From Benevolence to Obedience: Our Stewardship of the Money that Funds the Great Commission (Part 1 of 3)
Stop using the word benevolence! In my January/February 2012 article I advocated this “radical” step when referring to our investment in the Great Commission, both locally and globally. Itʼs really not so radical, since benevolence is not a Biblical word. Itʼs just the word we use most of the time. Benevolence is defined as “1. The desire to do good to others; goodwill; charitableness; and 2. An act of kindness; good done; charity given.”1 However, benevolence in most of our churches has come to simply mean “the money that we disburse regularly that supports work beyond our church walls.” Unfortunately, it encourages the misconception that weʼre giving the money away because weʼre being generous and charitable.
The Great Commission is a command to be obeyed and a task to carry out; therefore the focus in our churches should first be on our faithfulness to the call to make disciples of all the nations. Hudson Taylor, pioneer missionary to China, wrote, “The Great Commission is not an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.”2 For many congregations in our Lutheran family, as far back as we can remember, mission support has gone directly to synod offices. There was not a great need to think about where it went or how much to send. But now many congregational leaders find they must answer these questions:
• How much should we give? Do we give 10%? Can we give more?
• What is the balance between local outreach and global mission?
• How much do we give to local outreach like crisis pregnancy centers, homeless ministry, womenʼs shelters, etc?
• What about global missions? Are we helping to take the Gospel to the nations?
• What kind of work should we support? Whom should we support?
If most of what we give to outreach is spent locally to what we can see and touch easily, what about taking the Gospel to the nations? The “all the nations” aspect of the call— taking the Gospel to the unreached, unchurched and under-
evangelized places in the world—is sustained by faithful prayer and intentional giving. It involves determined effort in both sending and going. In my travels for EEMN and ALWM, I see some congregations starting to wrestle with questions like the ones listed above.
The Parable of the Talents found in Matthew 25 is a good place to start as I begin this series about our stewardship of the money that funds the Great Commission. Some call this the Parable of the Bags of Gold, as the New International Version translates this accurately. Why? Because a talent was a large amount of money! A talent was approximately 3,000 shekels or 6,000 drachmas, roughly equivalent to a lifetime of earnings for the average day laborer.
"Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his masterʼs money. After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.
— Matthew 25:14-19
When the servants came to settle accounts, the two that invested what they were given and produced a return were commended. Each was given the same affirmation:
Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your masterʼs happiness!
— Matthew 25:19-21
Sterner words were left for the servant who in fear did nothing—he buried his bag of gold instead of doing something to invest it:
You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
— Matthew 25:26-30
Here are some principles that we can draw from this parable as we think seriously about missions giving:
1. We are servants who serve as stewards of what we have been given. We are not owners. We attempt to teach stewardship over our personal finances. This is also true of the money given to congregations to carry out the local ministry! Sadly, most congregations spend most of their money on themselves. After 15 years of research, a 2003 Empty Tomb survey confirmed it: 2.9% of protestant church giving goes to missions, down from 10.9% in 1920!
2. We have been entrusted with great wealth by our Master, each according to our ability. The Gospel is a great treasure! “...it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16b). The money entrusted to us to support making disciples of all the nations varies from congregation to congregation—small and large, rural and urban. We have varying gifts and different resources. But we are all called to be actively involved in carrying out the Great Commission. The servants in Matthew 25 were not ranked by how much was earned from their investments, but rather were commended for the faithfulness in using what they had been given. I once visited a Midwestern church that had an endowment fund of over $600,000, and the fund was still grow-
ing. Estates and property from farmers with large land holdings donated at death were adding up. On the other hand, I visited Living Word Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Minnesota, several months ago. They are commit- ted to an annual 1% increase in missions giving, building from a 10% baseline established when the church was formed several years ago. I believe they are at 13% for 2013.
3. Stewardship also involves accountability: what are you accomplishing with what you have been given? We are familiar with the idea of managing money wisely at home and in most places at church. Can we do better in keeping utilities down? Are there better places to order good Sunday School materials at a lower cost? I occasionally see churches that are more focused on making sure their “benevolence” is given and far less on exactly where it is given. I know that even small portions of the $600,000 “untouchable reserve” mentioned earlier could do tremendous good in many of the places I travel to in Eastern Europe. Instead, it is doing harm to the congregation as it sits in a Midwestern bank and on a congregational balance sheet.
There is a learning process we must work our way through now that missions giving is handled at the congregational level. But itʼs a necessary process because we are accountable as stewards for what we have. In addition, itʼs also exciting and encouraging as we get personally connected with the people and ministries we support and experience the first-hand accounts from the field come back to the church.
In the next issue, part two of this series will explore the questions and consider some answers as we learn how to carry out our new first-hand responsibility as stewards of the funds we invest to carry out the Great Commission. May the Lord find us faithful to the call!
For more information, contact Pastor Bill at: firstname.lastname@example.org