Year’s ago, I attended worship in a small New England church in the fall of the year during the annual “stewardship” campaign. The pastor was a quiet, gentle man who obviously cared for his congregation, which is a good thing because he was a poor preacher. He read his sermon from a manuscript in a soft monotone voice, uhming and uhing every few words, and rarely looking up at the congregation. Approximately fifty people sat in the pews, and shortly after worship began many developed “the nods” and drifted into sleep. Drowsiness spread like a virus, affecting just about everyone but one young boy — maybe three or four years old — attending church with his dad. While the preacher droned on and on, and the congregation battled sleep, the little boy climbed up and down on the pew, waved to people, flipped through the Bible and Hymnal — just as chipper and alert as he could be. The young boy’s dad, however, lost his fight with sleep and fell into a deep, bracing unconsciousness. The pastor was speaking of the importance of “giving all to Jesus,” and tied this concept to the weekly offering. He wrapped up his comments and called the ushers forward to pass the plates. The little boy looked at his sleeping father, then snaked his hand into his father’s jacket and came out with his dad’s wallet. As they plate came by, the boy took the entire wad of cash out of dad’s wallet, and he didn’t just place it in the offering plate, he slam-dunked it with both hands, making the metal plate clang. Dad came to with a start, just in time to see his worldly wealth pass away down the pew — and from where I was, it looked to be a sizeable amount, with twenties, fifties, and hundreds in evidence. He looked at his son, then at the plate, then at his son, then at the plate — undecided what to do. It was obvious he wanted to dive down the pew and tackle the usher to retrieve his cash, but his son was watching him closely — beaming with smiles and laughter. Truly, if God loves a cheerful giver, at that moment he must have loved that little boy best of all.
I have often wished I could have heard the conversation between the father and son on the drive home that morning. I wonder if all he said to his boy was “don’t get into daddy’s wallet without asking,” but I hope he thought to ask his son what he thought he was doing. The little boy knew what the offering was — he was ready to give. But being young as he was, he didn’t for a moment debate how much to give. He didn’t think about what he could afford. He didn’t worry about what would be left over. He wasn’t thinking of all he couldn’t buy if he gave too much away. No, when the opportunity came, he gave it all, with a laugh, and a smile, and an unreserved joy.
There is at the root of all true generosity a source of joy — a deep satisfaction that comes from doing something good. Yet, the joy of giving is rarely the main focus of giving in the church. In many of our churches, joy isn’t much considered. Instead, we focus on the discipline of giving — calling people to “make a pledge,” or if we want to pretend that’s not what we’re doing we call it an “estimate of giving” or a “commitment” card. We use basic behavior modification techniques like the “step-up” chart (“increase your giving one step at a time!”…), treating giving as membership dues more than spiritual growth. Mostly, the focus on money in the church is on the need of the church to receive, not on the joy that can transform a community grounded in generosity. In fact, we don’t focus on generosity, just on giving — and they are not the same thing. I can talk a person into giving money away, but I have not necessarily made the person more generous; but if I can help a person cultivate a deep commitment to generosity, I guarantee this person will become a more liberal (and joyful) giver. True generosity is grounded in the values and beliefs of the whole person. Generosity is an identity issue — not so much about what a person does, but about who a person is. We can improve giving through behavior modification, but we cultivate generosity through radical transformation. Giving is not just a practical issue, but a deeply spiritual one.
One of the keys, I believe, is to shift our energy away from manipulation to motivation. The fundamental difference between manipulation and motivation is this: manipulation is external — one person or group making someone else do what they want them to; motivation is internal — helping find out what they truly want to do and helping them do it. Most of the “stewardship” practices in our churches today is about getting people to do what we want them to — give more of their money to support the church. Rarely are we helping people align their resources with their spiritual passions, helping them invest themselves in doing what is meaningful and transformative in their personal discipleship and in their shared stewardship in the community of faith.
Tomorrow I am going to continue this line of thinking, focusing on the ways we have misused and abused the Bible and our theological heritage as fund raising props instead of working to create a culture of generosity and spiritual engagement.