Wednesday, August 18, 2004


The church is reporting deficits. Just a two-congregation church averaging between 70 and 90 every Sunday but expenses have overtaken collections. There’s the usual head scratching but in some ways a deficit is a very good place to be in. We try to make sure we’re exercising good stewardship of course, keeping overheads to the minimum, but is church management all about balancing books?

One too many pastors pay lip service about trusting in God and living simply, and then say with audacity, "But money is important too, so we need to talk about giving and raising funds." Thing is, these same pastors will in the same breath promise that giving generously will bring blessings, usually money. Sadly, what some churches call ‘blessings’ the man in the street calls ‘materialism.’ Similarly cynics dismiss what we sometimes call ‘giving God our best’ as ‘extravagance.’ When Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” there was nothing remotely connected with material pursuits as a legitimate close second because as I recall, “all these things will be given to you as well.”

Back in the 70s, Brother Sun, Sister Moon the celluloid version of the life of St Francis of Assisi made an impression on me. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, the same director who would later give us Jesus of Nazareth, BSSM was a somewhat pompous production, brimming with religiosity, and a hippy attitude. I liked it, although I vaguely remember how much it was a child of the times (flower power, theme song by Donovan, etc) and how overtly political the retelling of St Francis’s life and the founding of his Franciscan order. Then again, religion is politics in different clothes.

Anyone who knows anything about St Francis will know how he set aside his privileged upbringing for Lady Poverty. His disciples disavowed material attachments on the basis of Jesus’ words to take no bread, no bag, no money in their belts but sandals and a staff (Mk 6:8,9). One of the most striking scenes occurs towards the end when St Francis in tattered robes ascends the steps of the magnificent church (looked like St Peter’s). Someone - was it a priest? - played by Alec Guinness says, “You in your poverty put us to shame.”

Of course, Christianity doesn’t celebrate asceticism or poverty. Yet Jesus became poor though he was rich for humanity’s sake, which tells you where God’s heart is. In a conversation, a recent convert from Hinduism was denouncing the rich when I replied that the Bible only condemns those who sought riches and hoarded them to the detriment of their souls. On the other hand, those who are rich are called to be rich in good deeds and not put their confidence in mammon. Paradoxically, material blessings are common among those whom God favours. The rub is, that is God’s business, not ours...His gifts, not our pursuits.

Back in church, we’ll have to tread carefully where money is concerned. I’m not trying to play down the role of money but I am concerned that we do not find ourselves worrying about it. There’s something obscene about the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ which is neither wealth nor gospel in the truest sense. Money should be freely given, and responsibly used to further missions, support full-time workers, help the disadvantaged, but never to build one’s kingdom on earth. In God’s economy, people come ahead of property (One preacher I know even went as far to say, "books before bricks") Yes, there’s so much one can do with money for the Lord, but God does not ask us to do what he does not provide.

Hudson Taylor famously said that, “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” The OMF which has its origins in Taylor’s China Inland Mission never makes any appeals for funds to this day. The tension in these modern times is looking at God’s word and not the bottom line. Or the balance sheet.

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