It Does All Belong to God. That Doesn’t Mean It All Belongs to the Church. It Sure Doesn’t Mean It All Belongs to Your Church.

My wife is a pastor of a local congregation of the United Church of Christ. That means that she sometimes receives mail from fundraising consultants looking for clients. Recently, she got a mailing that included these two paragraphs (emphasis original):

Why aren’t their people giving as they could or should? It’s not the economy which goes up and down like a thermometer. It’s not unemployment, though many people have simply quit looking for work. And it’s not that they don’t love the Lord or want to see their church grow and abound.

The reason people are not giving as they could or should is that they have never been trained to give. They have never come face to face with the fact that God owns it all. They have never realized that all of us own exactly the same amount – zero – and that we are managers and stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

Sigh. This is an attitude I see a lot in fundraising for religious organizations. It is frighteningly common belief that being a good steward of God’s gifts means using those gifts to support one particular organization: my organization. In the church, it looks like the paragraphs I quoted: people who are good stewards of God’s gifts will give those gifts to my church.

And that’s just not true.

Being a good steward of God’s gifts means doing with those gifts what God calls us to do with those gifts. And while many people are called to give to the institutional church or to a particular congregation, many people are called to give to other organizations as well (or instead). I believe that God really does want us to support education and the arts; God really does want us to help refugees and support human rights; God really does want us to save the rainforests and keep rhinoceroses from going extinct.

God has a lot of work for us to do. Sometimes that’s going to mean giving our gifts to organizations other than our congregations. Sometimes, that’s even going to mean not giving our gifts to our congregations.

Because sometimes, our congregations are terrible stewards of those gifts. Sometimes, our congregations aren’t doing the work that we’re called to give to. Sometimes, our congregations are more focused on maintaining an institution than being a force for good in the world.

And most of the time, when people aren’t giving, it isn’t because people don’t understand the importance of giving.

It’s because people haven’t been given a reason to give.

So this letter had some things right. When people aren’t giving to a congregation, it isn’t because of the economy, it isn’t because of unemployment, it isn’t because they don’t love the Lord. But it also isn’t that they’ve never learned to give.

But it may be because that congregation hasn’t made a strong case that it is a worthy recipient of those gifts. And making that case is what congregations should focus on.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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