Mixed messages about money

March 16th, 2015

A friend related the following story to me.

“Before I left for church on Sunday, I realized it was the week to make a contribution to the church. I hadn’t been there all month and it was time to pay my tithe. I wrote the check out ahead of time, showed up in church and was ready to give my offering.

“When it was time for the offering, the lay person up front read a beautiful prayer about giving of our time and talent as a response to God’s graciousness.

“The ushers then dispersed to collect the offering. Somehow, they never made it over to me. I was seated in a side aisle. The usher, who had earlier greeted me, now walked right past me.

“While I sat waiting for her to realize her oversight — which didn’t happen — I had plenty of time to think about the mixed messages that were being given in the service that Sunday.

Mixed message #1

“As I sat there, I realized was there was never a clear ask. A beautiful prayer, yes. But no actual invitation to give.”

Mixed message #2

“Secondly, the offering plate never came by. Even if I wanted to give, I couldn’t. Never mind about online giving options. That wasn’t a possibility either. So, I settled in for the duration.”

Mixed message #3

“While I was waiting for the offering to conclude, I got to study the PowerPoint slide that was being used to communicate the giving message. It was a handsome slide with an eye-catching photo and a large, well-lettered caption. But what a mixed message it contained!

“The graphic was a close-up side view of coins. The caption said ‘Give freely of your time, talents and treasure!’”

Let me interrupt my friend’s story for a minute here. Anyone who knows the biblical story might guess that those coins represent the widow’s mite. Yes, she gave two coins … but it was all she had! Literally. They would also know that time, talent and treasure is code language for tithing: Give 10% off the top back to God.

Insiders know this. But what about those who don’t know these stories or allusions?

They would pay more attention to the picture. Because even in this age of a slow-growing economy, a picture is still worth a thousand words. To some, this picture may have been saying, “Look, no matter what we say, all we really want is your loose change. Forget about sacrificial giving, bills or checks. Just give us what’s jingling in your pocket.”

Mixed message #4

I’ve visited my friend’s church. I know that it’s a large church, but also that it’s been operating in the red for months. Even though they support creative ministries that reach out to people on the margins, the leadership has now begun to ask people to give in order to fund the budget. They’re now printing the monthly shortfalls in the bulletin each week. That’s a sure sign that the vision of the church is no longer front and center. If it is, the people in the pews don’t know it. That too is a problem.

Could this church be strapped because of mixed messages?

Mixed message #5

Let’s get back to my friend’s story. A graphic arts editor, she noticed what many other probably hadn’t: another mixed message coded into the slide of the coins. “Lightly embossed over the photograph was the letter c set inside a circle. This universal copyright symbol is a sign that the photo was protected by copyright. That means it must be paid for in order to be properly used.”

So, here we have a pilfered photo of coins set against the message to give generously. A mixed message about money rife with irony!

One must ask, how come the church sees itself as so poor, or so outside of the rules, that it can justify stealing someone else’s work?

Perhaps you think I am being unduly hard on this poor church. Maybe. But if insiders pick up on this, what other mixed messages might guests and visitors be picking up on?

My friend ends this story with a sad admission: “I was so frustrated by this whole fiasco — especially being ignored when it came to the offering — that I stuck my check back in my purse. It’s sitting on my countertop right now. I’m going to bring it back to church with me next week. But if they don’t bring the offering plate by me, I may not give it!”

My friend’s frustration is understandable. As is the frustration of churches who are operating in the red. But let’s think about this some more.

Straight messaging

Let’s say people give according to the message they receive: coins. If everyone is giving at the level asked, this congregation could have a misguided sense of what it takes to survive or be generous. When the call goes out to give more, the regular givers may feel flummoxed. “We’re already giving! We need to get some more people in here to help carry this church.”

But why would new people want to attend or support a church that is not self-supporting through its own contributions? Or has lost its sense of vision? People know when they are being used.

If mixed messages are being given about money, where else are these kinds of messages popping up in the life of the church?

I should tell you, this is a true story. It really happened. In fact, it not only occurred in my friend’s church, it happens every Sunday in thousands of churches across America.

What might a straight message about money look and sound like?

How about this? Instead of the call to give coming through a prayer … which can be a form of triangulated or manipulative conversation … someone quite familiar with the vision of the church stands up front and announces the vision. He or she shares in an inspiring way how it is being lived out, and the difference it is making. He or she then invites people to give to support this vision. Ushers, before they disperse, scan the congregation to see where folks are sitting, and go to the people. A slide or slides celebrating the people and places being positively impacted by the vision is shown. Meanwhile, music that ties in to the vision is played or sung. People are then thanked for supporting the vision. Then the money is dedicated to God. Visitors and guests are told what is expected of them during the offering. If there is a shortfall, the vision and how the budget supports it, is lifted up in the bulletin. The sermon, too, mentions how the people are living out God’s vision in the world. And how the ministries of the church do as well.

I think we have not because we give not. And we give not quite possibly because:

  1. The offering plate passes us by. 
  2. We get mixed messages about what we are being asked to give. 
  3. We don’t give or get straight talk about the spiritual importance of giving. 
  4. We are are not lifting up a vision that inspires people to give generously. 

There is plenty of money in the world. And there are plenty of people who want to be generous with it. We need to be bold, inspiring, and straight with people about money. Mixed messages about money produce mixed results.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at rebekahsimonpeter.com.

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