On Giving to Your Local Church

The Christmas season is often called “the season of giving.” Those of us who follow this tradition, whether Christian or not, give and receive gifts this time of year. For some Christians, this includes giving a little extra to their local church—an especially helpful gift at a time of year when many churches are struggling to meet their budgets.

Giving to local churches has declined in recent decades. To a certain extent this has simply followed the similar decline in membership and attendance, but there are other reasons also. Fewer people are donating to charity than in the past, and, when they do give, their donations are going to a wider variety of causes and organizations.

This is not all bad. Large, cause-specific organizations like MCC or MDS can do things that a local church or even church conference cannot do. But this does raise a question: Why should Christians give to their local church at all?

The New Testament has quite a bit to say about money, including giving within the local gathering of believers, the local church.

In stark contrast to the Old Testament expectation based on the Law of Moses, the New Testament ideal is not a “tithe,” everyone giving a set percentage of their income (say, 10%), but rather “generous giving according to one’s means” (e.g. 2 Cor 8:9-15). This frees those who have little from the burden of giving a tithe they cannot afford, a tithe that can leave them without enough for their own necessities. It also frees those who have much to give more than a mere 10% when they can certainly afford to do so.

The New Testament describes at least two broad reasons for giving within the context of the local church.

The earliest Christians gave to support the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour [that is, respect plus remuneration], especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17). This was based on the teaching of Jesus that “the laborer deserves to be paid” (Luke 10:7; 1 Tim 5:18); or, as Paul puts it, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor 9:4-14).

The earliest Christians also gave to help those in material need, both those within the church and those beyond it. Within the local congregation this was predominantly widows, who were some of the most economically vulnerable people in society (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim 5:3-16). Beyond the local congregation this was “the poor” more generally, including poor believers in other places (e.g. Gal 2:10; 2 Cor 8-10).

The goal of this giving was what might be called “essential economic equity”: to ensure that everyone had their basic material needs met, their “daily bread” (Matt 6:11). “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11; cf. Jas 2:15-17; 1 John 3:17). “As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” (2 Cor 8:15).

The motive for this giving? Following the teaching and example of Jesus. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing” (Matt 25:31-46). “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

Things have evolved since the New Testament era, some would say not entirely for the better. Now most churches have full budgets that include everything from church facilities to staff salaries to programs in education and outreach and more. That’s some ways away from small gatherings of believers pooling their money to pay the elder teaching on a given Lord’s Day, or to provide food for the widows and orphans among them without family support.

Still, the New Testament teachings on local church giving can guide us today. They should prompt us to ask some probing questions of ourselves as churches and as individual Christians.

  • To what extent do our church budgets reflect the core ministries of the church? Do they support the teaching of Scripture and the preaching of the gospel? Do they assist those in material need, both within the church and beyond it? If not, what needs to change?
  • Am I truly giving generously according to my means? If my basic needs are met through my income, can I give more than I already am?
  • Do I really value my church’s preaching and teaching ministries, enough to show it not only through my attendance at worship services, Bible studies, and Sunday school, but also through my financial support?
  • Do I really need that [insert first-world comfort item here], when there are people in the world, even right in my church and community, who are struggling simply to feed and clothe and house themselves and their families?

Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Cor 9:7-8)

When the Blog Goes Quiet

I’ve not been blogging as much as I might like. That’s a combination of fall busy-ness and writer’s fatigue (the two are not unrelated). But if you’re just itching to hear my thoughts verbalized (I honestly can’t imagine why, but apparently some people appreciate them) you can find some of those thoughts on our church blog here. Most of my sermons from the past year are available there in audio form and/or written excerpt.

Enjoy! (Or gnash your teeth, whichever it may be…)

Trust in God, Love One Another

One of my parishioners in a former church used to say that preachers really only have two or maybe three different sermons. “Every sermon they preach—doesn’t matter the text or the title—is really just a variation of one of those two or three sermons,” he’d say.

I’m not quite that cynical about the average pastor’s ability to navigate through a wide terrain of topics and Biblical texts. But I do think my friend was on to something. In fact, as I’ve been reflecting back on three years of preaching here at Morden Mennonite, I think pretty much all of my sermons—along with my pastoral counsel—can be boiled down to one of these two basic exhortations:

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Exploring the mystery of the divine? Trust in God.

Dealing with the latest hot issue? Love one another.

Facing a financial crunch? Trust in God.

Wondering how to strengthen your marriage? Love one another.

Grieving the loss of a loved one? Trust in God.

Got a difficult situation with a co-worker? Love one another.

Needing to make a major decision? Trust in God.

Your son has just come out as gay? Love one another.

The Return of the Prodigal SonOf course, by themselves these refrains—“Trust in God” and “Love one another”—can sound trite. They can be trite: overly simplistic, pat answers, bumper sticker slogans empty of any real meaning or usefulness. Life is complicated, and these statements need to be nuanced and explained, their significance teased out in practical ways.

And in my preaching and teaching and pastoral guidance I certainly say a whole lot more than just “Trust in God” and “Love one another.” I attempt to set biblical texts within their ancient context, and then try to let them speak to us in our current context. I invite us to enter into the theological and moral imagination of Jesus and his first followers. I talk about what this “faith” and “love” looked like when Jesus did them, and what they might look like for us today, in our particular circumstances.

And yet, distilled to their most concentrated form, my sermons and conversations always seem to be some version of these two simple appeals:

Trust in God.

Love one another.

I’ve been reflecting again on the Gospel of John lately. It’s curious how I keep coming back to that Gospel, or maybe more that John’s Gospel keeps coming back to me. I gravitate toward the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—and the letters that bear Paul’s name. And yet every time I attempt to articulate the core message of these other writings, or the heart of my Christian faith, I seem to end up using John’s language to do so. So it is once again.

Because in the living waters of John’s Gospel two verbs keep rising to the surface, over and over again: “believe” and “love.”

The first one, “believe,” is pisteuō in Greek. This word is not as narrow as the English word “believe.” We tend to use “believe” as “I believe x to be true,” where x is some statement or claim. Or we simply say “Just believe!” or (same thing) “Believe in yourself!”—be authentic to who you are, trust your instincts, your own inner resources. In John’s Gospel, though, as throughout the New Testament, “believe” is more the idea of “I trust in, I rely upon, I am committed to God/Jesus.” It’s a personal thing, an interpersonal thing, our dependence upon and fidelity to the God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Good SamaritanThe second verb, “love,” is John’s comprehensive ethic: it’s every good thing that anyone does for anyone else. God loves Jesus. God loves the world. Jesus loves his disciples. Jesus’ disciples love Jesus, and love God, and love each other. This love is not about natural attraction or permissive tolerance, but rather selfless giving: a Father giving his beloved Son for the world, a Son giving his life for his disciples, his disciples giving themselves for one another and the world.

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Simple, isn’t it? Maybe. But it’s certainly not easy. In fact, these are the most difficult things we can do.

Trust in God—even when the whole world seems paralyzed by fear of the unknown other, the unknown future.

Love one another—even when the whole world seems caught up in a self-righteous cycle of harm and offense, hostility and retaliation.

Trust in God—right at that moment when your resources are low and your worry is high and you can’t see a way out of this mess.

Love one another—yes, even that person, the most unlovable, annoying, strange, disturbing, [insert negative adjective here] person you know.

Trust in God—cry out to God with your anger, your fear, your unbearable sadness, your overwhelming loneliness, and then look for God’s presence right where you least expect it, right where you most need it.

Love one another—hold that hand in awkward silence, listen to that wounded heart, speak up for that voiceless person, give that fifty bucks, change that flat tire, celebrate that achievement, learn about that culture, learn that child’s name.

Trust in God—pray and worship, weep and lament, sing and rejoice, question and complain, contemplate and meditate, explore with raw wonder the transcendent mystery and immanent presence that is God.

Love one another—be kind, be generous, show compassion, show respect, speak truth, seek justice, be patient, be gentle, be humble, be delighted, be encouraging, forgive, forgive, and forgive again.

Simple, but not easy.

Hard, but necessary.

The essence of Christianity, the essence of human life—and, apparently, the only two sermons I ever preach. No coincidence there—they’re also the two things I most need to be reminded of myself.

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Images: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son; Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

“All you ever do is talk about Jesus and love. Why don’t you preach the gospel?”

Okay, so I’ve never heard it put quite that starkly. And I don’t hear this in quite the critical tone of that title, at least not directly. (What’s said about me when I’m not around, well, that may be a different story!)

But I do hear some version of these kinds of questions fairly frequently, especially related to my preaching, mostly in a sort of puzzled tone:

“Why do you talk about Jesus and love all the time?”

sometimes juxtaposed up against

“Why don’t you preach the gospel?”

When that happens, I can’t help but smile to myself.

Many Christians have a particular idea of what it means to “preach the gospel.” For them it means to preach an “evangelistic sermon.” It means giving a Billy Graham-esque explanation of the gospel: that Jesus died on the cross in our place, taking the punishment that we deserved for our sin, and that if we confess our sins to God and believe in this message we can be saved, given the assurance of eternal life with God even beyond the grave. This gospel preaching is often completed with an altar call, an appeal to pray a particular prayer confessing one’s sins and expressing belief in this message.

If I don’t do these things, then, according to many Christians, I’m not “preaching the gospel.”

The problem is, this way of thinking about “preaching the gospel” is not really all that biblical.

Sure, it uses some biblical terms and ideas, words like “gospel” and “sin” and “Jesus” and “cross” and “belief” and “confession” and “salvation” and “eternal life.” But many of those words don’t mean what this popular notion of “preaching the gospel” means by them, and the way those terms and ideas are put together in this popular perspective doesn’t reflect the way the New Testament authors put those terms and ideas together.

Take a look at a few New Testament summaries of the “gospel” or “good news”:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” introducing Mark’s entire story of Jesus. (Mark 1:1)

“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)

Jesus “unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’…Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:16-21)

“…the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name.” (Rom 1:1-5)

“Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved… For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” (1 Cor 15:1-11)

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” (2 Tim 2:8)

That’s just a sample—the noun “gospel” or “good news” (euangelion) and the verb “preaching the gospel/good news” (euangelizomai) together occur about 125 times in the New Testament, and several of those sketch out what this “gospel” message is that’s being preached.

For sure, some of these passages can be read to fit the popular, Billy Graham-esque idea of the “gospel” I’ve described above. But many, if not most, just don’t make sense in that understanding of the gospel.

The gospel is about all of Jesus’ life, not just his death on the cross?

The gospel is about the kingdom of God?

The gospel is good news for the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, the oppressed?

The gospel is about Jesus being a descendant of David?

The gospel is about Jesus being Lord?

Many of these ideas are prevalent in New Testament descriptions of the gospel, or of the early Christians’ gospel preaching in Acts, yet they are conspicuously absent from the popular Christian notion today of what the gospel is and what it means to “preach the gospel.”

Yet any understanding of the “gospel” we have must try to make sense of the entire witness of the New Testament to the gospel, not just a few ideas read into a few select passages. This means, also, that any understanding of the “gospel” we have must be flexible enough to allow for the varied descriptions of the gospel we find in the New Testament.

The “gospel” is euangelion, it is “good news,” a “good message,” a message of good things, a message that should bring joy to its hearers.

The “gospel” is “according to Scripture,” anticipated by and in continuity with the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament.

The “gospel” is about God, the one true and living Creator, the one in whom all things exist, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who works in and through all things to bring about good purposes.

The “gospel” is about the man Jesus of Nazareth, about his life, teachings, good deeds, miracles, death on a Roman cross, and resurrection from the dead.

The “gospel” is about Jesus, that this crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish “Messiah” or “Christ,” the “Son of God,” who is the promised King descended from David who fulfills ancient Israel’s longings for God’s eternal reign of justice and peace and flourishing life for the Jews, for all people, and for all creation.

The “gospel” is about Jesus, that this crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth is therefore “Lord,” the rightful ruler over God’s people, all people, the entire world.

The “gospel” is about “salvation” from “sin,” God rescuing the world through this crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth from all the ways we humans harm each other and the rest of creation through our attitudes, words, and actions, and so work against God’s purposes and desires for us and all creation.

Simply put, the gospel is the good news that God has acted in Jesus to make right all that has gone wrong in the world because of human sin.

This “act of God in Jesus” is an act of grace and mercy, an act of undeserved favour, an act of restorative, self-giving love. And God calls us to respond to this divine love by persistently turning from our harmful, destructive ways (“repentance”), resolutely declaring our allegiance to the world’s true Lord, the crucified and risen Messiah Jesus (“faith”), and daily following in his footsteps of restorative, self-giving love for others and all creation (still “faith”).

Read the Gospels—there’s no “four spiritual laws.” The gospel is not about individual sinners being saved from hell to heaven, but about a sinful world being redeemed so that God’s reign of life and justice and peace might come on earth.

Read Acts—there’s no “sinner’s prayer.” The gospel addresses human sin, right down at its roots, but it does so in a way that impacts not just personal sins but also social sins, systemic sins, all the ways we harm and destroy.

Read Paul’s letters—there’s no “altar call.” The gospel does call for a response, but it’s a summons of allegiance to one who has given himself in humble, selfless love.

And all this is why, when I hear someone say something like, “All you ever do is talk about Jesus and love. Why don’t you preach the gospel?”—I smile to myself.

Yes, all I talk about is Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.

That’s because I’m preaching the gospel.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.