I have always given a tenth of my income “back to God, ” mostly through my local church, although my reasons have changed over the years. As a child, it was a mandated discipline. Even before I was old enough to attend school, my parents gave me a dime every Sunday morning for my Sunday School offering. Then later when I started getting a weekly $5 allowance, my “offering” became 50 cents of that (and most of the rest was my school lunch money). My Christian parents, reinforced by many sermons and Sunday School lessons at church, were definitely trying to establish a tithing discipline in me, and by now, I think it’s safe to say they were successful.
As an adult, however, reading and studying the Bible on my own, there have been seasons when I have felt convicted, and my tithing philosophy has been reshaped. I am in the midst of such a season now, and uncertain where it might take me, but let me wait and tell you about that later.
It’s commitment time at my church, time to pledge our giving commitments for the coming year. Pastor Duncan told stories Sunday of 2 little boys: one he observed at a local fast food restaurant, refusing his father’s request for a couple of his french fries. “They’re mine, ” he said, despite the obvious fact that his father had just paid for them. Then there was a story of a little boy in Mexico who voluntarily shared every other sip of his lemonade with a foreign stranger, then gave the last swallow to a second stranger who walked up. The stories struck a chord with me, more for the familiar regional attitudes than for the basic “which little boy are you?” question of stewardship.
In fact, it has been after returning multiple times from Mexico, South America, and Central America, that I have felt most heartsick for our consumer culture and most convicted for being a part of it. Upon returning home from these trips, having spent time with families who materially own nothing but whose love for God, family, neighbors, and strangers is pure and unselfish, my home and its furnishings penetrated the depths of my soul with disgrace and selfishness. The expensive art prints on the walls, the trinkets sitting around just to be seen (and dusted) . . . the dirt floors of homes with no running water, the children with no shoes, the families who share their food with strangers, not worrying about where they might get their next meal . . .
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The memory of the little boy I met in Mexico who admired my tennis shoes but asked why they were not a certain brand that he had heard all U.S. Americans wear. When, without thinking, I told him I had a pair at home, his eyes widened as he said in disbelief in Spanish, “You mean you have two pairs of shoes?!” My heart sank as I looked at his worn out shoes and knew I had, not two pairs, but thirty-two. And the memory of the young mother in Honduras who hugged me and cried in gratitude saying, “I never in in my wildest dreams thought I would have a house like this.” Four sturdy cinder block walls with a roof would never begin to pass any building code in the U.S., but it was that family’s dream; and the materials for the entire house cost $200. How many $200’s are hanging on my walls and decorating the shelves of my house? How many dream houses, and how many shoes could my comfortable lifestyle buy?
It just doesn’t fit. Christians we call ourselves, taking the name of Christ as our label, but we justify our selfishness by telling ourselves that “everyone” has a nice house, that we have worked hard for it, earned it, and besides we make an annual donation to the hunger fund at church, serve at the soup kitchen a couple of times a year, and donate our unwanted clothes to Goodwill. I’m a good person, we tell ourselves, and perhaps we are if we only compare ourselves to those around us.
But there’s that label. That “Christian” thing. It keeps kicking at my soul. Does our label really tie us to Jesus Christ, and if so, should we not make our comparisons to him and his teachings? It’s much more comfortable to compare ourselves to those around us, but we must recognize that Jesus’ life and teachings have no resemblance to the lifestyles we have set for ourselves. So we can go on using his name and ignoring his message . . . or we could start calling ourselves something different . . . or we could practice squeezing ourselves through the eye of a needle . . . or we could do the really hard thing – earn the label we have been wearing and heed his call.
If we listen to Jesus, what will we hear? If we watch him, what will we see? His passions are clear. Care for those in need. Feed the hungry. Comfort the mourning. Care for the forgotten ones. Clothe those who are cold. Visit the prisoners. Help the helpless. Welcome the strangers. Treat every human being with love and kindness, forgiving their many imperfections as God forgives ours (Matt. 25:31-36; 5:43-48; 6:12). Yes, we have heard all this, but we’d rather help in some other way. After all, Jesus did not know how undeserving some of these people are, or how many bills we have to pay.
My soul cries for us, and for the world that sees us and reads our label. I cry because we do not resemble our Jesus. “Sell all you have, and give the money to the poor, ” he told one would-be follower (Luke 18:22). The man walked away sadly, as, I fear, would/will we. We are warned that many are wearing his name but will hear him say, “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:21-23). My soul cries because we can know him, but we choose to create our own more comfortable gospel.
Tithing to the church
In almost every church of which I’ve been a part, I have heard sermons about giving our tithe to the church. Early in my adult life I began to question this on two levels. First, the Biblical basis for the tithe is a part of the Old Testament code of law. The ancient Hebrew people used to give one tenth of their livestock, one tenth of their crops, etc. to the temple, as a sacrifice to God, food which would be consumed by the priests. I question why we should pick and choose from the Old Testament law what we want while there is unquestionably much of it that we should and do ignore. In the New Testament gospels, we have no record of Jesus speaking of “bringing our tithes into the storehouse, ” but rather that everything we have belongs to God, and that to those to whom much is given, much is expected (Luke 12:48). To justify our big houses, impressive cars, cushiony bank accounts . . . we’re safer with the Old Testament 10% than with listening to Jesus.
Secondly though, I began to question the often accepted assumption that giving to God means giving to the church, and I am not convinced it does. Now I’m going to tread softly here, for I don’t want to give you or me a new excuse not to give. I love my church and therefore want to support it. While I am not convinced that God is pleased with our impressive ornate buildings and our ministry salaries*, I concede that this has become our cultural mode of worship, and this said, we must be responsible caretakers, paying the heating bills, patching the leaky roof, mowing the lawn, and paying our leaders. Most of our “tithe” must go there, just as any other organization’s dues must pay for their rent, maintenance, speakers, etc. I will do my part. But a quick read through the Gospels tells me this is not the ministry to the poor, to which Jesus’ teachings call us.
Now most churches do include such ministries. One of the reasons I chose my church is its rich diversity of ministries, reaching out locally to those in need, as well as into other states and other countries. And another church I visited often was very impressively carrying out Jesus’ ministry – providing meals for local residents, sometimes even shelter, and reaching out in love to those who are marginalized and ostracized from most churches. For this part of our tithe, I think God smiles.
I have over the years continued to give the bulk of my tithe to the church, but have diversified it somewhat to include some other Christian ministries that speak to my heart. Because I see my “tithe” as “giving back to God, ” however, I do not count other civic donations into my tithe. I give to the United Way and the National MS Society, for example, but they are not budgeted as my ministry dollars.
Being careful and responsible
I am not one to hand money to people on the street, at least not in the U.S. While I can respect opposing attitudes, I don’t feel good about the thought of giving someone’s husband and father the means of coming home drunk again tonight, or high, and abusing them. Unfortunately we cannot tell by looking, or even by their “God bless you” words how sincere they are, and I do think it is a part of our responsibility to think about the dangers. So instead, I will offer to meet the person across the street at McDonald’s and buy him a meal, and/or I will tell him about the hot meals available at the shelter (and donate to support them). There are many ministries set up to care for people who are truly in need, and if they are abusers, the help they need is not from our pockets.
I have begun to get that uneasiness again though, that conviction that means change is on the way. While I believe in keeping the lights on in my church and paying salaries of the gifted ministers at my church, I am more and more acutely aware of the poor, the forgotten, the ignored – in every city, in every state, in every country – and it’s overwhelming because I cannot begin to meet such a need. But I return many times to the story of the child on the beach, throwing starfish back into the ocean one by one, amidst a beach of hundreds of thousands. When told she was not making a difference among so many, she responded as she threw another in, “I made a difference for that one.”
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How will I respond? I will turn in my commitment card to continue giving to my church, and I will pray. Beyond that I am aware that there are many ministry venues already in place and in need of my monetary support. The local Helping Ministries organization (homeless shelter, soup kitchen, food pantry, clothes closet, utilities help, etc.) is a good start to work into my budget for next year.
A Christian research group recently reported that protestant church giving has hit its lowest point since the Great Depression. According to the study, which included 23 protestant denominations, the average church member was giving 2.3% of her/his income to the church in 2011. While I’m sure there are multiple reasons for this drop, I think the main explanation is our extravagant lifestyle that has locked us into spending our entire paychecks on our own bills. If we have been so richly blessed, is 2.3% enough to share? Is 10? Is 50?
I foresee in the near future a change in the physical landscape. No longer able to be maintained, the many steepled buildings across our towns and cities will be sold for other uses, and the face of “church” will drastically change. Not necessarily a bad thing, I think. I’m predicting the younger generations will do church much less formally and maybe much more Jesus-like.
What disturbs me most about these statistics is that our high mortgages and the many ways we live outside our means are keeping us from listening to the cries of the poor. “Later, ” we say at best, but later we have added another debt. What if Jesus personally asked us right now to downsize – really downsize – and share our fortune with those he called “the least of these”? He might, because they are, I think, the passion of his heart.
A song for meditation: The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor
*This is not a jab at ministry salaries. In the church culture we have built, our ministers should definitely be paid well, to live as comfortably as the rest of us. The problem with our paid ministry culture is that ministers are not free to speak out on issues that might divide or upset the congregation, as their livelihood depends upon their pay.