Generosity is a category of good behavior that is of interest to Christians, not just because the church relies chiefly on the generosity of members for its financial resources, but because wealth and the ways we relate to it are such a central part of the Gospel. Jesus talks more about money than he does about any other human institution, so there must be something there that he wants us to hear and understand.
Our spiritual relationship with money and giving is complex, and includes challenging ideas about philanthropy, charity, security, poverty, pride and greed. Today, though, I’d like to address the narrower question of whether and how we give money to the church – a question that is freighted with all sorts of history and assumptions which can make it hard to talk about.
Before going any further, I should give credit to my friend The Rev. Timothy Dombek, former Canon for Stewardship and Planned Giving in the Diocese of Arizona. He taught a two-day seminar called “Stewardship University” that changed the way I think about stewardship, and this article relies a great deal on his teaching.
Some of us may give to the church out of sense of duty or guilt. We may have the subconscious fear that we are loved in proportion to the size of the gifts we give, or that we can somehow make expiation for our sins by giving to the church. We may know intellectually that God’s grace is unconditional and irresistible, but our insecurities doubt that this can be so. Or if we don’t doubt God’s impartiality, we may worry that our pastor or someone else in the church will think better or worse of us based on the size of our gifts.
Some of us may have internalized the world’s model of payment for services rendered, and may give because of the good things we get from the church. We love the music, we appreciate the preaching, we enjoy the fellowship of our friends, and we are willing to pay something for that. If we find ourselves asking questions like “how much is the church worth to me?” or talking about our gifts to the church as dues or taxes, we may be giving from this model. If we think about giving to keep the lights on, or to make sure that the church will still be here for our grandchildren, we may really be thinking of the church as just another local business that we wish to support.
A much subtler version of this kind of giving is when we give philanthropically because we want to support particular activities of the church in the world. If we give to the church because the church does things we like, then we are really just giving money to advance our own will and our own interests, even if those things we like are good in themselves. This sort of philanthropy is a wonderful thing and has supported many worthwhile charities and causes and arts organizations. There is an important distinction, though, between a charity and the church, between philanthropy and tithing.
Tithing – the practice of setting aside a percentage of one’s income for the church – is at its best a spiritual practice for the giver rather than a fundraising technique for the church. Tithing is an exercise in trusting God rather than ourselves; trusting that God gives us enough. Tithing is not about the church’s need for money, but a challenge for us to let go of part of the treasure that the world tells us so urgently that we need to protect and to hoard. Tithing is not the way we fund ministry; tithing is ministry. Tithing flips our assumptions about who is offering a gift to whom.
Tithing is a sort of Sabbath for our money: a recognition that all of our time and all of our gifts belong to God, and that we don’t need to squeeze more work out of every minute and more stuff out of every dollar. As Sabbath makes the whole week holy, tithing a percentage of our income hallows all of it. Tithing is sacramental: it takes something material and worldly and turns it into a sign of the Kingdom of God.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus knows human nature well enough to understand that our money is a proxy for our energy and our work and our commitment to what we actually value. What we do with our money says more about the state of our heart than the words that we speak.