Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Church Stewardship Campaign, circa 1600

(Reflections on REVOLUTION IN GENEROSITY: Transforming Stewards to Be Rich Toward God, Wesley K. Willmer, editor. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008; and THE WISDOM OF RICHARD HOOKER, selected and edited by Philip B. Secor, and Lee W. Gibbs, Bloomington IN: Authorhouse, 2005.)

The editor of REVOLUTION IN GENEROSITY asks rhetorically, “Is it possible that our checkbooks are a better measure of our spiritual condition than the underlining in our Bibles?” The chapters take different approaches to hammering the idea that what we do with our money shapes us. I found that same idea, without the hammering, in a book of writings by an Anglican rector, circa 1600.

In REVOLUTION, Craig Blomberg writes in chapter two that wealth is commended in the Bible, but that it is also seductive. He dismisses the often-used guideline of ten percent, on the grounds that the tithe was a relic of the Kingdom of Israel, where it was a tax by a theocratic state – not a willing donation at all. He mentions that he has personally devoted fifty per cent of his annual income to the church without diminution of living standard. Does he imply that anyone giving ten per cent is therefore seduced, and anyone giving less than fifty per cent is therefore not quite as mature in their spiritual journey as he? He wouldn’t say so.

Another chapter by Walter Russell tells of signs along the “road to generosity,” and concludes with four “road blocks.” One of these is of particular interest to me, as I’ve been looking for connections between my own church and Generation X. Russell hears the excuse, especially from Gen X-ers, that they don’t want to give money to the church because of “disillusionment” with the institution. Russell counters well, with Jesus’s approval for “the widow’s mite” given to the temple that he himself condemned for corruption.

The “revolution” referred to in the title comes down to turning a “transactional” view of giving money to the church into a “transformational” one. Transactional givers attach strings, want their names on things, want to dictate how the money is spent, want to remake the beneficiaries of their largesse as Andrew Carnegie proposed making the world better in his Gospel of Wealth – described early in the book as a Darwinian alternative to Christian stewardship. But a transformational giver hands money over because of the change it makes in him.

Richard Hayne recommends that those of us charged with soliciting donations should be purposefully vague about specifics, which would be “transactional” by giving a quid pro quo. Instead, we should focus on the “vision” of the church and the opportunity presented for the giver’s own spiritual development.

Every writer cautions against using “non-Biblical” slogans to promote a giving campaign; against using fear (“give or these programs of the church will suffer”); and against promising God’s reward to any individual giver.

The more I read, the more I had a sense of déjà vu. If you don’t give enough, you’re not mature; you’re seduced by your money; you’re (by implication) not “really” saved. It’s an echo of the Puritan fear of not being “elect,” and it’s a whole line of discussion rejected by Richard Hooker, intellectual father of the Episcopal Church in the time of the first Elizabeth. There’s also, in this book, the implication that giving is a way to buy spiritual growth, “transforming” the giver. Of course -- of course! -- the authors wouldn’t agree, and that’s why they say it so many different ways, because they’re convincing themselves. Hooker, in his time, had to answer that kind of thinking, too, which his contemporaries condemned in the Roman Church.

I laid aside Willmer’s book and instead studied a biography of Richard Hooker by Philip Secor, and leafed through the alphabetical compendium of Hooker’s writings that Secor published with Lee W. Gibbs.

Here’s what Hooker writes about stewardship:

“We know that God Himself has no need of worldly goods. He takes them because it is good for us that He do so.”


“[Whatever we give] we should remember that our gift is not only a testimony of our affection for God but also a means to maintain our religion, which cannot endure without the help of such temporal support.”

I’d say, between Hooker’s two statements, we have Willmer’s book minus the implications of guilt. That second statement also cuts through all talk of programs, “vision,” mission statements, and what the church is doing with the giver’s money. The church’s worth is inherent, and its need is evident.

Episcopalians have been ridiculed for their “middle way,” but in the writings of Richard Hooker who defined that “via media,” we have clear common sense and generosity of spirit, focused on the central fact that God loves us and wants us to grow.


Jason Lewis said...

Great post; this is a good book your reference. I work with John Frank; one of the contributing authors.

Neil Bradley said...

As a Christian Giving professional in the Church of England, I found this refreshing.
Especially the difference between 'transactional' and 'transformational..