A 2,000-year-old incident continues to set the standard for what it means to be a generous church.
The New Testament records the need: “Our Jerusalem brothers and sisters need our help.” And in the face of difficult financial circumstances, the church at Macedonia responded. The Macedonian Christians were faithful stewards of the resources God provided, the Apostle Paul noted.
Stewardship often is seen as an individual act—giving a tithe, with generosity gauged by contributions in addition to the basic 10 percent. But is the corporate body also a steward, and how or can that stewardship be measured?
“I don’t think you can separate the church and individual members’ response,” explained David Waganer, resource coordinator for Stewardship Development Association.
Ruben Swint agrees. “Stewardship is all we do with all we have to carry out our God-given mission,” said Swint, an independent consultant for Generis, a firm that assists educational and faith-based entities with stewardship and fund raising. “That’s true for individual Christians and churches or communities of faith.”
And he believes, stewardship and generosity are synonymous. Christians need to “unlearn what we think we know” about stewardship, he said. Following the rise of corporate America in the 1950s, churches perceived the need to raise money. “The church has used ‘stewardship’ as the term for fund raising,” Swint said.
Rather than fund raising, the focus must shift to vision and mission. “I see the stewardship angle in everything,” Waganer said. “We’ve got to look at a holistic view of stewardship” that includes “money, time, talent and everything that we are.”
“We try to begin with a church’s vision, what God has called them to do,” noted Terry Austin, founder of The Austin Group. “To be a good steward, the church needs to be utilizing their money to reach that vision. A church may have money in the bank. But if they are not doing what God has called them to do, they aren’t good stewards. So much of what we have to do has little to do with money itself. … Money is the tool.”
Swint believes stewardship language must broaden from the church’s 1950s understanding to better communicate the concept today.
“Nowadays, when we use the word ‘stewardship,’ we mean it in two ways,” he said. “First, we’re only doing it one time in the year. And second, everyone understands we are about to launch a campaign for ‘Green October’ to catch up from the summer slump and to pledge for giving through the next calendar year.
“Stewardship is a rich word. ... We don’t need to get away from it, but we need to redefine it so that people don’t think, ‘They just want my money,’” he explained.
The word “generosity” can express the concepts in a way that is more understandable and palatable today.
“We don’t find the word as often as stewardship in the Bible, but we see the actions of God and people that reflect generosity and abundance,” Swint said.
“If we are made in the image of God, we should have received the generosity gene in our spiritual DNA. We don’t necessarily want to be labeled a good steward, but we want to be seen as generous.”
Generosity can be expressed with different terminology. “Be anti-budget,” Swint declared. Promote an “annual ministry plan” instead. “Don’t talk about income; talk about contributions. … Don’t talk about expenses; talk about costs. It’s costly to follow God and costly to carry out our mission.”
And be sure to include the stewardship’s other aspects—hours and talents given—in the church’s annual reports.
Pastors often feel reluctant to bring up stewardship issues. Pastor Chuck Arney of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Lee’s Summit, Mo., admits he rarely preaches on the topic.
“Our culture is permeated with the attitude that growth is success,” he said. “I don’t want people to go away measuring Sunday in terms of the amount of offering and the numbers of people.”
The church has “never been flush,” and current economic conditions have hit a number of members with salary reductions or job loss. But members are committed to growing as a missional congregation, focusing on ministering to their neighborhood.
Financial issues forced them to redefine how to give. “We established an operating budget—what we have to do, and then created another giving option, The Revolution, that springs from our missional initiatives,” Arney explained.
“I had talked about how Jesus revolutionizes life and gives us passions. I asked the people to think about their passions. They tithe to Cornerstone, and out of their passion they give to The Revolution. When people get excited, they put their resources behind it.”
Those passions currently are expressed through food pantry and clothes closet ministries, but will soon blossom into additional opportunities, including apartment outreach. “We are on the cusp of starting a nonprofit organization designed to go into the community rather than wait for people to come,” he said.
Cornerstone’s approach stems from Jesus’ commissioning of the 12 disciples in Matthew 10. “He tells them they don’t need to do fund raising, and that they must depend upon the generosity of the people they reach,” Arney said. “Trust God, and he will give us what we need to do the ministry.”