During three weeks in October, my church held their annual stewardship campaign. I have been a member of various mainline Protestant denominations and typically, prior to Advent, church leaders devote time to stewardship. The ministers read Scripture about money and preach about financial giving. A proposed church budget is sometimes presented which contains funding details on salaries, operations, and benevolences (also called missions). Over my many years of stewardship campaigns, I have heard numerous speeches from church members, viewed colorful PowerPoint slides, and watched professionally produced videos. The overall strategy is to sway members to part with their money and generously pledge to fund next year’s church budget. Pledging allows the church to prudently manage the church’s finances as it is difficult to plan expenses without forecasting revenues.
I took a seminary course on the theology of money in which the class studied Scripture, read theological books on economic systems, and discussed philanthropic giving. I have an MBA and most of my career was spent in business, so I understand economics. However, I yearned to understand the right way to give as a follower of Christ. My seminary course did help me have a theological understanding, but when I applied it within my denominational church, I was left wanting.
When the stewardship campaign unfolds and the church budget is presented, about 60% of the money goes to pay church salaries, about 15% funds church programs and operations, about 20% support the denominational system (primarily for professional church salaries and administration), and the remainder is for benevolences (less than 5% funds programs outside the church). Surprisingly, most of the stewardship campaign is focused on where the mission money is going that supports local and international charities. The reality is that only a sliver of member money is allocated to nonmembers.
As a businessperson, I know that where the money goes defines the priorities of an organization. Based on this premise, the church’s priorities are the church members, as members receive almost all the benefits: church building, staffing, and programming. My church is not an outlier in this distribution of church funds; it is the norm. Our church is financially fortunate to be able to afford a large staff and worship in a lovely church building. Many churches are financially struggling due to declining United States church membership. Studies show that church membership peaked in the 1970’s. The mainline Protestant membership average age is increasing as dying Christians are not being replaced by the youth. Perhaps the inward focus should be reversed?
How did the early Church practice charity? My source is Dr. Ernst Troeltsch’s (1865–1923) book The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Volume I, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1992, pages 133–138). His book was originally published in 1912, translated from German to English by Olive Wyon, and published in two volumes.
The early Church was not the organized, post-modern Christianity that I have experienced during my lifetime. It was a small religious movement within the vast Roman empire. “The aim of this charity was not the healing of social wrongs, nor the endeavor to remove poverty, but the revelation and awakening of the spirit of love, of that love which Christ imparts and in which He makes known to us the attitude of God Himself. Above all else, the Church desires to show love and to awaken the response of love.” The early Church gave to others out of love. Jesus described this kind of love in Luke 14:12–14. Love expects nothing in return. Early Christians decided not to spend time on changing the Roman culture; they focused on love.
“The relief of distress which was thus the result of love was deliberately restricted to philanthropy, to voluntary contributions for parish relief, and to the free exercise of private charity. The aim was a new spirit, not a new social order.” This changed in the post-Constantine period when the Church and State became one and Church resources grew from State contributions. State charity was done more through the structured Church, not by most Christian members. The Church’s focus was on the ascetic life; it required State funding to survive until Church wealth grew.
Social reforms, in a practical sense, could only be done in small groups and communities. The early Church wasn’t large enough to take on the massive Roman order, especially since early Christians were non-violent. The small Christian population of the early Church was not a threat to Rome society and not persecuted until it grew larger. When Christianity became the State religion, charity moved from self-giving love into good works. “The whole practice of charity was changed from being a means of help to others into a practice of ascetic, self-denial, into ‘good works’ which acquire merit for oneself and for others, into penances for sin, and into a means of mitigating the fires of purgatory. … The idea of equalizing social conditions within the Church itself for love’s sake has entirely disappeared.”
As I ponder this Thanksgiving season of gratitude, I don’t have a practical solution for stewardship. My church previously committed to staffing, denominational funding, and a church building. Their initial focus was not on charity, but church membership growth into an expanding Austin geography. Any leftovers were given externally. Once this stewardship strategy was adopted, it was difficult to revert to an externally focused church. The early Christian practices were initially theologically correct but became corrupt as the Church grew powerful within a Christian State. Perhaps, as US Christianity recedes and it becomes more difficult to fund salaries and buildings, the stewardship focus will return to the early Christian practices — without stewardship campaigns, church buildings, and salaried professionals.