Why do we give?

Article posted: 10 Jul 2011

By Craig A. Satterlee, Alban Weekly, 4 July 2011, Number 362

From the Alban Institute

“Why do we give money to the church?” a child asks her mother, who is filling Sunday’s offering envelope. How will the mother answer her daughter’s question? How do we answer this question for our children? How does the preacher answer this question for us? Do we say that we give to help pay the church’s bills? Do we say that we give because of all the good things the church does—teaching children, standing for the best things in the community, fostering happiness and human welfare, providing help and friendship, and caring for people in need? How about answering by reciting a Bible verse or telling a Bible story? What verse would we choose? What story would we tell?

If we tell people to give in order to get, people might conclude that God is like a crooked politician whose favor we can purchase. That’s what Simon the magician thought in Acts. “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 8:18–19). If we tell people to give out of obedience to a divine command to tithe, God might become an angry judge who demands and enforces. We can find plenty of verses like this one that tell us to fear the Lord. “Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field . . . so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always” (Deut. 14:22–23). If we tell people to give out of gratitude, people might understand God to be the source of everything we are and all we have, and that God lovingly provides for us. We might truly take what Jesus said to heart: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. . . . Look at the birds of the air. . . . Are you not of more value than they? . . . Consider the lilies of the field . . . will [God] not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” (Matt. 6:25–31).

“Why should I give to the church?” When preachers answer this question, the answers we give are limited, because we need to be especially careful to answer in a way that is consistent with who we proclaim God to be. Otherwise, we offer an inconsistent or contradictory message. We cannot, for example, preach that God loves people unconditionally and saves them by grace and then imply that they somehow earn God’s love and favor by how much they give—even if this approach is more effective in garnering the money the church needs. When people experience inconsistency or a contradictory message in preaching, they tend to resonate more with what they are told they need to do than with who the preacher says God is. More than misleading listeners, such a sermon undermines the gospel.

Whether the topic is money and giving or anything else, preachers cannot forget the primary purpose of the sermon. From a Christian perspective, topreach is first and foremost to proclaim the good news “that God’s love, confirmed in Jesus Christ, is freely, graciously, offered to each and all, and . . . that we are to love God with our whole selves and to love and do justice to our neighbors as ourselves.” To preach stewardship, then, is to proclaim the gospel in such a way that Christians respond by giving their money, spending their time, using their abilities, or however we define stewardship in response and service to Christ, often by supporting Christ’s church—specifically, the congregation. Somehow, preaching stewardship is a response to God or the gospel. In this regard, the stewardship sermon is different from the fund-raising appeal made by the symphony, an alma mater, or the cancer society.

Whatever verse or story we pick, the Bible tells us that our giving is an expression of something bigger and more profound than our church. In terms of money and giving, Scripture’s greatest gift is to keep before us the reason we give to God. We give to God in response to all that God has given us—particularly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—and as a way of sharing in God’s own will for and work in the world. In other words, we give in response to the gospel. According to the Bible, we give to God (1) as an act of worship, (2) as a way of participating in God’s reign, (3) as an act of resistance, (4) as a way of bearing witness, and (5) to grow in grace. Some preachers also believe that the Bible teaches that we give (6) to receive. Individuals and even congregations are motivated to give for various reasons. Therefore, while preachers might select a particular scriptural reason to give for the annual stewardship sermon, we will also appropriately include all of these biblical reasons for giving as we preach over time.