Why churches are poor

July 22nd, 2015

At a recent clergy retreat I attended, we prayed a prayer that went something like this: “O Lord, keep us far from the riches of the world.” Each of us was sincere in our prayers.

Later it occurred to me that God is indeed answering that prayer! Many churches find that money is their limiting factor. I’m going out on a limb here. But I don’t think it’s because these churches are full of poor people. It’s because they act poor.

I don’t believe this is a theologically necessary state of affairs.

Jesus had a trade. So did his disciples. His later apostles did as well. When Jesus and his disciples were traveling, they were richly supported by a network of women who financed their material needs.

While the author of 1 Timothy 6:10 writes, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” we sometimes act as though money itself is the root of evil. The truth is money is simply a tool through which we express our values.

What if we were to pray that God direct the riches of the world to us and through us to bring about healing, reconciliation, justice and wholeness in our communities and world? I wonder what might happen then?

We need a new consciousness around money — one that allows us to be honest about our needs and the unlimited God we serve. Money is not in short supply. But if we believe it is, we will act, and ask, accordingly.

The most awkward moment in many church services comes when the offering plates are passed. Rarely is an inspirational invitation to give offered. Instead, code language, which only church insiders understand, may be used. Ushers themselves are often undertrained in actually passing plates to the people. Many a time I’ve wanted to put something in an offering plate but it never made it to me. It’s almost as if the ushers are apologetic about bringing the plate around. Music may play during the offering. But this offertory music is not connected with the offering of our financial gifts or our lives. Sometimes I wonder if its real function is to distract from the the embarrassing matter of collecting money. Finally, people stand while the doxology is sung.

Money makes the world go ’round. And churches need it as much if not more than other organizations. We have holy business to attend to: acts of justice, works of mercy, support of denominational initiatives, paying the salary and benefits of leaders, mortgages, heat, light, etc.

So why these mixed messages about money? Why awkward silences and the lack of clear direction or invitation? The truth is, many people want to express their gratitude to God, yet they don’t participate in the offering.

Here are five reasons why:

1. We don’t ask them to give. Yes, this may allow us to avoid awkward moments that make it seem like the church is “all about money.” But we also sidestep teaching moments, miss the opportunity for spiritual formation of lifelong givers and don’t give people a way to express their gratitude. Worse, we hinder spiritual growth.

2. We ask them to give to the budget, but not to mission or ministry. Thus they don’t connect their giving with transformational activity. Don’t highlight the building or leadership salaries. Instead, highlight what buildings and salaries make possible!

3. We don’t ask for enough. Have you ever noticed that some people are only deeply motivated to give when challenged? If the “ask” isn’t big enough, they won’t bother giving. Are you asking for enough to get the attention of these givers? If not, you are blocking their spiritual growth, and the church’s ministry.

4. We have lost our vision for ministry and our passion for mission. They can tell the church is in maintenance mode or a downward spiral. In one church I served, we redirected “the Pennies from Heaven” offering from paying off the mortgage to specific missional opportunities. Giving increased dramatically. Same people. Bigger offerings. They were jazzed by the vision and passion.

5. We don’t ask God to fully, richly, lavishly fund our ministries. Again, it’s that awkward relationship with money. And with vision.

We have not because we ask not. It’s time to start asking: inspirationally, invitationally, intentionally. Stop making excuses for why our churches are poor. Instead, it’s time to open ourselves to all the gifts God wants to bless us with. Acting poor won’t get it done.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at rebekahsimonpeter.com. She is the author of "The Jew Named Jesus" and "Green Church."

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