One morning a local talk-show host was using Southeast Christian Church as his main target for the day. He was criticizing our huge expenditure on a new building and asking: "What is this church doing for the community? Why aren't they giving that money to the poor?"
The director of a local benevolence ministry who is not affiliated with our church called the show. "I just want you to know," he told the host, "that without the generous support of Southeast Christian Church and its members, we'd have a hard time doing our job. They do a lot for this community, and you need to get off their backs." I wish I could have seen that host's expression! He moved on to another target.
When we decided to spend $90 million on a new location for the church, a lot of people said we were spending too much on buildings and that the money should instead be given to the needy. We wrestled over those concerns and prayed for guidance. We didn't come lightly to our conclusion to relocate, but we finally reasoned that we were following the leading of the Holy Spirit.
If a church of 1,000 people spent $9 million on a building, few people would criticize. So why can't a church of 10,000, which was our membership at the time, spend $90 million? Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, spends $8 million to $10 million each year on capital improvements. Nobody says that money should have been spent on medicine for the sick. The building is necessary for carrying out the mission of the hospital. Our church building is not a monument for people to see; it is a vehicle through which we minister to people and evangelize the lost. Is any cost too high for accomplishing that mission?
People forget that every cause generates its own funds. We didn't have $90 million sitting around and decide to spend it on a building rather than to give it to the needy. People gave sacrificially for the purpose of building a facility that would help reach the lost for Christ. Jesus said, "'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God'" (Matt. 4:4, NKJV). Our primary purpose is not to give physical food but to provide the bread of life. If we feed hungry people but don't save them from sin, they're still lost for eternity.
But we're also convinced that the sacrificial gift people made toward the new building will do more to help the poor than if Southeast had not continued to grow. In 1999 we gave more than $2 million to missions. A significant percentage of that money goes to causes that help alleviate suffering in Third World countries where poverty is many times worse than it is anywhere in the United States. In one month we sent 500 pairs of shoes and 450 bags of clothes to the needy in Ukraine. In another month we had our annual Great Day of Service, when more than 1,000 members volunteered to help local ministries.
Additionally, we give thousands of dollars a year to benevolent causes in our local community, and we help the needy from our food pantry and clothes closet. We also have small groups, youth groups and families who minister on their own to the poor and needy. Had those people not been transformed by Jesus Christ, it's unlikely they would be so generous with their time and money.
My wife oversees our Living Word tape and radio ministry. Shortly before we moved into our new building, she received a letter from a preacher who was angered because I had preached four straight sermons on money. He wrote, "You better tell Bob he'd better quit preaching on money, or there won't be anyone left to occupy that new building."
The letter exasperated her, so she wrote him back: "Dear Sir: You may be interested in knowing that during the month Bob preached on giving there were 176 responses to the invitation, about double the normal number. Did you know that half of Jesus' parables were about money? Maybe you should preach more on the subject!"
Wise stewardship of God's resources is an important part of a healthy church. We live in a materialistic culture where people are battling daily the god of money. Biblical stewardship and generous giving can transform lives and significantly advance the kingdom of God. Yet most preachers don't even want to broach the subject of money. Preachers I know hate to talk about money.
A lot of us make sure there's a note in the bulletin that says: "If you are a guest, please feel no obligation to participate in the offering. We want you to enjoy the service." We don't say, "If you're our guest, don't feel like you have to sing and don't feel like the invitation is directed at you." We don't say: "This sermon is on sexual purity. If you're a guest and that makes you feel uncomfortable, there are ear plugs available." Why, then, is money such a sensitive subject?
Television evangelists have a reputation for exploiting people financially. It is not universally true, but that doesn't matter. The media has so stereotyped televangelists that we want desperately to disassociate ourselves from them. Because some pastors, especially televangelists, are perceived to be always focusing on money, many preachers go to the opposite extreme of not wanting to talk about money at all.
Sometimes preachers don't want to talk about money because they're afraid of turning off the visitors. They're convinced it's not "seeker-sensitive," so they avoid the subject entirely in their sermons and make sure the offering is downplayed as much as possible.
I've had people say to me: "I worked for months to get my friends to come to church with me, and wouldn't you know the day they came you preached on money! I tried to tell them you don't preach often on money, but they haven't come back." I hate to hear that because I hate to lose anyone. But if they had said, "You preached on the resurrection, and they didn't believe it," or, "You preached on disciplining your children, and they disagreed with you," I wouldn't stop speaking the truth.
I got an anonymous letter once following a stewardship sermon. The letter said: "I came to the church needing comfort. All I heard was more money pressure." He called me a money-grubber and promised never to return to any church. That hurt, but I've learned to put up with such criticism.
FIVE REASONS TO PREACH
I used to brag that I only preached about money once a year. Then when I had my annual stewardship sermon, I'd apologize and bring it up as gently as I could. "I'm sorry," I'd say, "but we need to talk about giving today. If you're a visitor, please don't feel that we are asking you to take responsibility for the giving at this church." But I've changed my mind about how often I should preach on money for these five reasons:
1. God's Word speaks often about stewardship. Paul said, "For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). I feel led to do the same thing--to preach the whole counsel of God. And the Bible talks a lot about stewardship. Jesus talked about stewardship more than any other subject. He talked more about handling your money than He did about heaven, hell or even loving your neighbor. He knew that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:21).
Brian Sluth, former president of the Christian Stewardship Association, said: "There are 2,350 passages in the Bible dealing with money and material possessions--more than on any other subject--but it's the least talked-about subject in the church. The church has been silent for so long that people don't understand the responsibilities that undergird a generous lifestyle."
Preaching on money isn't very popular, but it wasn't popular in Jesus' day either. When the rich young ruler came running up to Jesus, the disciples must have been excited. "We could really use this guy. He could bankroll our entire mission! I hope Jesus doesn't say anything about money for a while--it might turn him off!"
But Jesus knew the young man's heart, and He said to him, "'Go your way, sell whatever you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me'" (Mark 10:21). The young man left sad, and the disciples must have been disturbed.
It takes courage to speak the truth about money because it is such a god to so many. But we are commissioned to preach the whole counsel of God. Someone said, "It's better to be sobered by the saddest truth than deluded by the merriest lie."
According to Jesus, it is the truth that "'no servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon [or money]'" (Luke 16:13). If you fail to communicate that truth to people, you are doing them a disservice and failing to preach the "whole counsel of God."
2. Generosity transforms people. One of the reasons I'll never quit preaching about money on a regular basis is that I've seen generous giving transform the lives of people. There's an old illustration about a technique used to capture monkeys. A banana is placed in a small-mouthed jar chained to a tree. The monkey will reach in to get the banana and get his hand stuck in the jar. Because he refuses to let go of the banana, he is captured. He could have easily set himself free if he had just been willing to let go of his prized possession.
When people release their grip on the things of this world, they are liberated. Shortly after we celebrated our $31 million commitment, a man approached me with tears in his eyes. He had been only on the fringe of the church for some time, but he got caught up in the campaign and made a six-figure commitment to the church. He embraced me and said, "Did you ever dream that I would be a part of something like this?"
Jesus was right when He said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." I used to think it was the other way around--if I could just get people to give their hearts to Jesus, their treasures would follow. But Jesus knew that for many people, the treasure must come first.
Shortly after our elders approved the launching of a $26 million capital campaign, Mount Davis said, "The worst thing that could happen to this campaign would be for one person to decide to give the entire $26 million." Mount recognized that such a gift would rob a lot of people of the opportunity to participate and experience the joy of giving. All the elders nodded in agreement.
Then Jack Webster, another elder, said, "I move that if one person offers to donate $26 million to the building fund, no one tells Mount Davis!"
Jesus also said that "'it is more blessed to give than to receive'" (Acts 20:35). He promised: "'Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the measure that you use, it will be measured to you'" (Luke 6:38).
Jesus didn't necessarily mean that we would receive back monetary gain if we give to the church. But generosity will result in an overflow of spiritual, emotional and relational blessings in your life--and God promises to take care of your physical needs, too. If we fail to tell Christians about those blessings and motivate them to test God in this (see Mal. 3:10), then we rob them of a chance to experience the joys of generous giving.
3. Money is often necessary to advance the gospel. In an article in Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, reporter Sean O'Neill wrote, "Immediately following World War II people gave proportionately more of their income than they do today." O'Neill reported that the average evangelical Christian today gives only 3.5 percent of his income. As a result, the average church has cut back its giving to outreach and missions by more than 50 percent.
Talk-show host Dave Ramsey once spoke about how different America would be if all the Christians tithed. He said: "There would be no more welfare in North America. In 90 days there would be no existing church or hospital debts. In the next 90 days, the entire world could be evangelized. There would be prayer in schools, because Christians would buy all the schools!"
Almost every program or plan for communicating the gospel costs money. How many times have good ideas been turned down and our vision limited because we're worried about how much it costs?
In April 1999, we had a guest speaker come from out of town for four straight Wednesday nights to talk about Bible prophecy. It was unbelievable. Attendance at our Wednesday night services doubled that month. We had 18 baptisms, and a spirit of revival swept the congregation. But that month was costly. There were air flights, motel bills, an honorarium, meals and promotion costs. Without regular, sustained giving, such an event could never have taken place, and we would have missed a golden opportunity to advance the gospel.
In the year 2000, Southeast had a program called "2,000 in 2000." Our goal was to involve 2,000 church members in missions through the course of the year. That may seem simple, but we needed an additional staff member to organize the program and two additional secretaries to handle the enlistments and assignments. They needed computer terminals, office space, salaries and benefits, office supplies and telephones. If the congregation were not giving regularly and generously, our elders would have never considered such a venture.
Our worship department performs an annual Easter pageant. It's a spectacular portrayal of the life of Christ. More than 36,000 people witnessed it in 1999, and we had more than 60,000 in 2000. It's a great evangelistic outreach, and I would estimate that hundreds, if not thousands, have come to know Christ because of the pageant.
But it got to be so costly that a few years ago we had to make a change. We had already been distributing tickets because seating for that many people without reserved tickets is a nightmare. But after much discussion, we decided to charge for tickets. We continued to make them available free to those who could not afford the fee, but we asked everyone else to purchase their tickets in advance. Some people wondered aloud why we had to charge a fee, but our elders decided it was the most cost-effective way of continuing the pageant.
Expenses such as buses, parking security, costumes, makeup, insurance and special effects really add up. The church wasn't making money off those ticket sales. Even with the ticket sales, we usually lose money on the Easter pageant, and the church has to cover the loss. But it's worth the expense because of the tremendous outreach it has become. In order to advance the gospel, we have to be willing to discuss money.
4. Generous giving is a positive testimony. One man who is now an active member of Southeast told us when he first started coming, "I'm not yet sure what I think of your doctrine, but I see what you do for the community, and that's what attracted me." Many are afraid that preaching on money is going to turn off the world, and sometimes it does. But sincere efforts to help people overcome their addiction to the stuff of this world will result in attracting people to Jesus Christ, and a congregation of sacrificial givers is a powerful testimony to the community.
After we committed to giving $31 million for our new facilities, we still had to borrow an additional $22 million. Several bankers in town tried to form a consortium so they could lend us the money because everyone assumed that no one bank would lend us that kind of money. But then one bank owner, who was not a Christian, contacted me and said: "Bob, I want to be your banker. I want to lend it all." That bank proceeded to lend us the money at the lowest possible interest rate.
The owner joked with me privately, saying: "Bob, how did you raise $31 million? I'm Jewish, and I can't raise that kind of money!" That banker was so impressed by the generous giving of our church members, and our financial department's record of integrity, that he was willing to support us even though he doesn't share our faith in Jesus Christ.
5. People need stewardship advice. Mike Graham, our stewardship minister, told us: "One of the reasons people don't give to the church like they should is that they are caught in the grips of debt. Biblical teaching on the avoidance of debt and responsible giving will help lift that yoke from their shoulders and give them a new zeal for the Christian life."
That's one of the reasons we offer financial counseling at Southeast. It's also a good reason to preach God's truths about handling money. Solomon's advice in the Proverbs and Jesus' words in the Gospels still apply today--don't trust in riches, don't wear yourself out to get rich, stay out of the slavery of debt, earn your money honestly, spend and save wisely and give generously. Those are basics that people need to hear again and again because money can be such a trap.
That's why I've changed my mind about preaching on stewardship. People need to hear God's Word clearly spoken. We don't hound people for money--the offering is still a low-key part of our service--and we don't take up many special offerings. But I preach four or five sermons every year on stewardship. Not all of those sermons are on giving. Some are about earning money honestly or spending and saving it wisely.
The more we give, the more God blesses. I believe that what's true for the individual is true for the church: Give, and it will be given to you.
Bob Russell is the pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Money Management in the Church
If you want the members of your congregation to be good stewards, you have to be a good steward of what God has given you.
There's a right way and a wrong way to handle God's money. The following tips are a guide for good stewardship of finances in the local church.
*Focus on regular stewardship, not crisis giving. Most churches make the mistake of only pleading for money when there's a crisis. They think people will respond when they hear about the need. But if we are manipulating people to respond to a crisis, they often do so reluctantly--the opposite motive for which we should be searching.
Paul said, "Let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:7).
*Handle money wisely. Poor money management will have devastating effects on your church's giving. If people don't trust those who are in charge of the finances, they won't give. Have proper accountability measures in place.
Use checks and balances to ensure that the church's offerings are being counted properly to avoid the opportunity for someone to embezzle money, and to avoid even the appearance of evil. Make sure more than one person counts the money, that there's not a hefty petty cash fund that goes unaccounted, and that staff members are kept accountable for the money they spend and are not given preferential treatment.
*Prayerfully spend money on priorities. No church has as much money as it has needs. Every church is forced to make decisions about which expenditures are the most important. Should we repave the parking lot or repaint the sanctuary? Should we give to the local children's home or to the one in Romania? Should we hire a youth minister next or a worship leader? How your leaders make these decisions, and what decisions are ultimately made, sends a powerful message to the congregation.
Financial decisions should always be made with these priorities in mind. And the top priority is the advancement of the gospel. Make the financial decisions based on what is best for the kingdom of God, not what will receive the least amount of criticism. The congregation will respect such decisions and, in the long run, will give better.
*Give a greater percentage of the church offerings to trustworthy missions. Develop a global mind-set. Americans live in the richest nation in the world. Christians in the United States have an opportunity and responsibility to fund the advancement of the gospel around the world. Get your congregation excited about missions, then promote the fact that the church leaders are committed to giving a higher percentage of the budget to missions.