Sunday, September 26, 2010

On the Challenges of the Church--Continued

The devotion book we were given is entitled, 40 Day Spiritual Journey to a More Generous Life. The cover lets me know that it is a bestseller, of 400,000 copies plus translations in 40+ foreign languages.

During the last part of church, I decided to open the book and thumb through it. Bad move. I began to read the daily lesson titles, and I was immediately turned off. Some of these topics include:
  • The LORD watches your giving
  • Even the poor are to give to God from what they have
  • Set up a plan to faithfully give 10% OR MORE of your financial resources to the Lord's work (emphasis theirs)
  • Don't live for this life, but for your heavenly home
  • Women play a significant part in giving to God's work
  • God will reward you for your faithful generosity and diligent labors
  • Your giving in this life will have an impact on your experiences in eternity
This is just a sampling of the daily topics. So many things rub me the wrong way about this. I don't know where to begin.

Let's start with the need to point out that women play a role in God's work. As a feminist Christian and a feminist theologian, I, obviously, whole-heartedly agree. However, the fact that this needed to be highlighted in a chapter made it sound more like, "even women play a significant part in giving to God's work." Also, that this was one day out of 40 made me think that the other 39 were all about men. Maybe that's not the case, but that token chapter made me sick.

The chapters about giving in this life will impact experiences in eternity and God rewarding you for your generosity border dangerously on prosperity gospel. A quote by Sir John Templeton states, "...I always saw greater prosperity and happiness among those families who tithed than those who didn't." This basically says tithe and you will have more prosperity.

Another statement that troubled me was that giving 10% or more of your income will "ensure you of treasure in heaven." What?! Is this saying that this will buy your spot into heaven? Or is it saying your spot in heaven will be better if you give; better than those who do not give? This whole notion that giving or tithing will guarantee treasure in heaven puzzles me. Is God's grace not enough?

One thing that really frustrates me about this book is that it is all about money. At our church, we talk about being stewards of and giving of our time, talent, and treasures. Yet, this book is all about treasures, and in that context, it says that even the poor are expected to give from what they have to God. Also, it says that you are only poor when you want more than what you have. Really? That might be true for middle-class U.S. Americans, but tell that to a family living well below the poverty line within the United States, or tell that to people living within poverty-stricken nations of the third world. I think it is safe to bet that for a single-mother who works two jobs to keep the lights on, heat on, some food on the table, and a roof over her children's heads--and still at times comes up short--it isn't her wants that is making her poor.

The book is so out of touch with reality. It is filled with the message of give and you shall receive, and likely you will receive even more. However, I've seen so many people who have given with that expectation and have ended up disappointed. I've seen people give their 10% to the church, when even with that 10% they would not have had enough or have had barely enough to pay their bills, and when due dates come around, they don't get that "extra blessing" they were promised, and they are left unsure what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.

Perhaps I need to be more constructive, rather than critical, regarding giving to God. What does a healthy understanding and a life-giving theology of stewardship look like? I'd love to hear your suggestions in the comment section, as well as your thoughts on this book. As for my own constructive thoughts, I'll save that for another post.


  1. The existence of the prosperity gospel is a complete mystery to me. Who buys into that stuff? The token chapter on why women are important too is also an awesome turn off.
    The book is a not-to-subtle hint to get more money for the addition project. Seems like a low blow to me.

  2. I agree, Christopher. And while I am hung up on all of this and make some jokes, I am really struggling with this (in a long line of struggles with my church--this is just like a final straw). And yet, I feel there is no one I can bounce this off among my community, as I don't want to be viewed as a destructive force.

    However, this kind of theology, in my opinion and in my experience, is toxic theology. And the timeliness of introducing the book as they seek pledges from the building fund--it just doesn't seem ethical, in many ways.

  3. I wonder how else the folks who are in leadership in your congregation might more directly say to you and the other congregants (without buying into this "the Bible says you need to tithe or else" book stuff): "We need your money to make ends meet and feel more secure about who we are and what we're trying to do as a community of faith." Maybe they just ought to say that. Instead, the indirect passive-aggressive style that is so typical of hand-wringing church managers has been employed. Recovering Fundamentalists can sniff this stuff out so easily. Maybe the best thing you could do is be as direct with them as you'd like them to be with you, which would likely include pointing out the theological and Biblical literacy issues that are blatant in the book...for starters. Love them too much to let them set this as a tone for your household.

  4. I obviously haven't read the book, but as I mentioned on Twitter, I am very skeptical of anything that claims to have strong scriptural support for a required tithe - or really, anything more than a completely voluntary tithe. And this book - from your description, and my poking around the website - smells highly of prosperity gospel.

    The only scripture that could be purported to support a mandatory tithe today is stuffed away in Malachi, in a situation that is at best part of the Levite system.

    The basic issue is this: churches need money to run. They have to pay rent, utilities, staff, outreach - generally in that order. Besides that, there's all kinds of expenses that may or may not be legitimate. The question is, how do they get these funds? The easy answer is to prod your congregants to just give more. And there are huge expenses - mostly facilities - that aren't really negotiable.

    Personally, church buildings make me uncomfortable. Having a giant facility that's used for a few hours a week - maybe a bit more, depending on the church - is wasteful enough, but when the vast majority of expenses - usually 70% or so! - of a *church* go to staff and facilities, I think we're doing something wrong. It seems to me that it is idolizing a building, an experience, a day, an environment. The early church didn't really have this issue, because they met in homes, or on the temple steps every once in a while for big meetings, and they didn't have paid staff. Whether that kind of solution is appropriate for today's society is hard to say - but I think we can get a lot closer, and I think our obsession with buildings and programming, selling Christianity and playing the numbers game, is getting seriously in the way.

    Also, a sidenote: when researching how much of the average budget goes to outreach - what I believe should be the primary function of the church, since our mandate is to love our neighbors and care for the needy - not only was it a pitiful 15% or so, but half of the links were talking about "outreach" in the narrow and twisted meaning of beefing up attendance - to get more people in, and therefore more money in. That is disgustingly, horrendously backwards.

    I wrote a whole blog post related to this, actually. It was expired by a plea for money from my local megachurch, Mars Hill (Mark Driscoll ring a bell, anyone?), and it elaborates on such things:

    I may or may not have to write a sequel.

  5. Ugh, just reading back through that post gets my blood boiling. Church budgets and buildings are not a happy or comfortable issue for me.

    There are some better uses - churches that have schools during the week, for instance - but they are few and far between.