It was a crazy, ridiculous, dangerous idea. Some would argue it was totally irresponsible. For a church to empty its bank account and give all its money away is the opposite of what fiscally responsible people do. But could it be God?
Would God really ask our church to withdraw all our money and simply give it away? Yes, He would, and yes, He did!
Celebrating Our Birthday
In November 2016, our staff attended the National Institute of Christian Leadership (NICL), led by Dr. Mark Rutland. During NICL, Dr. Rutland recounted the story of the time he took over the leadership of a church that was hemorrhaging because of scandal, loss of attendance and an incredible load of debt. One day, he stood in the sanctuary and asked the Lord why He had led him to an assignment that carried with it the responsibility to, essentially, pay off the debt the previous pastor had accrued. God responded that day with a question: "What is more Christian than paying off someone else's debt?"
Hearing that story changed my life and the life of our congregation at New Covenant Church. With that question still echoing in my head, I spent the next break thinking about our church's upcoming year. In November 2017, we would celebrate our 40th birthday as a church. And while it is customary to receive gifts for your birthday, I was sensing that God was asking us to instead give gifts for our special year. So I asked God a dangerous question. I asked what He wanted us to give for our birthday. I was surprised by His answer, although, looking back, I shouldn't have been.
"I want it all," He said.
"All of what?" I asked.
"I want all the money the church has in the bank, you know, the safety-net money."
I gulped and informed God that we had about $150,000 in the bank. He assured me He knew how much was in the bank.
Returning from the break, I ran into one of our elders. I told him I thought the Lord wanted us to give away all the church's money.
"Sounds like God," he replied.
"That sounds like God?" I marveled.
"Well, it doesn't sound like the devil!"
Taking the Plunge
Over the next two months, the church staff and elders prayed together about whether we should do what God asked and, if so, how we would handle it. Unanimously, we concluded that we were to embark on a "Year of Generosity."
We started the new year with a time of corporate prayer and fasting, and as our first act of generosity, we gave every family a book on prayer. In February, we taught on generosity and gave every family a book on generosity and giving. We then led the congregation through a giving exercise. We passed out generosity cards printed with this passage: "Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness (2 Cor. 9:10, NKJV).
God gives seed to the sower. We believed if someone wanted to be a sower, God would provide the extra seed for that person to become one. We asked each family throughout the month of February to meet, pray and list the places they would like to give if God would provide extra money for them to do so. We then asked our church to bring those cards to a Sunday service so the staff and elders could pray over every family and collect their generosity cards.
What the congregation didn't know was that on the previous Friday, we withdrew all our money from the bank (by the way, the bank strongly disapproves of you walking out the door with $150,000 in cash and will make you sign security waiver forms). God reminded us how Jesus multiplied the fishes and loaves, which became our example. In this instance, Jesus distributed the food by doing four things:
- He blessed the food.
- He broke it into pieces.
- He gave it to the disciples.
- He had the disciples give it away.
So that is what we did. The staff and elders had a party on Friday night. We blessed the $150,000, then broke it into $500 increments and put it into envelopes. The next Sunday, as families came down front to present their cards to the Lord and receive a blessing from church leadership, we handed them an envelope with the money in it and encouraged them to go and give it wherever they had specified on their generosity cards.
One of the concerns we had when planning this was whether or not we could trust people to sow the money rather than squander it, but one of the lessons we learned was when you are living from a spirit of generosity, you cannot put artificial controls on giving. Control is a mechanism of poverty, not generosity. We often use our lack of ability to control the results as an excuse to not be generous.
That Sunday service was electric. The shock was palpable. Surprise, laughter, tears and a few shouts filled the room. It was everything we imagined and then some. And there was disappointment, too. Not everyone had participated in filling out a generosity card, which was the only litmus test God told us to place on this adventure. Some people felt left out and disenfranchised, and this had to be addressed through pastoral care.
Giving Even More
Although over 90 percent of our congregation filled out the generosity cards, to our surprise, we still had plenty of money left to give away. This forced us to prayerfully consider other ways to give. One of our church members came to the leadership burdened for those who did not get an envelope and wanting to offer families in the church a way to give away their personal money. He presented to us the idea of generosity jars.
Generosity jars work like this: You put a penny in the jar on Jan. 1. You put two pennies in on Jan. 2. You add a penny every day until, on Dec. 31, you deposit $3.65. Whoever does this for a year will accumulate around $670 in the jar.
So we decided to take some of the leftover money and use it to start some generosity jars. We filled them with the amount they would have contained had someone started putting money in on Jan. 1 up until the Sunday we gave them away to the congregation.
We documented the data from the generosity cards and compiled a list of the most common places to which our members wanted to give. We decided to give the rest of the money to these places. As we identified the giving assignments, we took up offerings as well, affording our people a chance to participate in each opportunity.
One popular idea was to give a one-year scholarship to the local K-12 school, Haywood Christian Academy. Each scholarship is $7,000, so we gave the church a chance to give and guaranteed we would make up any difference from the Generosity Fund. But the offering the congregation gave was $10,000. Our people were now giving more than we needed, and we ended up not using any of the generosity fund.
Some people had noted on their generosity card that they dreamed of being able to give a car to a friend or family member. We mentioned this to our congregation, and several people gave the church a car so we could give it through our members to the people in need. We were able to give away seven cars in the past year. One even came from a member of another church who said his church didn't do anything like this.
The most common thing our congregation mentioned on their generosity cards was a desire to get out of personal debt so they would then have more money to give. So, with the final amount of money ($17,000), we decided to pay someone out of debt. As before, we took the idea to our congregation to allow them to participate. That Sunday, we took up an additional $10,000, bringing the total to $27,000.
We knew of a widow in our church who had recently completed the Crown Financial course we offer. She had succeeded in paying off all her debt but her car, on which she owed $10,000. We decided that we would surprise her Easter Sunday and pay off her debt.
That still left us with $17,000 to finish our generosity assignment. One of our staff said to me, "I believe we are supposed to pay another church out of debt."
I replied, "How would we even know what another church's debt is, and how would we find one that owes only $17,000?"
The next day, I was at the gym working out when one of my pastor friends came up to me and asked if I would advertise a big fundraiser his church was having the week after Easter. They wanted to pay off their church's mortgage of—you guessed it—$17,000! I told him I would advertise it to our church.
Easter Sunday, during our first service, we called the widow up and paid off her debt. During our second service, I sent the staff pastor who proposed paying a church out of debt, along with a videographer, to present to the pastor of that church in front of his congregation a check to pay off the church's mortgage.
Our assignment to empty the bank account was finished, but the Year of Generosity was not. Our members began giving in extravagant ways, buying each other expensive gifts, paying for each other's mission trips and sowing into ministries all over our community. We proved the saying is true: You cannot outgive God. Our church's tithes and offerings have risen significantly. Both our missions money and benevolence/alms contributions have grown. In fact, our bottom line increased through the year. We found that generosity is a kingdom value and creates an atmosphere of abundance. When generosity is being expressed, everything is more fertile.
On Christmas Eve, we collected the generosity jars we had passed out earlier in the year. Over two-thirds of the families turned in their jars. Some jars had the full $670 and some a lesser amount. The net result was that we collected a little over $100,000. More than half that amount was designated for a brand-new ministry birthed during the Year of Generosity called the debt-free initiative, which will pull one church family at a time out of debt. Acts chapters 2 and 4 both begin with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit but end with believers living in community and sharing what they have with each other. We realized God wanted to use this generosity campaign to do something personal in the lives of our members. God wanted us to be intimately involved in each other's lives and to help each other get free.
We began to dream about sharing homes and vehicles, giving 0% loans to one another and even paying off someone else's credit card. We are still discovering what it means to live from a place of generosity. We have had to deal with the spirit of poverty—or "skinny goat" mentality—in a myriad of ways. But we have experienced God's goodness and abundance.
We have had to change our minds about the way we see money and the way we budget. The one thing we are sure of is this: "There is nothing more Christian than paying someone else's debt."
Nick Honerkamp is senior pastor at New Covenant Church in Clyde, North Carolina. A Bible teacher, international speaker and community leader, he is passionate about equipping those in Christ to live out their full calling and identity. Visit his blog at nickhonerkamp.com.
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