Written by Peter Wall, CFO
We pay stores in exchange for goods. We pay utilities in exchange for service. We pay rent or a mortgage in exchange for shelter. Some people pay employees in exchange for labor. But why do we give money to our church?
Folks have sometimes said to me that we should encourage each other to give based on the value that we receive—or what the church “is worth to us.” But there is no way that can be right. Because often, maybe even usually, the people for whom the church is worth the most are the people who have the least to give. Sometimes there is a similar problem at the other end of the spectrum. (See Mark 12:38–44.)
Our church is not a transaction. We have transactions to conduct (people and bills to pay), because we have to operate within a transactional world. But we ourselves, as a congregation, are not a transaction. Do not reduce yourself or others to that. This is why we “give” to our church, instead of “pay” to our church. A payment is owed, but a gift is given.
So why do we give money to our church? Yes, as I wrote last month, there are bills to pay. And, as I wrote the month before, in world where everything is measured in money, money is what we need to carve out the space to “draw the circle wide.” But if we are just giving in order to accomplish those things, then our giving is only another transaction, and not a gift of our generosity.
Maybe you remember this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44.) Usually I have heard this parable interpreted either as meaning that the kingdom of heaven must be extremely valuable, or that the kingdom of heaven is hidden for only a select few to experience. But neither of those interpretations makes any sense to me. Consider the next two parables: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” (Matthew 13:45–47.) When I read all three of those parables together, I cannot say that the kingdom of heaven has extreme price-value, because in the parable of the pearl, the kingdom of heaven is compared to the merchant, not the pearl—and that merchant, on ordinary terms of business, is plainly a fool, because he sold everything not for the pearl of greatest value, or all intrinsic value, but only “one pearl of great value.” (But only to that merchant, presumably, and not to the one who sold it. Did the seller previously do the same thing to acquire that pearl?) And it cannot be that the kingdom of heaven is hidden or restricted, because it is also like a net that catches fish of every kind—whose catch is later (in verse 48) sorted by less inclusive others. The kingdom of heaven cannot be explained in transactional terms. It confounds the business sense of the people who find it. And includes more than they are willing to accept.
Now go back and read the last paragraph again, except every time you see “the kingdom of heaven,” read “our church.”
So why do we give to our church? Let me suggest that it is not because “the church” needs our money—it is because we need to give. And when we give to our church because we need to give, then we are acting out a radical inversion of our transactional world. And it is in that act of giving (not by the money given), that we are becoming the kingdom of heaven together.
Sure, there are still bills to pay. There will always be bills to pay. So far this year, despite everything that has happened, we are paying the bills. We are still ahead of our budget—although it will be a challenge to keep that up. Giving as a whole is on target, but pledged giving has slipped. Are you on track to meet or exceed your pledge?
Nobody is getting rich off our church. And I am not getting paid to write this, or to do anything else for our church. But I like to imagine a crazy, radical world that runs on generosity, instead of on scarcity. The church is where we can light that fire. As I often say (and it seems especially appropriate these days), don’t prepare for the “end of the world” by stashing a bunch of stuff—prepare by building a team. Well, here we are. Let’s build.