A man left a dime, a nickel and three pennies in an offering envelope at First United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
He wrote these words on the envelope: “Please don’t be mad, I don’t have much. I’m homeless. God bless.”
I’ve been convicted recently, as I’ve heard several members from the congregation I serve as pastor speak apologetically about not being able to contribute as much to the church as they would like.
Many years ago, a friend confidently asserted that money makes the world go round. That’s what she’d grown up hearing, but to my Baptist ears that didn’t sound quite right.
So I was proud to chidingly correct her, saying, “It’s love that makes the world go round.” Her perspective was probably more accurate than mine.
We live in a society where money defines value. Money, not behavior, buys respect. Money, not wisdom, confers influence. Money, not love, defines self-worth.
We all live quietly in that reality until something disrupts the system.
When churches ask for money, people can be suspicious because money is the primary way the world assigns value, and they were hoping that the church might be different.
But churches need money to pay staff members, maintain buildings and carry out missions and ministry. So churches ask for money.
And faithful Christians don’t just give because churches ask; faithful Christians give because Christ commands.
Giving is a spiritual act of humility, a statement of priority. Giving requires that we live with enough financial margin to remind ourselves that we are more than consumers.
In the comments section of the news story about the man giving 18 cents, the critiques on Christians came fast and furious.
Some used our own Scriptures – the widow’s mite story in Luke 21 – to critique us.
Others juxtaposed this act of transparent generosity with a generally perceived lack of Christian empathy, lamenting, “If only Christians were more like Christ…”
I wish those people could see what I see. Christians struggling to pay student loans and medical bills who wish they could be more generous.
Christians in their 50s and 60s supporting both their parents and their children, wishing they could give more of their income to those in need.
I see Christians on a regular basis with a little cushion in their finances being overwhelmingly generous, with the faith that God will use their resources to build his kingdom.
When men without homes in Charlotte, and middle-class women in Canton, Georgia, both feel the need to apologize for their inability to give more, I think it’s safe to say the appeal for giving in churches has been heard.
It’s a reminder that sometimes we need to stop asking and start saying thank you louder and more often.
Here are four suggestions for local church leaders about giving:
1. Say thank you at least twice as often as we’re asking for contributions.
We should clearly tell people how their contributions are being used, celebrate successful projects and ministry initiatives as often as we can, and send our members financial updates even when we’re not asking for money.
Whenever we do this, we should say thank you for members’ contributions.
2. Find better ways to acknowledge the value of nonfinancial contributions to our congregations.
This will help to counter the prevailing message of our culture that value, respect, influence and self-worth can only be measured in dollars and cents.
Faithfulness in prayer, visits, letters and phone calls to the sick, donated professional expertise, and volunteer service on committees and in classrooms, music programs, missions projects and community service all contribute to our churches.
Every prayer, every visit, every phone call and every hour of service provided by members deserves a thank-you.
3. Encourage and teach habits that help create financial margin.
Margin helps our members cheerfully tithe out of abundance instead of feeling pressured to give beyond their ability.
Tithing is a spiritual discipline that’s meant to require sacrifice. It’s not supposed to be easy, but we’re meant to be able to do it cheerfully.
In most families, consistent tithing doesn’t happen without clear choices and careful planning.
I don’t know many people who don’t want and need more financial margin in their lives. The church should find ways to teach and encourage that.
4. Advocate for wages that allow the average family to live with a little cushion.
No matter how carefully we plan, the costs of living continue to rise. Even families fortunate enough to maintain consistent, full-time employment are feeling squeezed.
If we choose to use our voices in the public square, we should be careful to use our voices on behalf of those who are struggling, those who would be overlooked and marginalized without our help.
I’m convinced that the shrinking ability of middle-class families to live with a little cushion is as big a threat to the health and vitality of the average church as just about anything.
Church leaders not only should emphasize that members need not apologize for their giving, but also thank them often for their contributions.
Matt Sapp is the pastor of Heritage Baptist Fellowship in Canton, Georgia. A longer version of this article first appeared on Heritage’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @MattPSapp and Heritage @HeritageCanton.