Friday, April 8, 2011

Breaking the Silence About Money in Our Churches

Breaking the Silence about Money in Our Churches
NW MN Synod Spring Stewardship Event
Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
April 7, 2011

It’s always a good idea to listen closely to things we say around the church…especially things that get said and—simply because they’ve been said—are taken as gospel truth even though they may be anything but that.

Here’s one: “All this church ever talks about is money.” Someone says that—passionately, maybe even with a trace of disgust or anger in his tone (in my experience it usually is a HIM who says this)….and there is silence or perhaps even a murmur of agreement.

Here’s another one: “We never talk about money at this church.”

In my experience, all too often, such things are said loudly, forcefully by one person or perhaps a small group of church members—and everyone else (including the pastor, including the elected lay leaders) simply bows their heads, backs off, and agrees….tacitly (by not challenging it) if not overtly through nodded heads and words of agreement. “Yup, people don’t want to hear about money. We don’t want any money-grubbing around here. We talk stewardship—not money,” etc. etc.

Where does such talk come from? Is it based in fact? Do we Lutherans really talk too much about money—do we really? I don’t think so. There’s not too much talk about money in our churches.

There is, rather, a deafening silence about money among us….and it’s one of the things that’s killing us.

But where does such talk come from? It comes, I think, straight from the Old Adam—the collective “old man/old woman” in us all whose motto is: “Protect yourself at all costs.”

Why does such talk “rule the day” in our churches? It’s because of the Old Adam/Old Eve in all of us, that naturally resonates to ANY talk about self-protection. It’s also because we’ve swallowed a whole bunch of ideas, assimilated them so thoroughly that they now live in our bones:

• Talking about money is personal—it’s a privacy issue (and in America, we’ve gone over the top on “privacy concerns.”)

• How I spend my money is between me and my God (watch the pronouns!).

• Money-talk is somehow ‘beneath’ us; money is “dirty” (filthy lucre!) and we aspire to loftier things.

• Money-talk will drive away people from our churches, including the people we actually hope will give money to our churches, though we pledge ourselves to be ever so cautious in even HINTING at asking for their money (a vicious circle!)

And then there’s this one: “We believe that money follows mission….so we talk mainly about mission (do we, really?) and we trust the money will follow.” Even I used to believe this one—but no longer. Jesus, after all, didn’t say: “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be.” He said: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Friends, I believe it is high time—it is past time for us to question such statements, and also to ponder our own acquiescence in allowing such statements to pass in our churches. It is time for us to break the silence about money in our churches, and we hope that this synod stewardship event will help you go home and be a catalyst for making that happen.

Four thoughts about “Breaking the Silence.”

1. We need to break the silence about money because how we think, believe, talk and act about money provides a window into our souls.

What we make of money, as followers of Jesus Christ, speaks volumes about our spiritual vitality, the quality of our discipleship.

How a church thinks, believes, speaks and acts about money is like the proverbial “canary in the mineshaft…”

How people of God think, believe, speak and act about money is a key (I’m tempted to say it is THE key) “vital sign” of life within the Body of Christ.

One way we know that is that money-talk frequently makes us say ouch—if only to ourselves. If money-talk makes you cringe or shy away…pay attention to that.

When I visit my dentist, he takes this little probe-thing and goes up and down, along my gum line. My dentist digs around, pokes below the gum line, and sometimes the way he probes makes me grab the armrests of the dentist chair.

I want my dentist to “move on”…to spend more time in the parts of my mouth that feel fine. But my dentist is a sadist—he goes for the bottom corner of that one tooth where there’s this little sticky area—and he pokes around there, and I wish he would stop.

Or my general physician, at my annual physical, gets my shirt off, has me lie down on the examining table….and he kneads my gut, presses on my abdomen….and I tense up (because I’m ticklish)….and my doctor never asks me if anything feels GOOD when he does that. No, he asks me: “Does this hurt?” And if I say yes, he goes back to that area and kneads it some more, watching for my reaction.

Is my dentist a specialist in torture? Is my medical doctor a sadist? No. They focus on the things that make me say “ouch”—the parts that hurt, because the things that hurt in us are the things that could kill us.

And that, I believe, is why we have this code of silence about money in the church. It’s essentially a self-protective move on the part of the Old Adam, the Old Eve, in all of us. “Don’t touch me there—it hurts too much to talk about that…so I’d rather avoid it.” And being the nice people we are…we nice Minnesota Lutherans….we let such statements stand….we tippy-toe around them and end up giving them the status of gospel truth. “We don’t talk about money at this church.”

That kind of statement is like say: “We don’t talk about sin…..we don’t talk about salvation….we don’t talk about anything that really matters at this church.”

Because money matters—it’s a window into our souls.

Mark Allan Powell likes to say: “You think I talk a lot about money—wait until you meet JESUS!” It’s commonly observed that—if you just count up Bible verses—Jesus talks a lot more about money than he talks about prayer.

Because money matters so much—because it is so near and dear to us—we must talk about it. Mark Allan Powell uses a helpful acronym: ARMS—we need to talk about how we acquire money, how we regard money, how we manage money and how we spend money—because the Bible speaks volumes about all four of these topics (Mark Allan Powell, “Stewardship for the Missional Church,” in Rethinking Stewardship: Our Culture, Our Theology, Our Practices [Word and World Supplement Series 6], pp. 77-86).

And leaders, especially pastors, need to get over their reluctance to talk about money….their acquiescence with the big lie that “we don’t talk about money in this church.” For myself, over the course of 30 years as a pastor I have moved from thinking I should never know anything about how the members of a church give to thinking that I would be irresponsible if I didn’t know about giving patterns in a congregation I am called to serve. A pastor not knowing about church members’ giving patterns is like a doctor refusing to read a patient’s medical chart!

2. Breaking the silence about money will allow us to face truths we’d rather avoid, truths we need to face especially if we’ve been called to leadership in Christ’s church.

Such as the following seven facts about U.S. Christian giving (Emerson, Smith and Snell; “U.S. Christians and the Riddle of Stingy Giving” in Rethinking Stewardship, pp. 9-12):

A. 20% of Christians give nothing to church, parachurch or nonreligious charities in this country.

B. Most U.S. Christians give little to church, parachurch or nonreligious charities. The average is 2.9% of income (which climbs to 6.2% of income for those who attend worship at least 2x/month.) Because these figures are averages—averaging out generous givers and stingy givers….a more telling statistic is the median giving of American Christians (the numerically middle position) which is more like 0.6% of their income (2% for attending Christians).

C. A small minority of American Christians give generously—and their giving accounts for most of the money given by Christians. The most generous 5% of Christians supply 60% of all the money donated to churches and charities.

D. Income is unrelated to charitable giving.

E. The past century witnessed more than a quadrupling of real per capita personal income….but this increase in income has not translated into more generous giving.

F. In 2005 U.S. Christians earned a total collective income of more than two trillion dollars—more than the total collective GDP of all nations of the world other than the six wealthiest nations.

G. If U.S. Christians gave on average something approaching a tithe, they could quite literally change the world. Using the 2005 income figure, we’d be talking $133 billion for churches, parachurch organizations and charities.

3. Breaking the silence about money in the church frees us to realize and discuss together how, in the realm of financial stewardship, everything has changed. And we need to do that if we want to be faithful, effective leaders of Christ’s church in the 21st century.

In a nutshell: the Greatest Generation is passing from our midst. Read the obituaries. The Greatest Generation built and maintained institutions, contributed to institutions, because they trusted institutions. The Greatest Generation was the most “churched” generation in the history of denominations in North America. And they gave birth to one of the least “churched” generation, my generation, the Baby Boomers….and we in turn have spawned our even less-churched successor generations.

We might “wish back” the Greatest Generation…but they are passing from the scene. We need to understand and work with the generations who have succeeded them—and we need to get handles on the coming generations (the generations younger than most of us in this room).

We’re talking a sea-change here, with implications for every area of church life including how the church thinks, believes, talks and acts about money….including the money we need to do God’s work in the world.

David Lose encapsulates this sea-change in three ways as he discusses today’s world of “digital pluralism” (David Lose, “Stewardship in the Age of Digital Pluralism,” in Rethinking Stewardship, pp. 111-121):

A. We are moving from an age of obligation to an age of discretion.

B. We are moving from a time when identity was largely received to a time when identity is actively constructed.

C. We have moved from a culture that values tradition to one that values experience.

We might wish that we lived in another time or place—that our period of stewarding Christ’s church on earth were NOT happening here and now.

4. Breaking our silence about money in the churches will help us see that money is so integral to the life of faith that we (in the church) need to talk about it even when we’re not asking for any of it.

Again I am indebted to David Lose, from an article on Working Preacher (

“Time to come clean. How many of you have preached a sermon about money without asking for any? I raise this question for three reasons.

First, and as I've alluded to before, I believe our traditions are declining in part because we too rarely address our faith to the concrete and daily issues that concern our hearers. All too often, what our people hear on Sunday has precious little to do with what concerns them on Monday through Saturday.

Second, I know of few people who do not struggle to think faithfully about issues of money – how much to spend, to save, to share; what to spend it on, where to share it, and so forth. Our use of money is intimately connected with our priorities, values, and faith, and most people I know would crave some help from their church in thinking about all this.

Third, I honestly believe that if we can help people connect their faith to their everyday, pressing, real life concerns, then most of them will give generously and faithfully because of the difference their congregation makes to them.”

Here’s my take on what Dr. Lose is saying: We need to break the silence about money in our churches so that we talk about money so regularly, so effortlessly that folks come to see how integral their money-talk, money-think, money-act is to their whole life of faith and discipleship…..and as we do that we will also overcome some of our hang-ups, our nervousness about talking about giving some of our money to the church. Talking MORE about money—even, perhaps especially when it’s not during the stewardship campaign!!—may in the long run make it less necessary to talk about money every autumn(as in “time to give some of it to church”) because money-talk will simply be woven into the entire fabric of our lives of faith.

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