As we approach Lent, the subject of giving things up and discipline. At St Nic’s, where I worship, we are also exploring giving, as it is approaching our ‘Firstfruits Sunday’ where we review our planned giving to the church.
In the C of E, giving is not very impressive overall; we have struggled to reach and target set in 1978 (33 years ago!) of giving 5% of net income to the Church, though there have been more encouraging signs recently and there are resources available. As Simon Butler (whom I trained with) said in Synod, the Church could do with spending as much time talking about what people do with their wallets as it does talking about what people do with their willies (though the Telegraph couldn’t bring itself to print the word ‘willies’!).
At a local level, I often feel as though non-Anglican churches achieve a lot more than similarly-sized Anglican congregations because on average the members give more. Since giving involves sacrifice and discipline, does this mean we in the C of E are just rather slovenly?
In Scripture, of course, there are lots of Old Testament regulations about tithing and about sacrifice, and clearly this legacy of self-discipline makes itself felt in the New Testament. We cannot follow Jesus unless we ‘deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow’ him (Mark 8.34). And in giving we are to follow the example of those who sacrifice what little they have, such as the widow giving her mite (Mark 12.44).
However, it is easy to miss on a first reading through Leviticus that a good number of the sacrifices are called ‘peace offerings’ (or ‘fellowship’ or ‘shared offerings’; see for example Lev 3), in Hebrew shelamim related to shalom. For these, the fat is burnt and the blood is splashed as offerings ‘to the Lord’, but the rest is eaten by the worshippers and those they are seeking to be at peace with—more like an ecclesiastical barbecue than a regular church service. The worshippers share in the benefits of the offering in more ways than one.
When I was a teenager, the leaders of the Anglican youth group I attended left the church to join a Salt and Light church in Oxford. I visited them, and was amazed that the church regularly hired the local swimming pool for the use of church members. ‘The benefits of giving!’ they told me. It didn’t seem very sacrificial—they were enjoying the thing their giving had paid for! But then, as I consider my giving to St Nic’s, a good proportion of what I give will be used to employ staff who will do things for me, pay for coffee I drink after the service, buy chairs for me to sit on, pay for youth leaders who will nurture my children…in other words, I am going to benefit from much of this.
I don’t think Jesus has a problem with this. In response to the disciples’ complaint about how much they have given up, Jesus does not say ‘Well, I told you it would be tough!’ as we might expect. Instead, he tells them how much they will benefit, both in this age and the age to come—not forgetting persecution along with it (Mark 10.28–30). Jesus is so emphatic as to the benefits of following him, that some traditions have misinterpreted this as talking of a ‘prosperity gospel.’ In fact, I think Jesus is talking about exactly the kind of thing my former youth leaders experienced—the blessings of self-giving, shared, kingdom living.
Last week I came across a remarkable website for the movement Giving What We Can. The founder, Toby Ord, talks of his seemingly rational realisation of how exciting sacrificial giving could be:
I realised that by donating a large part of my future income to the most efficient charities, I really could save thousands of people’s lives. Since I already have most of the things I really value in life, I thought — why not?
He has worked out what he needs to live on, and has decided to give the rest away, and to charities which he has calculated will have the most substantial measurable benefit on the lives of others. The statistics are quite impressive. But he does not think he is unusual in approaching it this way. He goes on:
Giving away a significant portion of one’s income is easier than most people think. Far from making their lives miserable, members say that taking the Pledge to Give has made their lives happier and more fulfilled.
Here, giving does involve discipline in the form of a pledge. But it does not sound like sacrifice; rather, it springs from passionate vision.
I would venture to suggest that what the Church needs is not so much more discipline as greater vision. Rather than seeing ‘church’ as something other than me for which I need to make sacrifices, I need to see church as something I am part of, about which I am excited. This includes ‘church’ in all parts of the world doing all sorts of things, within and beyond the church community itself.
Once we see this, the money will flow.
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