By Bill Webb
Raise your hand if you have heard a sermon recently on Christian stewardship. Tap your toes if your church has sponsored a study or seminar on that subject within the last year.
The sermon may be in your near future because the annual process of developing a church budget has almost arrived. Given challenges to the American economy and the resulting effect on church expenses, that sermon or sermon series might be delivered with particular urgency and passion this year.
Virtually everything costs more now than even a year ago. Next year’s church budget had better include greater allowances for facility costs like heating and cooling, insurance, cleaning supplies, etc. Staff costs like benefits (particularly medical insurance) and travel reimbursement continue to rise. And static staff salaries effectively translate to less buying power and thus less pay. The cost of educational materials for Bible study and discipleship are driven upward by transportation and paper costs.
Add those realities to another — natural attrition in which the oldest members (and usually the best stewards and givers) increasingly take their places in heaven. Many — perhaps most — churches are dealing with the twin realities of declining income and escalating costs. Those who accept responsibilities for budget-building these days need a lot of prayer and deserve a pat on the back.
These days, if a church has a personal stewardship emphasis at all, it is likely to be in conjunction with budget pledges. While that may be somewhat effective in raising money, it has the effect of seriously limiting the concept of stewardship for the Christian.
It is pretty obvious that many churches and their leaders have all but abandoned an encompassing emphasis on personal stewardship. Many ministers themselves struggle with it and are thus in a poor position to model the practice for others.
It would be interesting to know how well the under-40 members of a given church might be able to describe tithing or other biblical stewardship concepts and responsibilities of those who claim faith in Christ. Most Baptist congregations failed to adequately communicate this Christian discipline effectively beginning at least two — maybe three — generations ago.
The effect is bigger than merely undergirding the local church budget. This un-discipline undermines the broader work of Christ in the world and it seems unlikely to improve any time soon.
When churches and their leaders fail to challenge members in stewardship, they rob those members of one of the joys of the Christian faith. It is tantamount to withholding a witness to an unbeliever for fear of offending the person or being rejected.
Stewardship testimonies are a great idea, but many of those fall short of describing the joy that comes from striving to be faithful to God in giving. Without question, stewardship is about money, but it is so much more than that. It is about priority, purpose and commitment in every area of life.
What might happen in a church if members were challenged to repent of their failure to be faithful Christian stewards? Might it spark a spiritual renewal in individuals and in the church body? Sadly, we may never know. Truthfully, we seem not to place that degree of importance on Christian giving and living.
Rather than being communicated as the center of the mature Christian life, personal stewardship is too often presented as an option. Rather than being presented as an integral part of the new Christian’s life, faithful stewardship is something that we hope will become important to Christians after they become spiritually mature and when they are more financially able.
That is not likely to happen.
A few issues ago, I recounted how my father and mother became tithers almost immediately after my dad’s conversion. If they and my church had not convinced me to follow that example, I might still not be committed to personal stewardship today. Even so, as in most areas of the Christian life, I have a long way to go.
Surely God would desire for every believer to continue to grow as a faithful Christian steward.