Shakedown Sunday

November is typically Stewardship time in the church, and it leads to uncomfortable questions about the proper use of a pulpit.

Since I did not become a pastor until recently, I spent many years on the receiving end of sermons asking for money. I hear pastors justify this approach by saying that Jesus spoke often about money; in fact, it was one of his more frequent themes.

The problem with this rationale is that while Jesus spoke about money, we don’t have any evidence that he asked for it. The only time in the gospels where he ever passed the basket was at the feeding of the five thousand. There, his pathetic haul of a few fish and some loaves of bread has to rank as one of the sorriest stewardship efforts in history.

My problem with stewardship sermons was that so often they were fundraising efforts. Fundraising is necessary for many organizations in our society. Fundraising works. It brings in money.

But fundraising is not stewardship, and trading stewardship for fundraising hurts the mission of the church over the long run. When people are suspicious of or irritated with the church for asking for money, it is almost always because the church opts for fundraising rather than stewardship.

Fundraising is a financial tug-of-war. The contest is between the target, whose goal is to protect the wallet, and the fundraiser, whose goal is to get into it. The fundraiser probes for weak spots in the target’s defenses around that wallet, and uses proven techniques, gimmicks, and tricks to overwhelm those defenses.

The target tries to cultivate sales resistance. People hear the first shot across the bow, and hands tighten around the wallets. The battle is on! When the smoke clears, we win some, we lose some. We pry enough Benjamins loose to muddle on for another year, and then the tug of war resumes.

Jesus never fought the fundraising wars because his concern was spiritual health. In Matthew 6, when he urged people to give generously, he did not steer the giving to a particular organization or cause. That’s not the heart of stewardship.

I do preach stewardship sermons, at least a half dozen a year, but I try to avoid fundraising. The pulpit is the place where we proclaim the new life given to us in Jesus Christ. The gift is there, receive it! For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If we do not open up our treasure, we do not open up our hearts, and God cannot do a good work in us.

Giving is neither a duty nor an option; it is the pathway to a full life lived in the presence of God. Our need to give is as real as our need for air, water, sleep, and exercise. Giving is how we fulfill our purpose as creatures made in God’s image. Giving is how we draw close to God. It is how we become all that we were meant to be.

A congregation that truly believes in the message of Jesus Christ will not have to be badgered or guilted or manipulated into giving. It will do so joyfully, as much as possible.

So . . . no gimmicks. No guilt. No desperate pleas. We proclaim the Gospel to change and to heal people’s hearts. When that change and healing occurs, the giving follows. For where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.