Is God short of cash?

And I can’t tell the difference between ABC News,
Hill Street Blues,
And a preacher on the old time gospel hour
Stealing money from the sick and the old
Well the God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister!

– Bono (of U2), “Bullet the Blue Sky”, in Rattle and Hum

I really don’t like hearing churches ask for money. I’ve often thought that in an ideal church, there would be no collection plate passed around during the service, and no annual fundraising drives. The church budget would be extremely lean, and would grow if and only if there were unsolicited contributions discreetly made.

Granted, Christian churches in general are some of the only places in society where one can receive the proverbial free lunch, often literally in addition to figuratively. If one seeks counseling from a psychiatrist, or spiritual enlightenment from a yoga session, or personal growth from a weekend seminar, it’s usually necessary to pay a set fee.

And it seems that the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where comedian Larry David buys scalped tickets to a Jewish service on a High Holy Day has some basis in the real world, as many congregations really do sell tickets (others, to their credit, contrast themselves with this, using the Curb episode). With a few rare exceptions (tourist attractions like Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica), churches are free, but this approach only puts them on par with NPR or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which are also available for free but encourage contributions. [Update 3/4/2018: the Met is moving away from this approach.]

I think churches can and should go further than that. Not only should the doors be open, but no one should feel pressured to contribute, via collection plates, fundraising drives, or the like. This kind of thing is probably very high on the list in terms of driving people away from churches, and people who have bad experiences with church all too often throw out the baby (Jesus) with the bathwater of poorly organized religion.

In any church I’ve ever attended more than once, this sensitive issue has been handled with a light touch. Most pastors seem well aware of the problematic nature of asking for money, and take pains to make sure newcomers don’t feel like appeals are directed at them. Nonetheless, they all seem to pass the hat every Sunday, and usually have a sermon or two per year that focuses on the importance of giving.

With all this in mind, I visited a church a couple of weeks ago that was connected to a local homeless shelter. A significant portion of the congregation consisted of men who were recovering from addiction, or recently released from prison, and were in the shelter’s program to learn how to hold down a job. I don’t know what a typical sermon is like at this church; I have only one example to consider. But what I heard made me deeply uncomfortable. The pastor was talking about the importance of “sowing seeds of giving” by giving a tithe (10% of income) each week. Proclaiming that God always keeps His word, the pastor encouraged listeners to expect that their giving would be handsomely rewarded – soon, in the here and now, in the form of things like raises, bonuses, commissions, and so on. It sounded like the worst kind of televangelism, the kind Bono had in mind, live and on stage. I was glad I hadn’t invited anyone to join me.

The pastor then proceeded to discuss the familiar lesson of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44). I’ve often viewed this as Jesus offering a pretty straightforward piece of common sense about the diminishing marginal utility of wealth, as a warning to the rich not to congratulate themselves for doing what comes easily. The pastor, however, said something to the effect of “Jesus didn’t say to the disciples ‘Oh, look at that poor widow, trying to help. Isn’t that nice?’ or to the widow ‘You don’t need to bother with that, ma’am, you go ahead and hold on to those coins.’ No, he praised her and held her faith up as an example to all.” Men in the audience were nodding.

After the service, as the meal was being served, I observed the pastor milling around, tending to people. In this setting, he certainly didn’t seem like a crass televangelist. Even though I disagree with the theology of expecting earthly rewards from one’s giving, on the ride home and in the days the followed I wondered if I had partially misjudged the situation. Does giving bring with it a certain kind of dignity that is in short supply in troubled places? Doesn’t God value gifts based on the love and sacrifice behind them, rather than the economic sensibility? Is the practice of tithing, far from being exploitative, a practice that develops good habits in general and is an appropriate part of a pastor’s toolkit in poor congregations? What do I really know about how to help these people? I began to regret my judgmental initial reaction.

As someone who tends to be surrounded by well-to-do nonbelievers most of the time, I try hard to see the world, and Christianity, through their critical eyes, and then prepare defenses of the faith (or reforms of the church) accordingly. The cynical use of religion for private financial gain is certainly a real problem, and a big reason why people turn away from religious faith (not just organized religion) altogether. Of course, Jesus was sensitive to this. When Jesus encouraged the rich to give away their possessions, they are always encouraged to give to the poor (for example, the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus), not to the temple or to Jesus. Furthermore, the only time we see Jesus using violence of any kind in the Gospels is when He turns over the tables of the money-changers and drives them out of the temple (Mark 11:15-19). With this in mind, the lesson of the widow’s mite is properly seen not as a comment on the effectiveness of (or best object of) charitable gifts, but as a comment on the spiritual condition of the widow. This lesson is reinforced elsewhere in the Gospels (see Matthew 26:6-13), undercutting any attempt to reduce Christianity to mere economic theory.

I am still standing by my idea that the world needs more churches that don’t solicit gifts. There is no one right way to do church, just people who need to be reached, loved, comforted, and brought into the building of God’s Kingdom. But barring evidence of bad motives on the part of church leadership, I am going to remind myself not to be quick to criticize churches that ask their congregation to share in the financial burden of the mission, even if the congregation is poor.

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