Churches are discovering that generosity isn’t just an
essential component of discipleship, it’s an integral part of spiritual formation.
Cross Timbers Community Church in Argyle, Texas, amazed its community earlier this year by passing the offering plates and encouraging people to take out money if they needed it. To everyone’s surprise, that day they had their largest offering ever.
Pastor Toby Slough explained the situation in an interview with Fox News: “I just sensed in the middle of this economy we had a lot of our members who were feeling guilty when the offering plate was passed. I wanted it to be a time of joy for them, so we told them if they had a need, they could take money out.”
As the concept gained momentum, the church was eventually able to bless people who were unemployed by paying their utility bills. “I’m excited to watch people in need receive because I know as they are blessed, they are going to become givers,” he said. Cross Timbers is one of many churches across the nation today using innovative ways to step up and address the financial needs of their members and their communities. But how does such generosity—blended with action—come about? We all know the benefits of giving, but actually creating a church culture in which giving is second nature can be difficult, particularly during these economically tough times. How can churches build into their members the value that true discipleship includes the oft-neglected aspect of being a generous giver?
Preaching to Give
Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., says the teaching team at his church talks about generosity not because of what they can get from their people, but because of what they want for their people. A similar paradigm shift is occurring in the leadership of countless churches, and it’s resulting in a renewed understanding of discipleship.
“A lot of pastors today are seeing stewardship as an essential part of the spiritual formation of their congregation,” says Chris Willard, director of the Generous Churches Leadership Community at Dallas-based Leadership Network. “They’re teaching about money because they understand that the way we deal with our God-given resources says a lot about our discipleship. It used to be that pastors only talked about money when they needed to raise money. Now they’re talking about it because it’s an important part of spiritual formation. That means they have to talk about giving more than before. And talking about it more builds it more naturally into the flow of the church so people don’t get that there-he-goes-again feeling.”
Indeed, setting the stage for a culture of generosity usually begins onstage with pastors preaching and teaching on the subject. That’s the case at Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, where preaching about giving isn’t unusual since it’s a core value of the church. “We call people to be generous,” says the church’s administrative pastor, Jeff Abshire. “We lead people in the countercultural message of generosity for the sake of the kingdom.”
For example, Antioch’s senior pastor recently preached a sermon from Acts 2 on sharing common resources. At the end of the sermon he summoned everyone in the congregation who had a financial need to come up front, and for the rest of the people to ask God how He wanted them to meet those needs. As people began to pray, many felt led to come forward and offer money directly. One woman was given $20 but only needed $10, so she gave the remaining $10 to someone else. The day became known as “Keep the Money Moving Sunday.”
Other churches have developed a giving culture by first delving into why its members weren’t naturally generous. Executive Pastor Mark Davis of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale in Florida says the wake-up call came for his church when they launched a capital campaign that received a lukewarm response. “We realized something very crucial: Our people hadn’t been taught how to give,” he says. “We discovered that our body was not well-informed or educated. We realized we needed to challenge people in all areas of stewardship.”
As the church leaders looked into what the Bible says about giving and what other churches were doing to educate their people, their thinking began to change. “We had been looking at giving as a practice, but we began to view it as a lifestyle,” Davis says.
Caught From the Top-Down
Pastors can wax eloquent from the platform about stewardship, yet if they want to see a genuine shift in congregants making generous giving a lifestyle, they must first evaluate their own lives.
“Generosity starts with our elders and then moves through our staff,” says Neal Joseph, former executive pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, Tenn. “That way we set it into the DNA of our church. Generosity is a shared responsibility. ”
Bruce Mazzare, a lay leader at Antioch Community Church, says one of the keys to his church’s success in discipleship is an understanding among leadership that generosity “is not taught—it’s caught. Our leadership lives simply, which has made a profound impact on our people. ”
This top-down philosophy is modeled increasingly by forward-thinking churches. People learn by example, so when leaders live and give generously, people learn to act the same way.
At Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, leaders model a generous life by giving up their salaries during months of special giving. “Generosity is a value that is modeled at the top level. It’s not just something we talk about,” says Gateway’s Associate Senior Pastor David Smith.
Radical giving started with Gateway’s senior pastor, Robert Morris, who writes in his book The Blessed Life about a time when he believed God told him to give away both his cars, his house and all the money in his bank account. “I remember thinking to myself, This time I’ve out-given the Lord!” Morris recalls. But soon after, God provided him with an airplane, hangar, fuel, maintenance, a pilot and traveling expenses. Says Morris: “As I stood there stammering and stunned, I heard the still, small voice of the Lord whisper in my spirit, ‘Gotcha.’”
Other pastors make it a regular practice to donate 20 percent of their time to causes outside their congregations. “That’s why it’s easy for our leaders to talk about it, because they’re doing it,” says Pastor Scott Ridout of Sun Valley Community Church in Gilbert, Ariz.
There’s a caveat to this “lead by example” approach to generosity, however: Because the mere mention of money can cause some people to instinctively question church leadership, pastors must realize that trust is often the most crucial ingredient in creating a culture of generosity. Pastor Dave Rodriguez discovered this truth at Grace Community Church in Noblesville, Ind.
When the church was founded in 1991, money scandals so rocked the Christian world that Grace Church steered clear of mentioning money. But later Rodriguez realized they weren’t serving their people by avoiding the topic. Believing that giving is a vital part of discipleship, they hired staff in 2000, which led to the start of their “Faith and Finances” ministry.
“If people don’t trust the leaders of the church to spend the money under God’s direction, they won’t give generously,” he says. “Building trust sometimes involves periods of tremendous pain to show people that you are willing to sacrifice to do what God calls you to do.”
Teaching on generosity starts at the front of the church, and establishing a culture of giving begins within those in leadership. But there’s an added dynamic when generous giving is viewed as an essential part of discipleship.
Jeanette Dickens of Mount Pisgah United Methodist in Alpharetta, Ga., explains, “We want to create a culture of generosity—a continual message of living in the fullness of Christ.”
Willard agrees, adding that teaching stewardship is different from asking for funds. “We need to ask, but we want people to live generously all the time, not just when prompted,” he says. “Part of what we want to do in the lives of our people is to disciple them in all areas. We want them to grow in their view that God owns all their stuff, and He wants us to use it in a way that honors Him.”
To further this discipleship aspect, Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale not only teaches giving as part of its classes on spiritual gifts but also sends selected members to Generous Giving conferences and seminars sponsored by Crown Financial Ministries (see “Generosity Jumpstart”). Along with using prepared curricula from Crown or Financial Peace University, some churches develop their own discipleship programs.
Many churches target specific age or income groups with their discipleship programs. Central Christian Church of Henderson, Nev., teaches financial management to premarital couples, while other congregations work with seniors to integrate generosity and estate planning. At Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Mo., parents teach their kids about money through a parent-coaching ministry. Developed by a layperson in the church, the program disciples kids in biblical concepts of generosity and helps them start saving and tithing. Rather than receiving an allowance, kids do chores to earn a weekly “salary.”
At Gateway Church, teaching on stewardship is aimed at four income groups: (1) people in crisis; (2) people who need the basics; (3) people with healthy financial lives and (4) people who are wealthy. Financial Stewardship Pastor Gunnar Johnson says the third group is the most neglected. “These are typically 30-somethings with fairly disposable income. We want to help them grapple with the questions: How much is enough? Why has God given me this surplus?”
Most pastors agree that the best way to learn generosity is just to “do” it. People will rise to meet needs as they are given opportunities.
Joseph recalls a pivotal moment at Fellowship Bible Church: “On one Sunday morning we gave more than 2,000 pairs of shoes to people in Peru, Sudan, Mississippi and an African village. Our pastor took off his own shoes and asked for everyone to donate the shoes they had worn to church that day. It was a practical application of giving without worrying about tax receipts.”
And generous living must be celebrated. Generous Giving Executive Vice President Todd Harper stresses, “If pastors want their churches to grow in Christian generosity, they must learn to celebrate it by including it in the worship service, encouraging people when they give and inviting givers to share their giving testimonies with the church.
“Jesus talked about money from the perspective of its importance in relation to our heart, and that’s what we’re driving at,” Harper says. “We’re trying to invite people into a life of wholehearted surrender to Christ. Often, especially with the affluent, money is the primary competitor to lordship in their lives. But as Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, you can’t serve both God and money.”
Willard adds: “The Bible makes a clear connection between the way people think about money and the way they think about God. Someone has said that you can tell a lot about a person’s spiritual life by looking at his checkbook. It may be an oversimplification, but it’s pretty true. As people learn to follow Christ, their pocketbooks come along.
“We don’t want to make people feel guilty about it,” he says, “but to invite them to experience the joy of generosity. That’s what captivates people’s hearts, when they experience that it’s more blessed to give than to receive.”
When it comes to discipleship, teachers sometimes learn the joy of generosity from their students. “We were on a mission trip in Moscow,” says Calvary Chapel’s Davis. “As we were loading the bus to go back to the airport, we told the kids they could either keep their leftover rubles as souvenirs or we could collect them and give them back to the church where we had worked.
“The kids scrambled frantically to gather all they could to put in the bucket. They realized their money was about to be worthless to them. I realized that that’s the way we should live every day—giving our money away as if it’s about to become worthless.”
Lois Swagerty is a freelance writer for Leadership Network (leadnet.org). She lives in Carlsbad, Calif., with her husband.