Practice: The power of our Christian story and what it means to actively live out that story in today's society.
The Power of Christian Story
How much money could be raised for God's work each year if every Christian in the United States tithed to their Church?
I discovered the answer to this question at a conference I attended this month sponsored by Luther Seminary. The conference was titled: "Rethinking Stewardship: Our Culture, Our Theology, Our Practices" and the conference organizers were expecting about 200 lay and religious leaders to attend, they got 400 of us, and had to close off reservations on the last day of registration. The strong response to the conference invitation is an indication of the challenges and opportunities facing all Christian congregations dealing with declining Church membership/attendance and revenues in these turbulent times of change in our Culture.
Cultural Anthropologist, author and educator Angeles Arrien in her book The Second Half of Life" Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom, talks about the 'power of story' in culture "Stories are found in every culture of the world and are the oldest teaching tool we have. They are present at all rites of passage to provide a map of the tasks, challenges, tests and gifts we may face".
One of the themes that emerged from the conference was the power of our Christian story and what it means to actively live out that story in today's society. All of the speakers at this conference were excellent and I could fill 3 newsletters with all the things I learned over these 3 days. Instead I will present here for your thought and reflection some pearls of wisdom that inspired me from two of the speakers at this conference, David Lose, Chair in Biblical Teaching and assistant professor of homiletics at Luther Seminary and Mark Allen Powell an internationally known biblical scholar and author of more than 25 books on the Bible and religion.
Professor Lose began his talk by assuring me and my colleagues that we were not to blame for the current challenges facing religious congregations struggling to grow their active membership and revenues, "it's not because you are all not dedicated professionals and working hard enough" he said. He referenced studies that have been done on 'human happiness' saying that researchers have discovered two things that everyone needs to be 'happy' a sense of 'belonging' and a sense of 'purpose' which is the greatest motivator ever invented. Professor Lose said that the our Christian story offers these two things, justification-being drawn into the discipleship community (i.e. belonging) and vocation-invited to use all that you have and are in service to God- (i.e. purpose). So why isn't the story working anymore? According to Lose it's because our story is getting smaller in a world dominated by a culture of what he refers to as 'digital pluralism', in other words our story is getting lost amongst other 'stories' coming from a proliferation of new age media that (e.g. the exponential growth of the internet and websites) that values consumption over generosity. We have moved from an age of obligation to give back our time, talent and treasure to an age of the 'discretionary' use of these gifts. But he also points out that the opposite of discretion is 'need' and if in fact people need belonging and purpose to truly be happy it behooves Church leaders today to tell God's story so that it offers meaning, purpose, and identity, to help our members 'find themselves' in God's story... today.
And what is God's story, particularly as it relates to the concept of stewardship? Well, Mark Allen Powell inspired us all with his storytelling entitled "Speaking the Language of Money within a Theological Context".
For Powell stewardship is simply 'an act of mission that moves the Church from Creed to Practice...the steward simply says "I belong to God" and I will transform my life by living out my faith in observable ways, in other words, stewardship is a 'way of life'. Powell went on to describe the ELCA as a missional church with members who should consider themselves as 'stewards' rather than 'owners'. Everything belongs to God...we don't own anything including the mission(s) of our Church. According to Powell, God has a mission and we are fortunate enough to have a God who chooses US to fulfill that mission. Stewardship, the sharing of our time, talent and treasure, is not what "we're doing for God", but rather what God is doing for us ... through us. For Powell the challenge we face is moving from 'faithful giving' to 'faithful living'. A good steward is one who throws their ARMS around God realizing that God cares about not just how we spend our money but also how we:
Aquire: (Our vocation whatever it may be ,is something worthwhile that God has given us to do)
Remind: ( St. Paul reminds us in his message to the Phillipians 4: 11-12 "I have learned to be content with whatever I have")
Manage: (I manage my finances so that what matters to God can be accomplished)
Spend: (How does God want me to spend my money in ways that will be pleasing to him?)
our money. We need to move from giving as a 'duty' says Powell to giving as a 'delight'. There is joy, and happiness in giving out of love and gratitude for God, transformed by the Holy Spirit, we can move from a culture that gives from 'obligation' to a culture that gives out of 'grace'. It is the grace of God that makes us gracious, it's not what we 'should do' but rather what actually God is doing through us. A short term view of stewardship is that it is a means to an end...a means to fund the ministries of the Church, a longer term view is that it is the end itself, or as Powell put it "Stewardship isn't the means to salvation....it is salvation".
Oh, by the way, the answer to that question I asked earlier, "how much money could be raised for God's work each year if every active Christian in the United States tithed to their Church"? is $133 billion dollars annually.
Bill Marsella is the Director of Stewardship & Development at Normandale Lutheran Church, Edina, MN.
Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa (ignaciogarcialosa.com) via Flickr. Used by permission.