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Revolution in Generosity
Transforming Stewards to Be Rich Toward God
By Wesley K. Willmer, Christopher Reese
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2008 Wesley K. Willmer
All rights reserved.
Creating a Revolution in Generosity
By Wesley K. Willmer,Vice President of University Advancement and Professor at Biola University
After looking at Christianity, India's prime minister Mahatma Gandhi concluded that if all Christians acted like Christ, the whole world would be Christian. He is not alone in his observation. Dallas Willard writes, "This aching world is waiting for the people explicitly identified with Christ to be, through and through, the people he intends them to be." Barna research studies confirm this gap. It seems that most Christians are ignoring their call to be conformed to the image of Christ. Their distinctive faith aside, Christians are acting more and more like the rest of culture, and there is little discernible difference between believers and nonbelievers: from the books they read, to the issues they worry about, to how they use their money. The same is generally true in Christians' giving and asking for resources. Scripture consistently reminds us that if Christ is not first in the use of our money, He is not first in our lives. Our use of possessions demonstrates materially our spiritual status (see Craig Blomberg's chapter). Is it possible that our checkbooks are a better measure of our spiritual condition than the underlining in our Bibles? Is it possible that if biblical stewardship issues ordered Christians' lives, they would be a better reflection of Christ's image to the world?
The last fifty-plus years in American culture have been marked by increasing prosperity and wealth, with a corresponding increase in our obsession with "stuff." Most often, it is hard to tell the difference between believers and nonbelievers by looking at how they view and use the things God has entrusted to them. While wealth among Christians has increased, generosity as a percentage of income has remained fairly static. In their annual report, The State of Church Giving, John and Sylvia Ronsvalle explain, "Giving has not kept up with income.... In 1933, the depth of the Great Depression, [per capita giving] was 3.2 percent. In 1995 ... it was still 3 percent. By 2004, when Americans were over 555 percent richer after taxes and inflation than in the Great Depression, Protestants were giving 2.5 percent of their income to churches." Rather than giving back to God as He blesses, Christians are adopting the miserly patterns of the world. While giving by believers is slightly higher than among nonbelievers, the patterns are still very similar. A recent study reported that "the wealth of the world's rich and super rich surged 11.2 percent to $37.2 trillion last year, but the elite group gave less than 1 percent of their net worth to charity." In general, a genuinely generous person is the exception rather than the rule.
Christians are also uncomfortable discussing their possessions, even with other believers. Pastors worry that sermons on giving will sound self-serving or discourage people from attending church, so they often avoid the topic entirely, or only bring it up once a year or when there is a crisis. Similarly, seminaries seldom teach on biblical stewardship.
However, this situation is contrary to God's plan. Scripture is saturated with teaching on possessions: seventeen of the thirty-eight parables of Christ are about possessions. In terms of the number of verses on possessions, this topic is mentioned in Scripture more than any other: three times more than love, seven times more than prayer, and eight times more than belief. About 15 percent of God's Word (2,172 verses) deals with possessions—treasures hidden in a field, pearls, talents, pounds, stables, etc. Most likely this topic is covered so thoroughly in Scripture because God knew His followers would struggle with how to use possessions. Given this emphasis from God, Christians need to seriously consider how their faith and their finances are related. It is easy to copy the habits of those around us, but God has called Christians to greater heights of generosity as we conform to the image of Christ.
This pattern of conforming to the world around us, evident in our giving, is also characteristic of how Christian organizations ask for resources. Christian organizations, including churches, have increasingly adopted secular models of fundraising. For example, supporters are often encouraged to give for what they can get in return (tax deduction, gift, name on a building, etc.) and are not challenged to honor God and be generous as Christ is generous. The common practice of using transactional techniques that emphasize manipulation to motivate giving is contrary to God's Word.
Thankfully there is a more excellent way to view giving and asking, one that turns current notions upside down and places God first; a way that focuses on transforming givers' hearts and lives toward God-focused steward-ship. Once a Christian understands how God views money and generosity, it becomes clear that asking should be about facilitating the heart transformation of believers into the image of Christ. As a result they will become generous as Christ is generous, leading to a revolution in generosity, so that God's Kingdom work on this earth will be fully funded.
As described above, we still have a long way to go. Christians have lost their way and are on the wrong road, in both their giving and their asking practices. They are not comfortable with God and money, they are not generous because they have not conformed to the image of Christ, and the asking practices that churches and parachurch organizations have adopted are exacerbating the problem by not encouraging believers toward a genuine godly generosity.
The purpose of this chapter is to set the stage for this book by (1) showing how we have gotten off the godly road, (2) outlining the spiritual process that leads to genuine generosity, and (3) suggesting steps to promote a revolution in generosity.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
In the beginning, God made and owned all that was. He created humans and entrusted into their care the precious world He had lovingly crafted. These people were His stewards (managers). When the stewards functioned according to their identity and calling, God's created world thrived.
However, over time, God's people became convinced that they owned it all. They became saturated in stuff, greedily surrounding themselves with possessions. They were "stuffocated." They did not want to hear about it in sermons (such talk was always uncomfortable), so the pastors stopped preaching about possessions, and the seminaries stopped teaching the topic. And so, gradually, the system God had established was broken. While God's people have occasionally tried to get back on track, today we are far from acting like responsible stewards in God's economy.
In America, biblical stewardship characterized Christians' approach to resources from 1740 to 1840. John Wesley exhorted his parishioners to "gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can" because "all that we have is given us by God, and since we have been entrusted with these possessions, we are responsible to use them in ways that bring Him glory." During this period in history, it was acknowledged that the blessings of life were from God; but this mind-set did not last.
Soon stewardship, managing God's resources according to His directives, gave way to "philanthropy," helping others with our possessions. In the early 1900s, social Darwinism took ideological root and slowly choked out the biblical vision for the moral community. In his essay "The Gospel of Wealth," Andrew Carnegie presented his own good fortune as evidence of natural selection and survival of the fittest among the human species. With one swift stroke, Carnegie cut the taproot of biblical stewardship and adopted what he called "scientific philanthropy," based on Darwinian theory. He also replaced the ideal of the common good with that of "selective good." He wrote, "The best means of benefiting the community is placing within its reach ladders upon which the aspiring can arise." With these words, Carnegie drew the line of distinction between those who were worthy of charity and those who were not. According to him, the motive for giving ought to be calculated in terms of cost-benefit for continuous economic growth, not a reflection of God's generosity in response to human suffering. Carnegie believed in only helping those who would be of "use" to society, either through their labor or their intellect. The priority of shared responsibility gave way to helping people who were a good business investment. This new venture was termed "philanthropy"—friend of humankind—in contrast to stewardship—servant of God. While being a "friend of humankind" sounds harmless, implicit within the concept of philanthropy is an assumption that we, not God, own our resources and have the sole authority to dispense them. Philanthropy strives to use money to make a prosperous society of the strong and able, while biblical stewardship advocates humans caring for one another as fellow creatures and servants of the God who provides everything we need.
Carnegie's critics claimed that the poor needed more than just money—they needed help emotionally, physically, and spiritually. These Americans believed that newly established voluntary associations—religious and secular—held the solution to the problem. Potential donors were told they could become "agents of change" in society by responding with significant financial support.
These "organized charities" pooled their wisdom and brought further refinements to the scientific model of major gift fundraising. They concluded that religion played only a minor role in influencing generosity and that much more could be gleaned from the business world. The subtle but significant shift in thinking of givers as stewards (servant-managers of God) to viewing them as philanthropists (lovers of humankind) removed faith and God as motives for giving and set up instead a business/sales model of "whatever works."
Charities flooded to consulting firms in hopes that these "experts" could raise large sums of money for their organizations. Interestingly, early records do not suggest that hiring fundraising consultants helped organizations better fulfill their missions. The result was a model of fundraising that emphasized "closing the deal." Borrowing so many principles from sales tactics resulted in a virtual abandonment of biblical fundraising practices, edging the church from center stage to the outskirts of fundraising culture. Major gift programs were keenly intent on "making the sale" and were rarely concerned with the heart of the giver.
As the business community introduced the concept of market segmentation and demographic studies to determine the best ways to get their products into the hands of potential customers, the charitable community followed suit. Databases are now carefully segmented, giving clubs are monitored to move donors toward larger and more frequent gifts, and donor research is conducted to identify those with the greatest potential to give significant gifts. With the help of technology, the scientific model of philanthropy is now the norm. Today's fundraising professionals (including those in church and parachurch organizations) are better informed, prepared, and trained in secular techniques of raising money than ever before. However, generosity (adjusted for inflation) is not increasing per capita among Christians or non-Christians. People give because it makes them feel good, to avoid a sense of guilt, or because they get something in return (tax benefit). Could it be that the use of transactional techniques has run its course, and it is time to look again at God's way that leads to generosity—even a revolution in generosity?
UNDERSTANDING THE PROCESS THAT LEADS TO GENEROSITY
Christians by and large are on the wrong road with their giving and are not being generous; so how do we get going down the godly road that should result in at least 10 percent per capita giving? The best way to start both giving and asking correctly is by understanding the process that leads to generosity. Because our motives for giving have been saturated with ideology and methods from the business world, divorced from biblical principles, we need to reorient ourselves by looking through God's eyes at the process of becoming generous. Figure 1–1 shows a five-step process for understanding the Christian's path to generosity. Once we understand this process, believers can change both giving and asking practices to align themselves with God's way, which would lead to a revolution in generosity. Following are five steps on the road leading to generosity.
Acknowledge Our Sinful, Self-centered Nature
Psalm 14:2–3 tells us, "The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one." Giving our hearts over to things other than God is nothing new; material possessions have always been especially alluring. As Israel was moving through the Promised Land, vanquishing enemy after enemy under God's direction, it only took a cloak and one man's greed to bring defeat. Joshua 7 tells us that Achan took a cloak and some silver from the spoils of battle and hid them under his tent. These items did not belong to him, so in taking them he committed theft and brought sin into the camp of Israel. The congregation ended up stoning Achan for this, but the larger point is that this man, who had been through the desert and survived the weeding out of the older, "rebellious" generation, yet fell prey to self-centered desires or, as the apostle John puts it, "the lust of the eyes."
This same tendency continues to this day, as Donald Hinze observes: "Sacred and secular history and literature are replete with examples of the crippling effects of gifts hoarded and unshared. People are not naturally disposed to giving, yet, the life we all prize, filled with joy and spiritual depth, is closely tied to giving generously and with thankful hearts." All of human-kind is sinful; and without conscious recognition of the hold sin and selfish attitudes have on our lives and the lives of those around us, we will not be conformed to the image of Christ; nor can we facilitate a revolution in giving.
Accept Christ's Offer of Transformation
Second Corinthians 5:17 is a familiar verse with far-reaching implications: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." Paul is not referring to a cosmetic change, but a heart transformation that occurs at the deepest part of who we are. When we become followers of Christ, our very identity changes, and that should impact everything we do, including how we use our resources. George Barna describes transformation as "any significant and lasting transition in your life wherein you switch from one substantial perspective or practice to something wholly different that genuinely alters you at a very basic level." Dallas Willard writes: "It is love of God flowing through us—not our human attempts at behavior change—that becomes 'a spring of water gushing up to eternal life' (John 4:14, par.)." It is with the decision to follow Christ and be transformed by God that the journey of being generous begins.
Choose God's Eternal Kingdom over the Earthly Kingdom
Even as Christians, we have a choice of two kingdoms. So long as we are on this earth, the earthly kingdom will attempt to claim us for its own. In Stewards in the Kingdom, Scott Rodin suggests, "In a very real way the kingdom of the world is never built, but it acts like a black hole constantly demanding more with no hope of ever having enough. The irony of the kingdom of the world is that it does not let us stop long enough to enjoy what we have amassed." Unfortunately the futility of the effort is not enough to dissuade us from grasping for the kingdom of this world. As individuals and communities, we continue to struggle against the desire to "be conformed to this world." The Kingdom of God, on the other hand, beckons us to be transformed to the image of Christ, serving God and others out of love in this world and reigning with Christ to the glory of the Father eternally. When we decide to follow God's eternal Kingdom, we have committed to becoming genuinely generous.
Excerpted from Revolution in Generosity by Wesley K. Willmer, Christopher Reese. Copyright © 2008 Wesley K. Willmer. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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