some workers, and he agreed to pay them the normal daily wage. So they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Around nine in the morning, he went out again and saw some people standing around, so he hired them. And they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Around noon, he went out again and the same thing happened. And around three in the afternoon he went out again and the same thing happened.

And around five in the afternoon, he went out again and saw some people standing around, so he asked, “Why are you standing around?”

And those people replied, “No one has hired us.”

So the landowner hired them. And they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Eventually, evening rolled around and the workers lined up to get paid. The 5pm workers were first, then the 3pm workers, then the noon workers, then the 9am workers, and, finally, the early morning workers, who had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

Now, if you were paying close attention, then you know that the early morning workers were the only ones who the landowner went out to hire. He went out at 9am and noon and 3pm and 5pm, but nothing in the story tells us that he intended to hire workers. He went out at those times and he saw people standing idle, who needed to work, so that they could make money, so that they could support their families; and so he hired them and put them to work.

And if you caught that little detail, then you have a hint about what’s coming.

The landowner paid the 5pm workers, the last of the people who he hired, the normal daily wage. And at the back of the line, the early morning workers, who had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat, got excited. They turned to each other and said, If he’s paying a day’s wage to the people who only worked for an hour, imagine how much we’re going to get!”

But when those early morning workers got to the front of the line, the landowner gave them… the normal daily wage. They got exactly what they were promised. And they grumbled. They said, “The people who you hired last only worked for an hour, but you have made them equal to us.”

And I don’t think they said that because they were afraid that the landowner was going to take something from them. The landowner had just paid them everything that they were promised. He wasn’t about to take anything away. They were not jealous.

And I don’t think they said that because they wanted what the other workers had. The other workers had nothing more than what those early morning workers had. They were not envious.

I think that they looked at what the landowner had given them, and they looked at what the landowner had given to the 5pm workers, and they thought, “That landowner has made us equal. He treats everyone the same. He gives everyone what they need.”

And then they thought, “But those people shouldn’t have what we have. They shouldn’t be equal to us. We don’t want them to have what we have.”

And they justified that feeling to themselves, “It’s the landowner’s vineyard and the landowner’s money, but we have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. It’s unfair that he should treat us equally. It’s unfair that we should both have what we need. So he should give us more, or he should take away what he has given to them.”

And, in the end, what they were saying was, “They should not be equal to us. We should be privileged. We are entitled to that.”

There is a saying that goes something like this (there are a few different versions): When you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Here’s what it means. 

Imagine that there is an exclusive club that you like to go to. You are so used to being let in and seeing other people kept out that you are astonished and offended when you are told to wait outside with the rabble who are normally denied entry. You might feel like something is being taken away; and something is: access to the club. You might feel like you’re being hurt… because you’re being treated like everyone else.

Now, imagine that same exclusive club. You are so used to being let in and seeing other people kept out that you are astonished and offended when the doors are thrown open and everyone is allowed in. You might feel like something is being taken away; and something is: exclusivity. You might feel like you’re being hurt… because you’re being treated like everyone else.

And if you want to see that in action, listen to people with power—people who often look like me—talk about people without it. 

Listen to the people who complain about people on welfare owning smart phones or buying junk food. Listen to the men complaining about there being too many movies with women in the lead. Listen to the people complaining about how there are too many people around who don’t look like us.

It sounds a lot like they’re saying, “It’s unfair that we should be treated equally. They should not be equal to us. We should be privileged. We are entitled to that.”

But the simple truth is that what was unfair was that we were ever treated unequally. What is unfair is that there are people going hungry while others have food to spare. What is unfair is that there are people who are not represented in popular culture while others win all the awards. What is unfair is that people are red-lined out of neighborhoods while others live in comfort.

And the simple truth is that someone else having enough does not hurt me.

And the kingdom of heaven is like this… landowner.

You see, there was a landowner who had a vineyard. And early in the morning, he went out to hire some workers. And he did.

But as he went on about is day, he kept seeing people who needed work. He kept seeing people who were standing idle in the marketplace because no one would hire them. And he was moved to compassion. So he hired them.

Eventually, evening rolled around and the workers lined up to get paid. And the landowner paid each worker the normal daily wage. And the workers who the landowner had hired in the early morning grumbled. For they had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. And they said, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”

And the landowner said to them, “So? You agreed to work for the normal daily wage and that’s what you received. That is what belongs to you, take it and go. But I am generous and I choose to give these others what they need, as well. Why should you grumble? Someone else having enough does not hurt you.”

And the story doesn’t tell us what those early morning workers did. Maybe they had an epiphany, and took what they had been given, and left in joy. Or maybe they took what they had been given and left grumbling under their breath.

But either way, those early morning workers—and the 9am workers and the noon workers and the 3pm workers and the 5pm workers—had experienced the generosity of the kingdom of God. And it is a generous kingdom, where everyone has enough.

This is the second week of Lent. And, as I’ve said, Lent is traditionally a time of repentance and fasting.

And yes, when we choose to fast, there is a sense of discipline and self-denial. But there is also a reminder: that we can do with less… and that because we can do with less, others can have more. We who have have more than we need can give up a little extravagance so that others can have what they need.

For the kingdom of heaven is like this. It is a vineyard where everyone who needs work can work. It is a vineyard where no matter when you arrive today, you will be given enough for today. And no matter when you arrive tomorrow, you will be given enough for tomorrow. And where all of us, no matter whether we arrive in the early morning or the late afternoon, will have enough and more than enough.

Thanks be to God.

Radical Charity Update

I was very excited to receive the first pages of Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) in mid/late-February. Mariah and I spent some serious time reading and re-reading every word of the book to find typos, update some information, fix some odd writing, and generally make the book a little better. I can now definitively say that signing off on those pages—saying, “Yes, this is how it should be, send it on to the next step”—is absolutely nerve-racking. My biggest perfectionist fear is finding a typo after the book is available for purchase (so if you find any typos after you buy a copy, kindly keep them to yourself).

The book should go through another round of copy-editing before being sent off for indexing. And I want to take just a moment to say something about that.

Radical Charity is, in part, a response to charity skeptics like Robert Lupton and Ruby Payne. Crafting a good response meant that I had to describe their arguments accurately, and that meant combing through their books to find different parts of their arguments, various illustrations, and so on. The fact that their books do not have indices made that much more time consuming than it had to be, and that was incredibly frustrating.

In some cases, Kindle versions of books helped with this, since I could let the computer do most of the work of finding phrases or passages in those cases.

But still: if you are writing something that there is a chance that people might want to find a particular part of—whether those people agree with you or not—please include an index. This is especially true if you have the privilege of publishing with one of the big publishing houses. I mean, I’m paying to have mine indexed. If you’re in a position that a big publisher really wants to sell your book, ask them to include one. It’s a selling point.

There Is More to Fundraising Than Meets the Eye

It’s no secret that a lot of churches and small nonprofit organizations struggle with fundraising. I know a lot of these organizations whose members-who-are-responsible-for-fundraising feel like they are working harder every year to raise the same amount of money that they did the previous year. And I know more than a few who feel like they’re working harder every year—or every quarter, or every month, or every week—to raise less.

A lot of fundraising in churches and small nonprofit organizations is just plain bad fundraising. It’s common fundraising knowledge that things like major gift visits and direct mail appeals not only work, but are highly efficient. It’s also common fundraising knowledge—at least among fundraising professionals—that events are incredibly inefficient. Many of them lose money for their organizations.

Now, I know that there are churches and organizations that have cultures that support fundraising strategies that wouldn’t work elsewhere. My own church raises money for things through fundraising brunches: some members of the church donate egg bakes and other breakfast items, then other members make a freewill offering for a plate after worship. It isn’t a method that I would recommend anywhere else, but people are used to it, it’s part of the culture, and it works for us.

Still, a lot of churches and small nonprofit organizations rely on methods that don’t raise money. I know one small organization whose entire fundraising strategy seems to rely on fundraising events that include a fundraising breakfast, trivia nights, and restaurant profit-sharing nights. And I know plenty of churches that seem to rely primarily on short-term annual stewardship campaigns and desperate pleas from the pulpit.

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about as I start working on my next big extracurricular project is why that is. Why do so many churches and small nonprofit organizations rely on fundraising methods that professional fundraisers know are likely to be relatively ineffective? And why do so many shun methods that would help them raise more money?

And I think part of it really comes down to knowledge.

Most of the people who are fundraising for these organizations are volunteers, and very few of those volunteers are professional fundraisers. Most of those volunteers have to go with their intuitions about what works, and that means relying on the fundraising strategies that they’ve seen and that they remember. And they’ve seen and remember fundraising galas and social media appeals; they’ve also seen, and some might remember, appeal letters and thank you notes; and some might have seen, and might remember, newsletters and annual reports, but not connect those to fundraising.

Most volunteers have never been part of a major gifts program or planned giving campaign. And most have never seen the hours of work that go into crafting a letter or social media campaign. Most have probably never really seen a highly successful event and the work that goes into throwing one.

To put that another way: these organizations are asking their volunteer fundraisers to figure things out on their own, and those volunteers are rightly going with the things that they know (or think that they know). And the same goes for pastors, executive directors, and other professionals who have no fundraising training: they’re doing the best they can do without the specialized knowledge that fundraising professionals have.

And the question for fundraising professionals—and for those of us who used to be fundraising professionals—and who want to see congregations and small nonprofit organizations succeed, is: how do we help these organizations get the knowledge they need to raise the money they need to accomplish their valuable and important missions?

Kyrie Eleison

Welcome to Lent.

Lent is a strange season. Last week, I told you that it is traditionally a time of fasting and repentance. It is a time to think about who we are and who God wants us to be and how we get from the former to the latter. It is a time of contemplation…

…a time to contemplate our mortality with ashes on our heads and the whispered words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

…a time to contemplate our transgressions with prayer and self-denial and the words of a voice calling us to reorient our lives, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

…a time to contemplate how utterly reliant we are on divine grace, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

It is a time to slow down, to think about the things we have done and left undone, and ask God to forgive us.

And that doesn’t quite fit into our modern lives. It doesn’t quite mesh with our modern sensibilities. We don’t usually think of ourselves as people who need forgiveness. I’ve talked about this before: other peoplemight need to be forgiven—they might even need us to forgive them—but we are good people who occasionally do bad things, and usually for good reasons.

But the truth is that if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—is what I have done for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… or, worse, if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—includes the things that I have failed to dofor the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… well, then I am desperate for mercy.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

In today’s reading, Peter asks a question. It’s a question you’ve probably asked. It’s a question we’ve all asked. If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? How many chances should I give them? How many do-overs and mulligans and I-promise-this-time-will-be-differents do they get?

And Peter suggests he will be generous: “If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? As many as seven times?”

And that does sound like a lot. We live in a world of three strikes laws and zero-tolerance policies. Seven times sounds like a lot.

But Jesus tells Peter to go past even that. There are some variations in the ancient texts of Matthew here. Maybe Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Maybe Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times… four hundred ninety times.” But, either way, that’s more than a lot.

And I remember once, when I was a kid, sitting on the steps to a chancel in a church, listening to the children’s sermon, being told that Jesus offered these numbers because he knew that we wouldn’t keep track.

You see, if we were supposed to forgive someone seven times, we might count. And when someone sinned against us the eighth time, we might say, “You have sinned against me eight times, and I have forgiven you seven times, and now I’m done. You are cut off.”

But if we have to forgive someone seventy times—or seventy times seven times—we would lose count. We would have to ask ourselves if we had forgiven them enough. And we would err on the side of forgiveness.

And there’s something there. But there’s also more.

You see, in Jesus’ world, seven was a number of perfection. It’s the number that it takes to get something right. So forgiving someone seven times is good; and forgiving someone seventy-seven times is better; and forgiving someone seventy times seven times is even better. How many times should you forgive someone? Until they get it right. Until you get it right.

After Jesus answers Peter, he tells a parable. He underlines his point.

Once upon a time, there was a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. The first slave who came before the king owed the king ten thousand talents. That is a huge amount of money. Imagine the amount you would make in, say, 150,000 years. It’s about that much.

The king asked for his money and the slave didn’t have enough. So the king ordered that the slave and his family and all that he had should be paid in order to settle the debt.

And the slave pled, “Lord, have mercy.” And the king, who had already lent him ten thousand talents, had pity on him. The king, who had already lent him ten thousand talents, released him from slavery and wiped the debt clean.

Now, that slave went out and found another slave who owed him 100 denarii. that’s a big amount of money. Imagine the amount you would make in a little more than three months. It’s about that much. Not as much as the first slave had owed the king… but nothing to sneeze at.

And the first slave demanded his money, but the second slave didn’t have enough.

And second slave pled, “Friend, have mercy.” But the first slave, who had lent him 100 denarii, had no mercy. The first slave, who had lent him 100 denarii, had him thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

And when the king heard about this, he took the first slave and said, “Are you kidding me?! You begged for mercy and I—I, who had already lent you ten thousand talents—gave it to you. But you couldn’t do the same for your friend and neighbor?”

And the king had the slave thrown into prison to be tortured until he could pay the debt… that he would never be able to pay.

Now, this is not an image of God that I like. This is not a picture of Jesus that I like. This is not an image of love.

This is an image of God that says, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you… because it will be done unto you.”

But here’s the thing: one of the things that we need to be forgiven for is how bad we are at forgiveness.

One of the things that we need to be forgiven for is how bad we are at forgiveness. Click To Tweet

Let me say that again: one of the things that we need to be forgiven for is how bad we are at forgiveness.

It the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—is what I have done for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… or, worse, if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—includes the things that I have failed to do for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… then I am desperate for mercy.

I am the slave kneeling before the king pleading, “Lord have mercy.”

And it is a matter of my faith that God has responded to my pleas be releasing me from my slavery to sin. It is a matter of my faith that God has responded to my pleas by wiping my debts clean. And no matter how many times I wander off to find where demons dwell, every time I turn back to God and cry, “Lord have mercy,” she does.

God responds to our pleas by forgiving us… again and again and again… even when our debt is 100 denarii or ten thousand talents or our very souls.

God responds to our pleas by forgiving us… again and again and again… even when our debt is 100 denarii or ten thousand talents or our very souls. Click To Tweet

And yet we who are forgiven hold onto our grudges. We take pride in our punishments. We live in a world of three strikes laws and zero-tolerance policies. I am still angry at people who I haven’t seen in twenty years. I am still angry at people who I have never met.

And there is a place for anger. And there is a place for recognizing our own wounds.

But…

We are all, every one of us, on the receiving end of mercy. We are all, every one of us, on the receiving end of more mercy than we can imagine and more mercy than we will ever be asked to give out. And, knowing that, how can I deny to someone else a portion of the grace that I have received?

If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? Until my forgiveness changes me. Until I become what God has called me to be.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Hard, Troublesome, Dangerous Love

There are some things you need to know. Maybe some things you just forgot.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked a little bit about numbers. I talked a little bit about the numbers that I obsess over. I talked a little bit about how I keep track of our attendance and membership and giving. And I talked a little bit about how I feel better about myself when those numbers are higher.

That wasn’t the core message of the sermon, but still… I know that there are people in this sanctuary who dream of being a big church, with lots of young families, and full Sunday School classrooms, and maybe even two services. And there are days when I am one of them.

Last week, I talked a little bit about being noticed. I talked a little bit about people seeing our generosity and asking, “Who are these people? Who do they think they are? Where are they getting this stuff?” I talked a little bit about hearing people ask those questions, and telling them the answers, and asking them to get in on it, too.

That wasn’t the core message of the sermon, but still… I know that there are people in this sanctuary who dream of being a noticeable church, with people coming from miles around to check us out, and folks talking about how amazing we are, and maybe even being a little bit famous. And there are days when I am one of them.

We are part of a culture that dreams big. We celebrate celebrity. We trust millionaires to make education policy or healthcare policy or whatever. We trust famous people to tell us the truth.

And even if we go through our daily lives mostly content, we all have those moments when we want to be on the red carpet, or in front of the big crowd, or on the cover of some magazine.

And even as a church, we have those moments when we look at megachurches and celebrity pastors and think, “Wouldn’t it be nice?”

In the second part of today’s reading, Jesus gets a moment.

He has taken Peter and James and John up a high mountain. And, in front of these three friends, he is changed. His face shines like the sun. His clothes become a dazzling white.

And then, appearing in front of them all: Moses and Elijah.

Moses, who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Moses, who went up the mountain and spoke to God face to face. Moses, who brought the law to the people. Moses, who led the people to the promised land.

Elijah, who raised a widow’s son. Elijah, who called fire down from heaven. Elijah, who prophesied to—and sometimes against—the king. Elijah, who did not die, but was taken into heaven by a whirlwind.

Moses and Elijah… the law and the prophets. And Jesus is talking with them.

And then, the pièce de résistance, a bright cloud rolls in and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!

Peter and James and John see Jesus… conversing with the law and the prophets… endorsed by God. And they are afraid. It’s overwhelming.

Something you need to know. Maybe something you just forgot.

Several weeks ago, I mentioned that one traditional criticism of Christianity is that our God doesn’t act like a God. Ancient pagans complained about it. Modern atheists complain about it.

This Jesus person doesn’t roll into the world with glory and honor. He doesn’t show up with the weapons of war. He doesn’t slaughter his adversaries in front of him. He doesn’t take the throne and demand worship and throw the unfaithful into a lake of fire.

He sometimes says that he’ll get around to that sort of thing eventually. But he just seems to do it.

He is… they complain… weak.

And they’re not wrong. Six days before he took Peter and James and John up the mountain to witness the transfiguration, he was in Caesarea Philippi. And he kept telling his disciples that he had to suffer; that he would be tortured and killed and raised again.

And he told them, “If you want to follow me, you need to deny yourself and take up your cross. If you try to save your life, you will lose it. And if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”

Sure, someday there will be glory. But, for now…

…there will be times when we suffer.

…there will be times, as we share the love of Christ with the world, when the world will push back.

…there will be times, when we say that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here, when our friends and neighbors in Christ will call us heretics.

…there will be times when it will be hard.

And, I’ll be honest with you, if we live our lives in a way that is always easy—where people always like us, and are always comfortable with us, and always applaud and celebrate us—then we are not following Christ.

If it was always easy to follow Christ—if people always liked us, or were always comfortable with us, or always applauded and celebrated us—then we wouldn’t be following Christ. Christ does not call us to easy. Christ calls us to love. And, sometimes, love is hard. Sometimes, love gets you in trouble. Sometimes, love is downright dangerous.

And hard, troublesome, dangerous love is exactlywhat Jesus calls us to. Hard, troublesome, dangerous love is exactly what Jesus does.

Jesus—the son of God, the beloved with whom God is well pleased, the one to whom we should listen—loves the world in this way:

He puts his glory aside. He hides his honor. He puts down the weapons of war and lets his adversaries come at him. He steps down off the throne and asks us to love one another, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love the stranger, to love our enemies. He seeks out the unfaithful and redeems them.

He seeks out the unfaithful and redeems us. Again and again and again. And he asks us to do the same for each other.

And, I’ll be honest with you, it is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we dream the dreams of this world.

It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize being big, or having lots of young families, or having full Sunday School rooms, or getting to a place where we need to have two services.

It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize being seen, and having people come from miles around, and getting people to talk about us, and maybe even getting a little bit famous.

It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize anything else.

Because when we prioritize the success of this world, fear creeps in…

…what if loving that person makes our members uncomfortable?

…what if loving that family makes other people talk and spread rumors?

…what if loving those people gets a member to walk out, or a donor to stop giving?

It is hard to love with the hard, troublesome, dangerous love of Christ—it is, maybe, impossible to love with the hard, troublesome, dangerous love of Christ—when we put anything else before that love.

Now, don’t worry, that doesn’t mean that I’m not looking at the numbers. That doesn’t mean that I’m not working on things like membership and engagement and giving.

But it does mean this: our focus—our unwavering focus as individuals Christians and as a congregation—is on love. It is on love for people who are part of this congregation and for people who are not. It is on love for people who are Christians and for people who are not. It is on love for people who like us and for people who do not.

It is on love when that love is easy and bright and wonderful… and it is on love when that love looks like a cross and is hard to bear.

For when we love—when we pick up our cross, and give up our lives, and love—we see Christ in all his glory: radiant and dazzling. When we love, fear flees. When we love, God provides.

Thanks be to God!

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