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How Much Should I Give to the Church?

San Williams

November 4, 2012
2 Corinthians 8:7-15

11-04-2012 Sermon After our luncheon following worship this morning, most of you will pick up an envelope that contains your pledge card.  At some point over the next few days, all of you who are making a financial commitment to the church will have to answer the question:  how much should I give?  Well, in our reading today, Paul offers some advice to the Corinthians who were struggling with this very question.  Let’s give an ear to Paul’s advice, and raise a question that is seldom addressed from the pulpit—namely, the question of how much should we give.

Of course, there are good reasons for why this topic is mostly avoided.  For one thing, there’s a tendency in our culture and in the church to keep our finances private. Some of us may instinctively respond: “What I give is between God and me. It’s nobody else’s business.”  Furthermore, people’s financial circumstances vary widely. To address this topic is to run the risk of making someone feel guilty or ashamed. And to be honest, we preachers worry that preaching on stewardship will be perceived as self-serving, since everyone knows that our salary is paid out of the congregation’s offering.  No question about it, the issue of how much we give to the church is a sensitive matter, and some people would add that it’s a private matter, too.

On the other hand, why do we typically speak so little about a matter that is so basic to Christian discipleship?  When you and I sit down to fill in the amount on our pledge card, might it not be helpful to have a biblical and theological framework to inform and influence our decision?  Couldn’t we all benefit from some open and honest conversation about how our faith connects with our economic lives?  So before you ink in a dollar figure on your pledge card, let’s take a moment to consider our level of giving in light of what we believe and who, in Christ, we are called to be.

Before going any further, however, we may as well acknowledge that there’s an elephant in the room, and this metaphorical elephant is so big that none of can ignore its presence in our lives.  The elephant in question is our consumer-oriented society which encourages the accumulation of consumer goods rather than generosity of spirit and resources. Our use of money is largely dictated by a consumer definition of the good life—expensive clothes, cars, homes, travel, and other trappings of an affluent society. In an article titled “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” Walter Brueggemann forcefully addresses the issue of consumerism.  He writes, “Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism.  We have a love affair with ‘more’—and we will never have enough.

“Consumerism,” he continues, “is not simply a marketing strategy.  It has become a demonic spiritual force among us, and the theological question facing us is whether the Gospel has the power to help us withstand it.” In truth, few (if any) of us are completely free from the consumer mentality. Thus as we consider our level of giving, we’ll surely bump up against the elephant in the room, which takes the form of our desire for more, and our fear of not having enough.

Now, back to our question of how much to give.  As you know, many Christians have a clear, unequivocal answer to the question.  The biblical standard for giving, they say, is a tithe, or ten percent of your income.  End of discussion.  At the recent Presbyterian General Assembly, a number of the commissioners wore buttons that had two numbers on them: 10 slash 50.  The message they hoped to communicate is that every Presbyterian give 10% to the church and every church give 50% to mission.  Such raising of our expectations has its place, especially when surveys indicate that Presbyterians as a whole give less than 2% of their earnings to their church, and our churches rarely give more than 10% to mission.

But while not discounting the tithe as a helpful Biblical standard, in our reading today Paul doesn’t set a single rule for giving that we can apply across the board.  Rather, he says, “eagerly give what you can, not what you can’t.”  The truth is, many of us can give a lot more than we currently are giving.  Along with the church staff and Session members, Jan and I were able to significantly increase our annual pledge this year. We’re not boasting, because our level of giving is not yet where we want it to be. But now that our son’s college loans are beginning to be paid off, we’re able to do more.  Many of you can also do more. If you can, then please do. If you can’t, then don’t.  That’s a simple principle that recognizes and respects the fact that members of the congregation have differing financial circumstances. “The gift is acceptable,” says Paul, “according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.”

Paul wasn’t asking the Corinthians to give to such an extent that they become needy, but he raises the question of a fair balance between those who have an abundance and those who are in need. To illustrate, Paul brings to mind the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness.  God supplied them with the manna they needed, but not more than they needed, so that “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” John Calvin’s application of this verse is instructive. He wrote, “We should strive for such a balance that nobody starves and nobody hoards his abundance at another’s expense.”

Look, there’s no one rule for giving that applies equally to everyone.  However, there is a standard of giving that everyone can apply.  In his book, Creating Congregations of Generous People, Michael Durall answers the question of how much money churches can ask people to give.  This is what he says:

Charitable giving should make some difference in how we as religious people experience life from day to day.  If giving to your congregation is similar to writing a check at the end of the month to pay the phone bill or the electric bill, and then forgetting about it until the end of the next month, you are not giving enough.  Similarly, if you take spare change or a dollar or two from your pocket or purse for the weekly collection and never notice the difference, your giving has too little meaning either for you or for your church.

C.S. Lewis shared a similar sentiment when he wrote:   “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give.  I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.  In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc. is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving too little away.  If our charities do not pinch or hamper us at all, I should say they are too small.”

Friends, what if we all–as individuals, couples, and families–honestly examined how we are spending our money. Then, in light of the needs around us and according to our ability, decided to give an amount that makes a bit of a difference in our lives?  Maybe you can cut back on expensive travel, eat out less, stop buying the things you don’t really need and the world would be better off without–all for the purpose of being able to give more to God.

I challenge you to give in a way that reflects a joyful trust in God’s providence, makes a difference in your life, and exhibits a growing generosity toward those in need.