|Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Feb. 8, 2009.
1 Corinthians 8: 1-15
Let’s be honest—this is a tough time to talk about financial stewardship! Every day we’re greeted with more bad news about our economy. One day last week I heard a Nobel-prize winning economist say that what we’re in now is not our “father’s recession” but our “grandfather’s.” In other words, we’re closer to the depression of the 1930s than the recession of the 1980s.
One silver lining of our current economic woes is that for the first time in a long time, people are actually saving money rather than spending all they earn, plus some. But that silver lining also has a dark side—people are now tempted to give little or nothing to Kingdom causes at all as they fearfully hold on to their jobs and their money.
So it may seem odd to talk about giving generously to the Lord’s work in the middle of a financial meltdown, but that’s what I want to do. The question for the day is—what do generous churches look like in tough economic times? Fortunately, the Apostle Paul gives us a good answer in 2 Corinthians 8.
One year before Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, he had asked several Gentile churches, including the relatively affluent church of Corinth, to take up an offering to help some destitute Christians in Jerusalem. Evidently, the Corinthian church was the first to volunteer to help out. But over the course of that year, the Corinthian Christians had done little but sit on their billfolds. In other words, they were doing a fine job of modeling how to be a stingy church. They talked a good game when it came to giving, but that’s all.
Meanwhile, various churches in the region of Macedonia responded quite differently. Evidently, the churches of Macedonia were going through their own version of a Depression, but you would have never known it by their giving to help their poor brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.
In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service with the Lord’s people. And they went beyond our expectations; having given themselves first to the Lord, they gave themselves by the will of God also to us.
There’s nothing mysterious about Paul’s motives here. He’s hoping to transform a stingy church into a generous church by drawing a vivid picture of how members of generous churches behave in tough economic times. What can we learn from the Macedonian churches that might help us today?
We learn that generous churches don’t let economic circumstances dictate their giving patterns. Rather, their giving is determined by their trust in God and their faith in Jesus Christ. You might think that since the Macedonian churches were undergoing their own severe trial, they’d be unwilling to give to other poor people they don’t even know. But that’s not what happened, because the Macedonians were driven by their faith rather than their fears.
Today, I want to publicly commend a sister Baptist congregation, FBC Greensboro. Three weeks ago, despite the fact that First Greensboro finished 2008 in the red financially like most churches, this congregation voted to give $30,000 to help local ministries that work with the poor. Their pastor, Ken Massey, was quoted in the Biblical Recorder as saying that he hoped the church modeled “what we ask our members to do—give beyond their fears.” Ken goes on to say, “It’s easy to want to hold on to that money in case things get worse, because they might.”
Friends, that’s what generous churches do in tough times... they give beyond their fears. That means they give generous gifts, not frugal ones. The Macedonian churches didn’t give what they were able…they gave far more. In this respect, they remind me of that great-eighteenth century preacher George Whitefield who never seemed to have much cash on hand, yet always gave extravagantly to others. Critics of Whitefield would say, “He is quite mad; he is giving away too much.” A wise bishop who had been watching Whitefield’s incredible ministry said, “I hope he will bite others and make them mad, too!”
Members of generous churches give so lavishly that they make others think they’ve lost their minds. They also give freely and joyfully, not out of obligation or a feeling of guilt. Paul didn’t have to beg the Macedonians to give. They begged him for the privilege of giving even more! Generous churches don’t dread the next “appeal”. They see that appeal for what it is—a fabulous opportunity to grow themselves spiritually, to build community within their church and with those they help, and to provide an opportunity to show the world that when times are tough, Christians are at their best.
Of course, the key to it all is that members of generous churches give themselves first to the Lord before they give a dime to anybody else. They understand that commitment to Christ is the foundation for everything in the Christian life, including giving. Without that prior commitment to Christ, even generous gifts are ultimately hollow.
As you consider your next growth step, I hope you won’t just think in terms of monetary gifts. Some of us need to take the step of trusting God in the tough times as well as the good times. That may mean that your next step is to give generously not just in a good economy, but in a bad one.
Some of us need to move from obligation to celebration as we give—our hearts need to change even more than the amounts we give. And some of us need to rededicate our lives to Christ before we do anything financially.
Maybe your next step involves a lot more than dollars and cents. Whatever it is, I’ll hope you take it…today!