I stumbled into Christian Stewardship quite by accident. It was not on my list of interests or career choices, but as you know yourself, following God is not like mapping out the shortest route on your GPS. I have never been the smartest guy around, but I do know how to learn, so I set out to learn about stewardship.
As a child I learned to tithe from my father. It was never a legalistic type of thing where you have to give a tenth or else God will be mad. It was just something we did. I never gave it much thought – until I found myself (as I said, quite by accident) working as a stewardship professional. In fact, I even received an award (complete with a very nice plaque) as the “Stewardship Professional of the Year.” I am a good learner.
The stewardship thing worked out well for me and for a time I was one of the leading stewardship folks in the country. I have written material that has been used in thousands of churches around the world. There was a period of time when every stewardship item in the Southern Baptist world had my fingerprint on it somewhere.
There have been a couple of significant changes to stewardship during my lifetime. When I was a child, it was quite common to believe in tithing. However, during my teenage years there was a movement to change that position. People began to teach that tithing is legalistic and it is much more consistent with Jesus to be generous without specific guidelines. Tithing fell out of favor with many.
I remember well my introduction into this new world. It was at a small gathering of stewardship folks. I had already had a part in developing some material encouraging folks to be tithers. One of the men at this gathering was Cecil Ray, known by many Southern Baptists as the father of Baptist stewardship. I didn’t know him personally but I was well-aware of his reputation.
Early in the meeting, Dr. Ray referred to those who taught tithing as “legalists.” Out of respect and deference I kept my mouth shut. (If you know me personally you probably don’t believe that last statement.) During a break in the meeting I told my supervisor if that old man calls me a legalist one more time we are going after it. He advised patience and keeping quiet.
I had the privilege of working with Dr. Ray several years later, after he retired, helping his church raise money in a building campaign. He was very gracious, even complimentary after I preached a sermon on tithing. I will hasten to say that even though he was not an advocate of tithing, I’m not sure I have ever met a more generous man. He gave significantly more than ten percent to his church.
However, this article is not about the tithe. The subject concerns another cosmic shift in stewardship teaching by the church; one that will have a devastating effect.
About halfway through my time of working in stewardship there was a new interest in teaching money management. Church leaders concluded that one of the reasons people did not give generously to the church was because the desperate condition of their finances made it impossible. I saw the value of this approach and joined the parade by adding a financial management component to our material.
It got out of control. It got to the point that churches were only interested in teaching people how to handle their finances. Christian programs consisted of little more than quoting a few Bible verses in between guidelines for spending, saving, investing, and budgeting. The logical next step was to focus on getting out of debt – trusting that once people were out of debt they would be generous givers.
Along came Dave Ramsey. Perhaps his biggest strength is the ability to make money. He took the “get out of debt” mantra to new heights, found a way to make money from helping folks get out of debt, and took the church stewardship world by storm. Churches quickly abandoned traditional stewardship teaching in favor of “Financial Peace.”
I stumbled across an example of how extreme this approach became during my last year of leading church stewardship. A church, wanting to raise several million dollars for new construction, decided to forego traditional appeals to giving. Instead, they enrolled 500 families in Ramsey’s course. Their rationale was that they would save the cost of fund-raising activities and consultation and when these families got out of debt they would give generously to the building program. They were excited that Ramsey himself was going to come and speak to their congregation.
Genius for Ramsey; not so well thought out by the church. Ramsey would make about $50,000 selling material and for a one-time sermon. My experience with fund-raising is that the folks who are going to make a multi-million dollar campaign successful are not in debt (at least, not consumer debt). Another thing I learned over the years is that getting out of debt does not make people generous givers.
The real problem is that Christians have anointed Ramsey as the stewardship sage and essentially redefined stewardship teaching as good money management, or more narrowly as getting out of debt. The result is that we have made Dave Ramsey wealthy and robbed the church of an important doctrine – stewardship. It is probably accurate to say that the vast majority of churches that deliberately teach stewardship do it through a Dave Ramsey course.
Historically, biblical stewardship has led the church to take positions that are no longer considered to be Christian positions:
- Environment – stewardship education used to teach the value of taking care of the earth. Now, most evangelical Christians stand in opposition to environmental initiatives under the guise that they might harm the economy.
- Accumulation – for centuries the church taught the danger of having too much. Now, the emphasis seems to be on accumulating more and more because it is good for the economy.
- Responsibility – taking care of one another has always been a Christian focus. Now, many Christians complain about those who don’t or can’t take care of themselves and voice strong opposition to welfare and healthcare programs that give help to others.
When the leaders of a church stewardship movement become wealthy something is wrong. If there is any area of church ministry that should stand firm against wealth it should be stewardship.
Keep deception and lies far from me, Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the LORD?” Or That I not be in want and steal, And profane the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:7-8)
And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. “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 19:23-24)
It is a much too common problem with anyone in church leadership. If they are truly well-received they are then confronted with the temptations of money and fame. It is hard to say “no” to either one of these opportunities. We love to turn our leaders into celebrities. When that happens, the focus is diverted to the leader and not Jesus.
It may be true (I don’t know) that churches have more money than ever and that Christian families are leading the march in financial planning. However, it doesn’t matter. That is not what stewardship is all about. Stewardship is not about wealth and accumulation. Church stewardship is not about large buildings and generous payrolls. Christian stewardship is learning to live with an open hand, not hanging onto the things of the world, but releasing them to be used by God and others.
Christian stewardship has very little to do with developing successful consumers. It is not the task of the church to teach people how to operate successfully in the world, but rather how to live successfully in a kingdom that is not of this world.
I suspect church history will eventually record that the American church in the early 21st century was prosperous, building multi-million dollar facilities and having the resources to provide entertainment and recreational extravaganzas. This is not surprising since the Pied Piper we are following is a national media celebrity living in a $6.5 million dollar mansion on a hill outside Nashville.
We have come a long way from the example of our founder who declared that he had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 9:20) and did not even own a change of clothes.
If you are interested in my understanding of stewardship, get my book Authentic Stewardship.