Last night we once again studied one of the foundational elements of our Baptist Faith & Message. Unfortunately, the recording did not work, so there's no audio link.
The subject of the night was "Stewardship." For starters, here's what the Baptist Faith & Message states:
God is the source of all blessings, temporal and spiritual; all that we have and are we owe to Him. Christians have a spiritual debtorship to the whole world, a holy trusteeship in the gospel, and a binding stewardship in their possessions. They are therefore under obligation to serve Him with their time, talents, and material possessions; and should recognize all these as entrusted to them to use for the glory of God and for helping others. According to the Scriptures, Christians should contribute of their means cheerfully, regularly, systematically, proportionately, and liberally for the advancement of the Redeemer's cause on earth.
It's a good statement. Though accurate, it lacks something. Perhaps it's because it sounds like it was edited by a committee who wanted to ensure that every key phrase and buzzword ever used in sermons relating to stewardship was included.
I began last night by just asking the crowd what the word "stewardship" means. It's interesting that whenever you ask a question in a church setting, people seem to think the answer must always be "churchy". While it's true that Christian stewardship has to do with trusting God and evangelizing the world (both answers given last night) the point is that the word "stewardship" has meaning outside the church.
So what does it mean?
One person answered "Good management." That was a good answer. It led to another responding "Good management of items that don't belong to you." Wow. Now, we're getting somewhere.
The word comes from the term "steward" which is defined as follows:
- a person who manages another's property or financial affairs; one who administers anything as the agent of another or others.
- a person who has charge of the household of another, buying or obtaining food, directing the servants, etc.
- an employee who has charge of the table, wine, servants, etc., in a club, restaurant, or the like.
So, it's not that difficult. It's about managing something that doesn't belong to us. For believers, it's understood that God owns everything. The problem is that church culture has so messed up this concept that whenever a pastor or leader begins to speak about stewardship, people eventually think "He's talking about needing more money for the church."
How have we (Christians and the church) become so messed up when it comes to stewardship? Here are some reasons I believe we've landed here. . .
- We equate "stewardship" with a capital fund-raising campaign. Isn't it interesting that the only time many churches ever talk about stewardship is when money is needed (or wanted) to fund the construction of new facilities? We have had at least two of these campaigns at First Baptist since I've been here. Though promoted by godly people in consutation with legitimate ministries, I have always come away feeling uneasy. I remember one campaign we were in about 15 years ago where we were required to make home visits to all church members to see how much they would commit to give "over and above their tithes" to the new building program. One church member said to our visiting team "Wow. This is the only visit I've ever received from people at the church. I haven't attended in a while, but when you come, you're asking for money?" Ouch. I wanted to crawl under a table. Sometimes these capital funds campaigns reek of typical self-centric, marketing strategies. Now, I'm not throwing everyone under the bus here. We were required, as many churches are, to have these campaigns in order to secure the loans necessary for new construction. (BTW - this leads to the question "Should churches even take out loans?" Another topic for another day.)
- Stewardship emphases always seems to be solely focused on the message of "You better start tithing." Don't get me wrong, I believe in the tithe. I know this is up for debate among some Christians, but not for me. I like Randy Alcorn's description of the tithe as "training wheels" for generous giving. It's the floor, not the ceiling for generous giving. Since all we have belongs to God, we cannot just tithe the first ten percent and then spend the other ninety any way we like and be obedient. Nevertheless, stewardship is not just a "get out the tithe" campaign. Stewardship is about so much more.
- Pastors speak on giving only when the budget isn't being met. We have experienced this in the past few years. I have even had to put out the "reality check" regarding church expenses. The problem is when these are the only times that stewardship is discussed. Oh yeah, why is stewardship only discussed when the financial state demands it? What about the dearth of volunteers to serve in different ministries? What about those who are gifted and talented and are not using those gifts and talents for Kingdom growth? Shouldn't all that be discussed as part of stewardship?
- Stewardship is shared as something everyone should do, yet not many practical examples are given. The "tithing" testimonies are good, but they only go so far. They're inspirational and help you see what should be done. The stories of those who have given away millions of dollars to ministries and churches are inspirational, but the vast majority of people will never see a million dollars so there's a disconnect. Stewardship is promoted as something that some people can do, but not something that everyone can grasp. There are great classes to help and these are offered, but most people will not attend. So. . .stewardship becomes something that "really radical Christians" get. Hmmm. There we go equating "radical" with what should be "normal."
Shame on us - pastors and leaders - who have allowed the concept of biblical stewardship to be muddied by cultural norms. No wonder those in our churches have a disconnect when it comes to faith, finances and service. We will be held accountable for our teachings in this area.
So, what are we to do regarding stewardship. For me, the first step was understanding that I don't own anything. Everything I think I own really isn't mine. Everything I think I own (whether money, material possessions, talents, skill sets, gifts, etc.) actually belong to God. He's entrusted these things to me for one purpose - to bring Him glory. This is humbling. Why? Because I realize quickly that I have wasted so much. I have used so much for my own glory and desires and wants. If my giving and serving is truly a natural response of the grace that God has shown me, then, oh my, I have fallen so short. It's embarrassing to note this.
Stewardship is not a program. It must not be relegated to a select few who "get it." It's not about raising funds for a church, ministry, program or mission. It also cannot be segmented out of the "normal" Christian life.
It's not about coming up with a checklist of giving.
It's not about just doing better.
It's about total surrender and continually removing self from the center of the equation. It must be taught and modeled. The pastors, deacons, teachers and all leaders must model this. The church as a whole (regarding the church's finances, property, and giving) must model this as well.
The question is "What or who do I love more? God, me or my stuff?"
When we begin to understand what it means to be a steward and live our lives with the understanding that our giving is a direct response to God's grace, freedom ensues. This isn't propagating a "name it and claim it" or "prosperity gospel" theology (which I believe are anti-biblical and sinful.) This is about landing at a place where freedom truly exists.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world - the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions - is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. 1 John 2:15-17 (ESV)