We’re addressing the issue of financing gospel ministry at church this Sunday. Is it too cynical to expect strategic absenteeism! Would people draw the right conclusions if I took a week off?!
As it happens, I was doing some work on the last chapter of 1 Corinthians today which begins like this,
Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me. 1 Corinthians 16:1-4
The church in Jerusalem clearly faced profound material poverty. A combination of factors had left this young Christian church in a position of great need. Persecution by the Roman and Jewish population, a severe famine and separation from the primitive Jewish welfare system had left them vulnerable. The church in Corinth decided that they couldn’t do nothing for their Christian brothers. And so they decided to put their hands in their pockets.
Obviously Paul’s instructions are specifically concerned with the collection for Jerusalem. But more generally he provides principles that surely guide all our Christian giving. As he makes clear, this applies not only to Corinth but to every congregation where he has influence.
In thinking about what we contribute to the cause of the gospel and supporting gospel people, Paul says that there are three things to bear in mind.
1. Our giving should be planned
On the first day of the week they were to decide what to contribute and put it to one side. And so our giving shouldn’t be shaped by what’s left in our wallets at the end of the week. That’s one of the reasons we don’t send round a plate in our meetings. That’s an approach which encourages us to think that what we give is shaped by whatever we happen to have in our back pockets at the time. I was in a church at the weekend that did just that and all I could find in a hurry was an amount that would barely have covered the cost of me being there. And the kid who passed round the plate must have wondered if it’s normal for Christian ministers to be so tight with God’s money. That’s hardly the message I want to pass on! Our giving needs to take priority. And so we ought to deal with it at the start of the week, not at the end. The point is that giving to gospel people and supporting gospel ministry takes priority in our spending plans. Or at least, it should. We may therefore need to continue to develop a degree of mature financial management and budgeting. One of the reasons I’m such a fan of the CAP Money Course at CCB is that it helps us with that. Most of us didn’t do GCSE Accounting and most of us weren’t taught by our parents how to handle money. And so we’ll need to learn it from somewhere if we’re ever going to make a mature financial contribution to any gospel ministry.
2. Our giving should be regular
Paul wanted the pattern of putting aside money to be followed every week. I guess it was weekly and not monthly because that would have reflected the patterns of pay in the 1st Century. And so, the principle was as often as they were paid they were to give. One of the reasons we encourage people at CCB to contribute by Direct Debit is that it helps it to be regular and planned and it happens as often as we get paid. Our giving is not supposed to be sporadic and episodic. It’s supposed to be continual. It wasn’t to be a flash in the pan response to the pangs of guilt. Paul didn’t want to stifle spontaneous compassionate response. And so the ‘one off’ gift is still appropriate. But he’s talking here about developing regular long-term generosity. We need to take responsibility for their church expenditure and their external giving and give regularly. Speaking as someone who has some responsibility for budgeting, it’s so much easier to make sensible financial decisions where regular giving is in place. We can plan. We’ll still pray. We’ve not ditched depending on the Lord because we’ve put our hope in convenient banking. But we can be prudent where we can forecast what’s likely to come in over the next few months.
3. Our giving should be proportional
Paul doesn’t stipulate how much we should give. How much of the money that God’s entrusted to us that we decide to use for his eternal kingdom is a matter between us and him. Under the Old Covenant, God’s people were expected to give a 10% tithe. No such equivalent is required of God’s people under the New Covenant. We’re free to give more than the 10%, although some may not be able to do so because of legitimate financial constraints. One of the reasons we don’t talk about the tithe is that the New Testament talks more about sacrificial generosity. And some of us could be giving 10% and be a million miles away from making generous sacrifices.
At CCB, we already send money to fellow Christian churches that face a more uncertain financial future than we do. We’d love to send more. But we can’t do that until we raise more money. And we’re starting to do that. But we also need to make appointments here at CCB so that we can attempt to grow the church so that, in the long run, we actually have more to give away.
Many of our congregation already give sacrificially so that they go without. And it hurts. That’s what sacrifice usually feels like! But they do so gladly and willingly as part of their Christian discipleship. And they do so because they want to be generous. That’s a terrific work of God in people’s hearts. Lots of people give. But some don’t. That’s often the case. But there’s usually a time lag between being converted and giving and also between joining a church and getting on board financially. But perhaps we need to be bolder at encouraging people to prayerfully revisit the issue. It’s part of the normal Christian life, after all.