It’s Sunday night at 5 p.m. My family of eight sits around our dinner table eating cereal for supper. Boxes of Cheerios and knock-off Crispix and a few others lay flat in the center of the table. A single, prized box of unopened Lucky Charms also lays there waiting to be fought over. After we sing the doxology and pray, my nine-year-old daughter looks at me and asks, “Dad, how do you get paid?”
Her question is welcomed but catches me unprepared. I pause to think. I work at a church and want to make sure I answer well.
In the lull, another child joins the conversation. “At church this morning,” she says, “I saw the bulletin said our giving was short three thousand dollars.”
Again, I pause. Apparently, a few of my other children noticed the deficit too. I continue to think.
We eat cereal for dinner tonight solely because we must shoehorn the meal between events. Several of us had commitments during the afternoon, and now some of us are about to leave again to youth group, a few others to our small group Bible study and still a few others will stay at home. Hence the bowls of carbohydrates; we can eat them quickly.
I look back at my third grader and say, “I saw that in the bulletin too. It was a low giving week, wasn’t it?” I make a few small jokes about the connection between church giving and what’s on our dinner table, knowing full well that it’s not really a joke for some pastors and some churches.
We eat cereal for dinner for the convenience—other families do so out of necessity. When my wife was in middle school, her family relied on food stamps for meals; there were times early in our own marriage, especially during seminary, with more month than money in the budget, times when even a small but unexpected car repair caused massive anxiety.
We begin to clean up the table, throwing the bowls in the sink with loud clanks. The mess will keep until later tonight after we’ve put the kids to bed. But before I head out the door again, I think to myself that this kind of family joking, the teasing about how much money a pastor makes and how much a church gives, can only exist around my dinner table because of the abundance of health—financial and otherwise—that currently pervades our church.
My generous church
While our giving may have been down last week, we had a significant surplus over the first three quarters of the year. Our church can do far more than keep the lights on with the funds. And neither the congregation nor my children have seen this yet, but I just received the weekly email from our bookkeeper, and in next week’s bulletin we’ll be able to show that an extra $9,000 was given on Sunday, which means our church gave $12,000 more this week than the previous week. Around the end of the year, we’ll probably be able to give our staff raises and Christmas bonuses.
I am exceedingly thankful for all this, especially knowing so many other churches currently hemorrhage giving.
I’m not sure I’d describe our church as wealthy, though, so much as generous. After we opened back up for in-person services, more than a few times people pulled me aside and asked how they could give their government stimulus check to someone in our church who needed it more than them. What a great question to be asked.
During this last year, we had a single mother who fell on hard times. She became overwhelmed with severe mental health challenges that required her to receive intensive treatment, the kind of treatment she could never have afforded on her own. With only a few phone calls, we found some church members to cover the rehab cost, all while different church members committed to watching her children during the long recovery ahead. I could keep going with stories like these. It’s amazing, really.
My flesh would love to take credit for the health of our church. In my flesh, I think we’ve figured out the secret sauce of gospel preaching, winsome outreach, a faithful church treasurer and, of course, humble, godly leadership.
Our generous family
Yet I know thinking like this, the thinking that steals God’s glory, stinks to high heaven something fierce in the nostrils of God. As the old hymn goes, “Not to us, O LORD, but to your name give glory” (Ps 115:1). Our church has no secret, proprietary ministry formula because that formula does not exist. I don’t even fully know why our church has fared so well when better pastors than me and churches than ours run on fumes.
Except I do know why: grace—the free and unmerited grace of Christ, poured into our lap, pressed down, shaken and running over. This is my story; this is my song.
When I started writing an article about giving, I thought I would write a primer on the theology of giving and tithing according to the Bible, a comprehensive article that also incorporates statistics from news reports and the best data on church trends. I thought I would explore how the New Testament talks less about tithing in the sense of a literal ten percent and instead commands joyful, sacrificial giving, the kind of giving that has symmetry with the gospel of the Christ who became poor so that we by His poverty might become rich.
In the article I would mention the comments I often make during premarital counseling about budgeting and generosity and the meaning of firstfruits.
And I wanted to write about the might of the poor widow’s mite, that is, how giving has value based on what one has, not what one doesn’t have. I wanted to write about all this and more—but I realized so many others have already done this better than I ever could.
What I have to offer, instead, is a simple testimony. With all the doom and gloom in the news and local churches, I simply want to encourage you that God is still at work because He is always at work. In this season, the generosity you might not be able to see in your church, you can see in ours. And in the next season, the generosity I won’t be able to see in my church and has me down in the dumps, I’ll need to see in yours. But you’ll have to tell me about it.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth of how the churches in Macedonia experienced “extreme poverty” and “a severe test of affliction”—perhaps something like what many have experienced in our global pandemic—and yet these Macedonian churches still found a way to overflow “in a wealth of generosity” (2 Cor 8:2). Indeed, Paul adds that they gave “beyond their means” (8:3).
Lest we think more highly of these Macedonians than we ought, may we never forget how this familiar passage begins: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia” (8:1). Don’t miss the all-important word grace. Their good deeds, and yours and mine, overflow from grace.
Before our family cleaned up our cereal bowls and headed off in various directions, I did more than make silly jokes about church giving. But I didn’t say all that I had hoped. I also should have better explained that pastors get paid when God causes members of a church to give, and when God causes that church to steward the money faithfully, then a church can pay a pastor a regular salary. And that faithfulness and generosity never comes from nowhere.
A generous church comes from the same place every good and perfect gift comes from: the God of Grace and the Father of Lights. To Him be glory forever.
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