In Part 1 of this blog post, I stated that it was my belief that giving to/through the church should be our primary means of giving. I pointed out that Acts 4:34 describes those who sold property laying the proceeds at the apostles feet. And I stated that this served as a model for our giving that is rarely articulated by the church.
The struggle many of us have is that we wonder whether our gift would be properly used if we laid it at the apostles’ (the church’s) feet. In my next blog post, I’ll address some concerns I often hear about the way the church uses our gifts. But for now, assuming we accept as a given that some institutional skepticism exists about how our gifts might be used, we need to ask the deeper question: Why is our skepticism limiting our generosity and preventing us from simply laying our gift at the apostles’ feet in obedience and humility? Is our main concern that we need to exercise “wise” stewardship? Or is there some part of us that is trying to remain in control of the gift after it has been given? Both of these motivations can be subtly present, but they are still problematic.
We have a tendency to advocate “wise” stewardship and to ensure that the recipient of our giving is effectively using the funds in a way that meets our approval. This may be one benefit that non-profits offer over churches, but I’m always a bit perplexed by the appeal to “wise” stewardship. Whenever we discuss how best to manage God’s money, someone will inevitably remind the group that our giving can hurt the recipient, or that we are not acting as good stewards if we failed to consider to whom the gift was given or what that person intended on doing with it.
This sounds like very practical advice, and I don’t dispute that we should exercise wisdom as part of sound stewardship. At the same time, it is remarkable how little there is in Jesus’ teachings about “wise” stewardship. Jesus wanted His disciples to be lavish — and I would dare say, even carefree — in meeting the needs of others, well above any concern for how the money was used by the recipient. “Give to the one who asks you,” Jesus said, “and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42). Nowhere is there any concern in this command about what the person is going to do with the money. “And if anyone wants to sue you to take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:40) How “wise” would that be? About as wise as Jesus’ instruction to “lend to [others] without expecting to get anything back.” (Luke 6:35) Wouldn’t wise stewardship reject any notion of great love, love so great that it ignores all “boundaries” and compels us to do the completely “unwise” act of “lay[ing] down one’s life for one’s friends”? (John 15:13)
Certainly, we should not use these teachings as license to be lazy, unthinking or wasteful, but we should recognize that our fondness for this kind of wisdom may be reading our own cultural biases into the scriptures. It may be a bit foreign to a God who owns all things and gives them freely to us merely as trusted possessors. Clinging to wisdom, especially when it is routinely cited as a reason not to give, may also lay bare an inward struggle with greed.
But even for those whose hearts are not tempted to curb generosity based on an appeal to wisdom, there is still great risk that we crave some degree of control over our giving. This often masquerades as “wise” giving, but can be much more insidious. While we would quickly denounce a wealthy church donor who attaches all sorts of conditions to their gift, we might miss the fact that this same type of control is subtly involved when we want to make sure that our gift is being used for a specific purpose.
Non-profits provide so many ways to help us control how our gifts are directed. We can not only give to a specific building project, like a water well, but we can even decide what village it will be built in. We can sponsor a child, while selecting their gender, their age and where they live. Often, we can even look at pictures and first make sure that we like the child’s name or the way they look. Or we might use a non-profit’s “gift catalog” and purchase five chickens, a cow and a malaria net. This actually becomes great fun, much like shopping. And all along, I can make sure that I am spending my money (oops, I mean, God’s money) on exactly what I think the world needs.
Non-profits have adopted sophisticated marketing techniques that take into consideration all of the factors that would most compel us to give to the causes they represent. Many have taken on commercial practices to advance their cause and hired advertising agencies that specialize in direct appeals to donors. Good for them. But let’s keep in mind that the church has no way to match these efforts, and we would penalize any church that tried. Will we allow the church to lose resources and influence while our funds go where the marketing and advertising agencies convince us those funds should be directed? Do we want a weakened body of Christ in the world that has to compete for our giving? Would we accept churches turning to these same advertising agencies just to stay relevant, or is that a lose-lose proposition for churches?
Even when we look past the new giving landscape that is tilted towards non-profits, there is a subtle pride that is involved with the type of control we crave and which non-profits are all too willing to provide. We might become tempted to give only when we can see the impact of our giving. Or we might tend to feel as if only deserving causes merited our money. Increasingly, we might find that we are more and more preoccupied with the outcomes of our generosity, and our giving has morphed into purchasing.
As I stated in Part 1 of this post, my wife and I regularly give to non-profits over and above regular giving to our church. But there is something to be said about leaving the great majority of our gifts at the apostles’ feet. It avoids a tendency towards pride, and pulls back the curtain on any greed masquerading as concern for wisdom. Of course, these issues do not resolve our skepticism about giving to the church. Aren’t churches mainly going to use the money we give for buildings and salaries? Isn’t there a sense that churches are not going to put the money to the best productive uses, or help anyone outside of their congregation? We’ll take on those questions in the next blog post.