When someone joins the United Methodist Church, they pledge to support it with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Anyone can procure a copy of The United Methodist Book of Discipline and read for themselves the official stance of the Church on the elements of the pledge, but I thought it might be helpful to see what a clergy perspective is as shaped by years of ministerial experience, formal training, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This is where some people get squeamish. They wonder if I am talking about esoteric gifts, or material ones. In my case, I am talking about both. You cannot read Scripture and think that God is not expecting us to give back from gratitude both of these. We receive spiritual gifts from the presence of the Holy Spirit as a blessing:
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:4-10 NIV).
Each believer is endowed with gifts to be used to glorify God, build the Kingdom, and be a blessing to others. Material blessings are no different. I have been given skills, talents, and God-given gifts which enable me to earn a living. I have a house in which to make my home, food to eat, clothing to cover my nakedness, potable water to drink, and enough financial resources left over for Starbucks, entertainment, and the other little things that make daily life fun even if they are not necessities. I have enough. I have more than enough. Most of us able to read this blog and attend church in the United States do. Our standard of wealth is immense compared to other nations. I have seen poor people living in a literal garbage dump on the side of the road in India. We do not have that here. We have enough, and yet it never seems like it, does it?
From the beginning, people brought offerings to honor and glorify God. Before the invention of currency, it was in the form of animals or the fruits of the harvest. Whatever your craft and line of work was, you brought the product of your labor to the altar and gave it over to God. Now that we get paid in money, we bring the first cut to God. That’s what a tithe is: the first ten percent of our income. If you take ten percent after taxes, then the United States Government got the first cut, and they are not going to save you from sin and death, but God will. So consider the theological statement you make when you give a financial gift to the church during the course of worship and it is placed upon the altar of God. As clergy, I see what people spend their money on, and how much. Neither I nor anyone else, much less God, is asking you to take a vow of poverty, but God is asking for the first fruits of your labor obtained through the grace of God. Does that mean that we may have to make some lifestyle adjustments? Might we require a reordering of our priorities? Yes, but becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ demands that anyway. If we cannot take ten percent of what we receive and give it back to honor God, then we might want to consider whether it would be just for God to continue to bless us with one hundred percent of who we are and what we have.
When you give your monetary offering to God, you are also attending to the practical side of Kingdom building. It takes money to build. No one gets a house for free. Someone always foots the bill. So why do we assume that building an entire Kingdom of God on earth should be cheaper than a night out to dinner and the movies? It takes resources, financial resources to build a building, maintain it, and make it inhabitable to house the people of God and those who need to invoke its sanctuary. It takes money to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and teach the next generation about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It would be great if God just miracled all that, and let us off the financial hook, but God intends for us to grow and deepen our faith through our giving. Abel gave the first and very best of what his labor reaped, and God took notice of him for that. Cain just gave something, and when God did not show the same favor, Cain reacted with sin, rather than trying to alter his own behavior to be righteous.
One of the prime reasons the Church fails to thrive in this day and age is because it often does not have adequate money to sustain itself. Yet, if you look at American culture, it is easy to see where we place our value and are willing to give our money. Tragically little of that has anything to do with God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or bringing the Kingdom closer. We have work to do and it will take all we have to give. It will take ten percent of our time, applying those spiritual gifts we have from the Holy Spirit. It will take ten percent of our income to fund the work of ministry and mission. What if God gave to us equivalent to what we give to God? How many of us would be looking at a garbage dump on the side of the road? The Lord intends for us to pool our resources and join together as the Body of Christ to make a tangible difference in this world. It is time we stop squandering what we have been graciously given and made able to achieve, and focus on the will of God without complaining about the cost to us, because it will never come close to eclipsing the cost of salvation on the cross.