By now, most of us, I imagine, have fairly settled into 2017. Before we get much further on into this new year, though, it might be helpful – or, at least, instructive – to take one last look back at an important measure of our discipleship in 2016 – a measure that might, I’m afraid, be fairly unsettling.
A large part of my responsibility as your senior pastor is to – as the job title suggests – tend to the spiritual health of the various sheep in this flock we call Providence. The state of your souls, in other words, is my business. There are, of course, plenty of different ways to measure spiritual health, but according to the late Baptist minister, Cecil Sherman, one of the most reliable ways is by looking at how generous we are with our money. “The long term effect of good pastors is mature Christians,” he wrote, “and until we can help our members break their idolatry to money, we have not done our work.” Mature Christians entrust their treasure to God, not out of obligation or guilt, but rather, out of gratitude – more as an act of worship than a grudging contribution. As the apostle Paul puts it, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in everything” (2 Cor. 9:8). When we are generous in sharing what God has given to us, we not only bless others, but, by strengthening our trust in Him, we give God the opportunity to bless us further.
And, the truth is, this is an area where a lot of us have room to grow in 2017. There are 1,598 giving units in our church. (This is not the same thing as members. My wife and I, for example, count as one giving unit because we give our offering together.) In 2016, only 580 of these giving units made a contribution to support the ministry of our church. That means 1,018 of these giving units gave none of their treasure to support the Lord’s work through this church last year. Even if we allow for the probability that many of the people included in this latter number have either moved away or joined other churches without removing their names from our rolls, the fact remains that just over 36% of the giving units at Providence shouldered 100% of the church’s financial commitment to missions and ministry.
What’s more, of those 580 giving units who did contribute money in 2016 to support Providence’s work in Jesus’ name, the median gift was $1,288. This amount represents a tithe – that is, the Old Testament standard for faithful giving – on an annual income of $12,880. To put this number in perspective, consider that the Department of Health and Human Services set the poverty line for an individual living alone in 2016 at $11,880. I believe we can do better than this.
I believe that the Lord expects us to do better than this. He has certainly blessed most of us in this church with annual incomes that are more than $1,000 above the federal poverty line. Our giving to support God’s mission and ministry through this church should reflect God’s generosity to us. Now, full disclosure: Hilary and I practice tithing, which is a biblical way of saying that we give ten percent of our income to the church. That’s a commitment we made years ago and, by God’s grace, we’ve been able to keep it – and, also by God’s grace, we have been blessed by God’s willingness to provide us with enough. I can testify that, as a result, my own trust in God’s abundance has grown considerably. I encourage you to move in this direction with your own giving.
I realize that most people don’t feel like this is something they can do. I also realize that some people are already giving sacrificially to support our church’s ministry to Charlotte and beyond. We all have to make these kinds of decisions for ourselves. But, here’s the thing. As Madeleine L’Engel once wrote, “We are all asked to do more than we can do. Every hero and heroine in the Bible does more than [they] would have thought it possible to do, from Gideon to Esther to Mary.” This is how God stretches us toward His kingdom – and I would not be faithful to God in doing my job as your senior pastor if I didn’t challenge you to stretch a bit further in your giving this year than you feel comfortable with, because learning to trust God is, almost by definition, an uncomfortable education.
We are not a church that God has blessed at a level just above the poverty line. God has blessed us in abundance so that we can, in Jesus’ name, bless others abundantly in the way we love, serve, and share with joy the good news that God’s salvation is for all people. In order to do that well, though, we’ve got to be people who trust God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strength. Pray about how you will trust God to provide you with enough in 2017 so that you can give in a way that accurately reflects your gratitude for what God has done for you. And, then, once you’ve prayed over it – do it. May the peace of Christ be with you! Lee