My area of ministry for 15 years was Christian stewardship. I was good at what I did. I wrote several books, led hundreds of campaigns, spoke to thousands of people, and helped churches raise millions of dollars. Even though I have not really done anything in the world of stewardship for several years, I still get an occasional request to speak to a church or provide some guidance.
To be honest, the last few years that I did stewardship work in churches were very discouraging for me. I found myself in the middle of a trend that was not moving in a good direction. I must confess, I was certainly culpable for contributing to the trend.
It began when I was the pastor of a small church and preached a sermon one Sunday on some basic principles of money management from the book of Proverbs. Eventually that sermon was expanded, and when I went to work for Texas Baptists, an organization of more than 5,000 churches, that simple sermon became a weekend seminar. We called it, Successful Money Management. We trained a dozen or so folks who taught the seminar in churches almost every weekend.
The material was picked up after a couple of years by Lifeway, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. They expanded the training to include hundreds of consultants teaching the material all over the country. The name was changed to Successful Christian Financial Management but it was essentially the material from my original sermon with the addition of a one-hour session on a practical money management plan.
It was not unusual to spend a Saturday and Sunday with a church and see their weekly offerings increase by twenty percent or more as a result of this seminar. I had a couple of churches that saw more than a fifty percent increase that they sustained for a long time. Did I mention that I was good at what I did?
During this time, the big player in the world of Christian money management was Crown Ministries. They provided solid material but did it in a much different format than what we were doing. Toward the end of my time with Texas Baptists, Dave Ramsey came along with his stuff, and quickly became the go to guy for churches wanting to help people with their finances. My office promoted all of these resources to churches requesting help. We even became a big distributor of Willow Creek’s Good Sense material.
Toward the end of my time of doing what we termed Christian Stewardship, it dawned on me that we were not really. We were doing middle-class money management with a biblical twist. We were helping people get out of debt, create a savings account, develop a budget within their means, and be better consumers. The hope was that when they did all of this they would then give more money to their church. I will be the first to tell you that it worked. Did I mention I was good at what I did?
One of the last things I did as a stewardship professional was write a book that I titled, Authentic Stewardship. I was beginning to wrestle with the notion that we had walked away from the true meaning of stewardship.
When I first began working in the area of stewardship, most people defined stewardship as tithing. However, that changed, and today stewardship is defined as good money management. It is good advice for folks who have stuff, but it does nothing for those who have nothing. What I taught and what Dave Ramsey teaches is totally meaningless to the poor.
Yet, when I turn to the Bible I discover that Jesus was much more interested in how we relate to the poor than about the size of our savings account. In fact, He almost makes it sound like the person with the big savings account is in danger of not being saved.
“Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)
Yet, most of what we label as stewardship today is an appeal to people’s desire to be richer than they are. This is a dangerous thing.
For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10)
If we are going to be honest, we must admit there seems to be great spiritual benefit in poverty.
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? (James 2:5)
Consequently, the way Christians relate to the poor is of supreme importance to God. In fact, generosity to the poor seems to a basis for divine judgment (see Matthew 25).
These are not popular verses when teaching money management. There are ways to teach them so they do not interfere with folks desire to have more stuff (I know because I frequently did it), but we have gone too far in ignoring the preponderance of this truth in God’s Word.
The reason I wrote this article today is because of what I read over the past week. First, Dave Ramsey posted on his blog an article about things that rich people do that poor people don’t. The implication (although not actually stated) was that the list of activities are the things that differentiate the rich from the poor. He listed things like not eating junk food, doing aerobic exercise, listening to audio books, and making birthday calls.
Then today I read about something Pope Francis wrote. He has criticized the global economic system, specifically attacking the idolatry of money and asking politicians to guarantee dignified work, education and healthcare to all citizens. However, he went further and did not just speak to politicians. He asked rich people to share their wealth.
“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”
Perhaps the most stinging indictment he made on our society was these words: How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?
As I indicated earlier, I have studied stewardship for a long time and I must admit, I hear Jesus more clearly in the words of Pope Francis than in the things I used to teach, or in what most churches teach today about stewardship.
Many Christians and church leaders are critical of any suggestion that the government step up and take better care of the poor. They are quick to declare that caring for the poor is the work of the church, not the state. Yet, as they make these statements they are sitting in multi-million dollar church buildings and dropping a few coins in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas.
I agree, it is the work of the church, but when the church does not do it what happens. We get mad when there is talk of raising the minimum wage or making food stamps more available, and then we go to church and sign a pledge card to donate extra money to construct a new gym for our kids.
Church leaders understand this so they offer classes and training to help you get out of debt and make better spending choices, not so you can give more to the poor, but so you can give more to the church. This is exactly what I did for 15 years. I know how it works. Of the hundreds of churches I worked with, not once did even one pastor ever call and ask me to help them increase their giving to the poor. I was never asked to develop a study or a resource on relating to the poor.
If I had been asked to create such a resource, I’m not exactly sure how I would have done so. There are some folks doing extremely creative things that provide help for small pockets of the poor, but these programs are far from capturing the attention of the church. If the church could be mobilized to serve the poor with the same vigor and enthusiasm we display in new building construction then we might experience some success.
Churches would pay me thousands of dollars to help them raise money for building. I always insisted they recruit their strongest leaders and collect the names of the highest potential donors. I then trained them on what to do and walked them through the process. I’m not saying that I feel guilty for doing this. I don’t have a problem with church buildings. My concern is that we are making such programs the sum total of our stewardship efforts. Authentic stewardship is much more than that.
Pope Francis has reminded us that we are a long way from what God has asked us to do. Perhaps it is time we step out of our state-of-the-art church buildings and step into the shoes of those who are unable to do The 20 Things Rich People Do Every Day. As the church, as an individual follower of Jesus, what can we do for the poor?