“Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”
1 Thes 2:8 NIV
The final rhythm as we receive, co-create, and simplify is to share. In the words of Wesley, we earn all we can, save all we can, so we can give all we can. It’s this final movement that some find most difficult. Or if we disrupt the previous three rhythms, it makes the fourth one challenging to fulfill.
On the other side of discovering that God “richly provides for our enjoyment,” is the overflow of God’s generosity “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Receiving richly from God, and giving richly to others, is the fuller life that Jesus promises we will have. That doesn’t mean we will all be wealthy in the material sense. Jesus promises that following him will result in cross-carrying. It means that whatever our financial situation may be, we will be rich, we will be blessed to bless others. That can be the widow’s mite or checks with lots of zeros. The key idea is this… God wants to give gifts through us!
Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians describes the heart of a generous congregation, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well (1 Thes 2:8 NIV).
Like a mother desires to give good gifts to a child, so do those who understand generosity. We want to not just share the message, “but our very lives as well.” Anthropological studies of peoples all over the world show that gift-giving is an essential aspect of what it means to be human. The giving of gifts is perhaps a fundamental expression of love that transcends cultural barriers.
Even children give gifts to their parents as a token of love. Friends give each other gifts during significant milestones of life. The gift itself is not the main point, it is a token, which symbolizes an act of love. When we give someone a gift we are saying, “I thought of you,” “I picked this out for you,” “take this gift, I love you.” It can be as simple as picking a flower we bring home to our spouse from a walk to a handmade card or ornament, to purchasing a big-ticket item that we know someone needs.
The gift is a visible symbol of our love. It’s a tangible demonstration that we care. Many people have the love language of “receiving gifts.” If they do, they will greatly cherish even the smallest gifts. This is what fills their love tanks. This is something universally true and we can also see this play out on a communal level in congregations.
Communities of people who share a spirit of generosity know God as a gift giving God, and they in turn learn how to give good gifts to others. These gifts can be made, found, or bought. But as the old cliché goes, for these folks “it’s the thought that counts.” Pastors of generous congregations learn to be proficient gift givers. One thing that is utterly important here is that church leaders themselves exemplify the spirit of generosity. This does include being a generous financial contributor.
We all need an overhaul in the area of our attitude about money. Essentially, I had chalked up money to the “root of all evil.” I missed the part about “for the love of…” (1 Tim 6:10). I served a Methodist mega-church, one of the fastest growing in the United States for four years. It was four years longer than I needed to know I was not called to serve a mega-church! But it was there that I learned how money could be used to accomplish massive good.
It’s not enough to say, “well I give my time to the church” or “I supply the food/supplies/candy when there is a need” (you fill in the blank). Making regular, consistent, and generous financial gifts to the church is non-negotiable for followers of Jesus. The minimum expectation here is 10% of our gross income. This reaches back to one of the oldest commands concerning stewardship, “Bring the best of the first fruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God” (Exodus 23:19). And that is the minimum. Jesus kicked the expectation up to 100% (Mark 12:41-44)! But maybe a good starting place would be 10% and work up from there.
It’s important for every Christian to have a conversation about this with God. If you’re bold, ask God to give you the number, and really listen to what God says. Yes, it is true that the church needs your tithe to operate. Many are barely staying afloat right now and Covid accelerated our fragility. However, that’s not the right motivation, giving is simply a spiritual discipline and part of the divine outflow of God’s generosity.
The churches I serve have no staff, two part-time (10 hours per week) clergy, and very low overhead. My wife is also my co-pastor and we both work multiple other jobs to be able to financially support the churches. But we do ministry on a larger scale than many churches with full-time clergy and multiple staff positions. I playfully tell our folks, “We are the featherweight champion of mission in our denomination!”
Our churches house an inpatient recovery program, a shelter for men experiencing homelessness, a half-way house, free clothing cottage, and two dedicated 12-step fellowship clubhouses. We run a food distribution and a drive-through community dinner that feeds hundreds of families every week. We have a community dinner that provides a hot meal every Wednesday night for an average of 70 folks. We have a dozen “fresh expressions of church” that meet in tattoo parlors, burrito joints, dog parks, yoga studios, and online third places with people not connected to any church. Every day of the week, people are finding healing, shelter, and spiritual care through our ministries.
When I think of our church, I think of one of the seven churches in Asia Minor addressed in Revelation. In Revelation 1-2 we see Jesus kicking the tires, examining the heart of each of these seven congregations. In most cases he affirms good things, condemns bad things, and provides a corrective. Even to the churches that are significantly unhealthy, Jesus offers a graceful offer to repent and change course. Of those seven churches, five get a negative review. Only two get a positive report card from Jesus, and one of those two is the church at Smyrna.
To this congregation, Jesus wants them to know he is the First and the Last, the crucified and Risen One. The one who conquered death itself, which is particularly meaningful for this congregation. This is a church experiencing a significant level of challenge and persecution. The city of Smyrna, 35 miles north of Ephesus, was prosperous with an excellent harbor. They enjoyed both deep political connections with the Roman empire (like Ephesus they hosted the imperial cult) and a flourishing Jewish population. This was a double whammy for the Christian congregation at Smyrna, for both groups were actively persecuting them.
While they don’t have a lot of resources, they are wealthy. This sounds like a congregation that understand the four rhythms of generosity to me, but with seemingly little resources (Rev 2:9). They give what resources they have to make a kingdom impact in the world. Essentially, they are the opposite of what we see in the Laodicea church, a congregation with lots of resources, but in whom the flow of generosity had run dry. Against incredible odds, the Smyrna church was faithfully proclaiming the word, shared in a deep sustaining fellowship, healing was normative, and they were actively reaching out into the community. Their activity however attracted some opposition. They were being slandered and attacked for their faithfulness.
Yet Jesus assures them that he knows their situation intimately. A greater test is coming. Some of them will be incarcerated and even killed for their faith. Can you imagine being this church? Essentially, “You are doing everything right, but get ready to be imprisoned and die for your faith!” May we all seek to have the impact and fruitfulness of Smyrna. Jesus promises them that if they are faithful, “even to the point of death,” they will receive a crown in the new creation (Rev 2:10). Their victory will result in a resurrection life that can never be overcome by death again. Jesus’ promises to them are directly linked with their situation.
I think this is Jesus’ promise to your church as well. It’s important that you find a church that you believe in. A church that is not hoarding their money for grander building projects and higher salaries, but one in which your giving makes a difference in the lives of people experiencing poverty and marginalization in the wider community.
I suspect there will be fewer churches in North America that will be able to afford full-salaried clergy persons. Bi-vocational and co-vocational ministry will become the norm rather than the exception to the rule. More pastors will be like Paul, plying their trade as “tent makers” (Acts 18:3) to help fund the ministry of congregations rather than make a living off of them. Afterall, if most people now work in a gig-economy, drawing from diversified income streams, why should clergy be any different? This is a challenging shift for many. Congregations feel like they are not vital if they cannot support a full-time pastor. What if in this changed mission reality, congregations with part-time clergy are a sign of health, for laity are equipped, empowered, and supported to own the ministry as a “priesthood of all believers” themselves?
If you don’t believe in the mission and impact of your congregation enough that you are inspired to joyfully give to it, you should find another church. And this is something I regularly tell the people in my own congregation. Yes, people church-hop for minimal and superficial reasons, and they bring their problem with them wherever they go… themselves. But then again why deprive people the benefit of experiencing God’s four rhythms of generosity, when they might find a church where they can? In short, what values are you looking for in how a congregation utilizes tithes and offerings? Find that congregation and give joyfully. They might not have the fancy stage, lights and fog machines, or polished presentations, but are they introducing people to Jesus and healing people’s lives?
I want to conclude with a challenge for each of us to step up in the area of financial generosity. We need healthy churches that embody the Great Commandment to “love God and neighbor” who are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, caring for the sick, and visiting the incarcerated more now than ever before (Matt 25). We need to release a healthy outflow of God’s generosity in and through our community. Will you join God in the four rhythms of generosity?
Week Four Exercise: Commitment Card
Here’s a sample of the commitment card we used at one of our congregations. Feel free to use or modify it…
“Please pray over this commitment card over the next four weeks. Discern the amount of money God is calling you to commit in 2023. Bring the card back the final week and we will have a special time to bring them down to the altar.”