Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Dreaded Christian F Word

Want to know the best way to make sure no one comes to your church meeting?

Tell them it's about Fundraising.

Want to know a way the pastor could make that meeting really, really interesting?  At the end of his pitch, he calls up the elders and deacons, hands them the microphone, and asks them to announce how much they plan to contribute.

Sound like a meeting that you would want to go to?  Maybe if you're not an elder or deacon.

Here's what living in Tanzania has taught us about that Dreaded F Word.  You might be surprised.

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The church leader stood up front at the end of the service.

"Okay, everybody, our church's 15th Anniversary Celebration is coming up!  We are expecting about 300 people to be here, so it will be a big party!  We need everyone to contribute.  This is what we will need:
Seven crates of soda for $7 each
25 kilos of meat for $5 a kilo
2 kilo of carrots for $2 a kilo
40 kilos of rice for $1.50 a kilo....."

And he continued on with the list.  When he was done, he asked, "Now, who wants to contribute?"

A middle-aged man stood up.  "I'll contribute $7 for a case of soda!" he said enthusiastically.

Everyone clapped and cheered.  An older teenage girl raised her hand.  "I'll contribute $2 for carrots," she announced.  Again, applause filled the room.

Then they really got going.  The enthusiasm was infectious, and hands rose across the room.  The church leader quickly wrote down each donor's name in his book.

A sophisticated man in a business suit spoke up.  "I'll donate the money for 40 kilos of rice," he called out.

This was a major contribution, and it produced a huge reaction from the crowd.  The ladies brought out their joy cry, a high pitched undulating sound found only in Africa.  The church leader up front laughed and nodded.  "When you come to church wearing a suit, then you need to make big donation," he joked.  Everyone joined in the laughter.

After about 20 minutes, all the food was spoken for.  A couple weeks later, the event went on without a hitch.

Mbezi Chapel's 15 Year Anniversary Celebration
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A few months later, we were at a big open-air anniversary celebration for (the equivalent of) Inter-Varsity in Tanzania.  There were a few hundred people in attendance, and many of them had come from other parts of the country or even other African countries.

There were speeches; there was singing; there was a celebration of God's goodness over the years.  Towards the end, one leader got up and started talking about the need for fundraising.  He gave his appeal, and then grandly announced, "And I will start right now by donating $500!"

The speaker then invited the 20 or so other leaders to stand up and join him.  Giving the mic to the first person in line, he asked for each leader to announce his or her donation.  The bar was set high at $500, so most of the others agreed to the same amount or more.

Passing the mic down the line....
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offering boxes, right up front
Giving is public in Tanzania.  The scenarios above are normal.  Every Sunday, the offering basket is placed in the front of the church, and when it's time in the service to give, everyone walks up (or dances!) and contributes.

As you can imagine, this has taken some getting used to for us Americans.  We come from a church culture that is almost fanatically quiet about money.  Pastors are terrified to preach on the subject.  It's taboo to talk about money, it's shameful to ask for it, and monetary giving is just about the most secretive subject.

So who gets it right?  The church culture which publicly announces its donations?  Or the church culture which treats the information like FBI secrets?

Let me get one thing straight:  The Tanzanian Church doesn't always get it right.  There are lots of abuses of money in certain churches here, like when elders are chosen based on their financial status or when churches seat the rich people up front in the comfortable seats and leave the poor to the benches in the back.  But both the church and the ministry in my above examples are solid in their integrity and their commitment to God's Word.  Do we have something to learn from them?

In American church culture, we fixate on Jesus' words in Matthew 6:  Giving should be a secret.  But what about the context? Jesus is teaching that we shouldn't give in order to gain the praise of men.  Directly after he talks about giving, he teaches that praying should also be in secret.  Yet does that mean that we are never to pray in public?  Of course not.  It's a heart issue. 

Think about the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.  They were patterning their giving after Barnabus, who must have publicly made a donation to the Church (how else would they know about it?).  God struck them dead not because they were making a public donation, but because they sought recognition that they did not deserve.

In II Corinthians 8, Paul uses the example of the Macedonian's generosity to spur on the Corinthians to also give sacrificially.  In fact, he even says,

I am not commanding you [to give generously], but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.  What?!?  It's okay to encourage people to give more by comparing?

So what does this mean?  Is it possible that the Tanzanian Church has it right in making the ministry of giving a public event?

How can that be a good thing?  We American Christians protest!  Won't it encourage people to give for the wrong reasons?  Won't it make them puffed up and prideful?  

Consider this:  In Romans 12, giving is listed as a spiritual gift.  Do you know anyone with the spiritual gift of giving?  I do.

We value each and every member of our support team, but there are some who stand out as having the gift of giving.  Since people are pretty tight-lipped about this sort of thing in our culture, I don't know exactly how much they give in total.  But by looking at their lifestyles, considering what they donate to us, and a few other clues, it's obvious they have this gift.

One retired couple on our support team lives a comfortable life, but certainly not ostentatious.  Yet they give away thousands (yes, you read that right) of dollars every month to missions and ministry.

Another retired couple has lived in the same middle-class tract house for 35 years.  They give away 40% of their income every month to missions and ministry.

One family on our support team lives on one income and homeschools their large number of children.  They live in a very modest tract house.  Yet they give away probably at least $1000 a month to ministry and missions, most likely in addition to their tithe.

These people have the gift of giving.  They are very intentionally living far below their income for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Many of my readers know them personally.  Yet, it's not acceptable in our culture for me to give you their names.

Why is this?

In Romans 12, the spiritual gift of giving is listed right alongside of the gifts of leading, encouragement, and service.  So why is it okay to have a "Pastor's Appreciation Sunday" and a "Youth Ministry Worker's Lunch," but never show public appreciation for the givers?  Doesn't the pastor have just as much temptation to take that glory for himself?  Won't that put youth workers at risk for doing ministry with the wrong motives?

No matter what recognition we receive for any of our spiritual gifts, isn't it our responsibility to make sure our hearts are right before God?

So what would be the benefit of publicly honoring those with the gift of giving?  Well, for exactly the same reasons why we honor anyone's gifts!  Because it spurs us on to know that God is using us.  Because it spurs others on to see how God is using them.

I'm playing the devil's advocate today.  Do I intend on publicly announcing our donors?  Of course not.  Am I even certain that the Tanzanian Church has got it right on this issue?  No, I don't.  But it's worth considering.  It's always worth taking a look at another country's church culture and challenging our own, because we don't always have it right.

What do you think?

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