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Stewardship vs. Funding the Church -- Part I

In my course, “Starting New Missional Ministries” students have an assignment in which they respond to the prompt, “In a world of conflicting values, pluralistic leanings, and abundant choice, why does church matter?” Try it yourself. It’s a tough question, but an essential one for us -- both individually and for our churches collectively. In a way, Steve Oelschlager’s post today tackles the question through the lens of stewardship. He argues churches should dive head-on into the funding question and, in doing so, claim their true mission.

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders

Stewardship vs. Funding the Church -- Part I

Steve Oelschlager

It’s not uncommon at a conference like Luther Seminary’s Rethinking Stewardship to hear that stewardship isn’t the equivalent of how we fund the church. I agree! When we aspire for people to live life as good stewards, the stakes go way beyond our congregation’s and denomination’s need for resources. Of course, this raises an interesting question: what is our program for funding the church? Doesn’t it make sense that until we have another way to answer that question, we will keep resorting to stewardship as the response?

To explore this funding issue further, what if we thought about how farmers increase output as an analogy for how we might grow more time, talent, and financial resources for God’s mission through the church? In particular, a farmer has three approaches to consider: increase the number of plants; grow better quality, more productive plants; and get more efficient at harvesting at the end of the growing season. All other things being equal, boosting any or all of these would increase yields. This week I will write about the first opportunity, while next week I will cover the second and third.

In the church, when we think of the equivalent of more plants, we should be reminded of all the ways we enlarge the ranks of those following Jesus, including but not limited to evangelism. Over the years in my congregation, it has become very obvious to me the difference that new members make through their participation, leadership, and financial support. The gifts new members bring to my congregation are fundamental to what we do.

Unfortunately, the trends for adherents, members, or participants in organized religion are not stable or growing, but instead are in decline. The general rule for my ELCA denomination is that we have lost 30 percent of our members in the 30 years that we have been in existence, despite the general population growing by 30 percent. As we think about this question of funding the church, it’s not hard to see how this one trend alone can and will undermine everything else we are doing.

How do you think about this challenge? As you try to understand why this is happening, what are your explanations? Here is what I have gleaned from listening, reading, and talking with others about this topic.

The young adult demographic has the greatest percentage composition of “nones,” or those who do not acknowledge any religious affiliation. It’s not because they are all or mostly atheists, although some are. In general, the research shows they believe in God, revere Jesus, consider themselves spiritual, and want to make a difference in the world. They just don’t understand why the church matters or is relevant to their lives.

As I have thought about this issue of relevancy, it seems to me the church needs to make it clear to people that living a life of faith as part of a religious community is not just about making the world out there a better place, but is also a pathway for each of us to personally have a better life. Said more crassly, we are supposed to get something out of our faith and involvement with our congregation. I’m not promoting a kind of prosperity gospel, but instead, that following Jesus in a community of faith is about abundant life, life that truly is life. If we as the church don’t name, claim, and deliver that kind of wellbeing and salvation for life here and now, including for our adherents, then our value and relevancy will not be understood.

Join me next week as I move on to cultivation, nourishment, hydrating, pruning, and harvesting.

For More Information:

Oelschlager’s recent article in Currents in Theology and Mission, “Transformational Stewardship: Should We Expect a Net Benefit from Following Jesus?” considers this topic in more depth.   

Steve Oelschlager is the stewardship program coordinator for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as well as the director of engagement and generosity for Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Libertyville, Illinois. He has spent more than 20 years as an entrepreneur offering consulting and marketing communications services, and his whole life as a layperson and leader in the Lutheran church. He is energized by ideas about life, faith, religion and money, and hopes to be a teacher and leader of life-giving change through his work.

Join us on July 25-27 for three days of conversation and exploration at Rethinking Stewardship: From Solemn Obligation to Inspired Choice. More information here.


Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

"Corn field" image by Trevor Wintle. Creative Commons licensing via Flickr.

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