Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Reluctant Fundraiser

I didn’t become a missionary in order to become a fundraiser. Believe me, that was the last thing on my agenda!

In fact, I thought that by becoming a Methodist missionary, I could avoid the job altogether. After all, we’re “connectional” people, meaning that every Methodist church pitches in a little to help send our missionaries to places they’re needed, and it saves us all the burden of interminable slide shows and the ubiquitous “love offering.”

But I’m not completely off the hook. In fact, the General Board of Global Ministries is hoping – not demanding, of course! – that we can find thirty churches to sponsor us in Covenant Relationships. In dollars, this means either a flat gift of $2,500/year, or $3, $4, or $5 per member of the congregation.

Part of the reason we’re traveling around to various churches throughout the summer months is to encourage this kind of support of our work. I’m spending some of my time making phone calls and sending e-mails to churches. We even just completed a short video to be distributed for use in worship services and mission committee meetings.

All this has me feeling very uncomfortable, like a Kerry supporter begging for votes in Texas! It’s not easy asking people to dig deeper into their already-drained pockets and support work in far-off Africa. I wish it were easier, but it just ain’t these days.

You can even sense that I have a problem even talking about it in plain English. We’re talking about MONEY here. Dollars, bucks, cash. We need it, and we need YOU to give us some.

I can hardly bear to type those words. My formative Christian years were the eighties, that decade when public perception of Christian preachers bottomed out, thanks to the financial shenanigans of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Robert Tilton. I have visited churches where the offering plate was passed several times. I have received countless pieces of direct mail from numerous direct preachers.

Long ago, I put up my mental blocks to such manipulative tricks. But here I am in a situation where, to be honest, I have to ask for money. I thought I could avoid this.

Another memory comes to mind, however. While living in southern California and attending college about twelve years ago, I attended a wonderful evangelical church, Westside Fellowship. One of the things that attracted me to the place was the fact that there was no offering plate. Literally. No one ever asked for money. There was simply a big basket in the foyer, and the church relied on people’s contributions made before or after service.
I thought this was great. I had never experienced a church which appeared to have so much faith in God that it didn’t worry about pleading for money. I determined that all churches ought to be like this.

I was confounded, then, when one day I heard that the church council was considering changing the policy. I went to the pastor, who had befriended me, and said, “What’s this about passing the plate in worship? I kinda like the way we’ve been doing it. Shouldn’t we keep God and mammon separate?”

The pastor smiled and said, “I know. I’ve never wanted to let money be seen as a motivating force in the church, either. But a few people in the church have reminded me that the offering time really is a part of worship. Or at least it should be.”

He went on to remind me that worship is not only prayers and music, confession and preaching. Worship includes the act of giving ourselves to God. And one of the ways in which we give ourselves to God, is by giving of our resources, including our money.

The clank of coins in the offering plate can be a beautiful sound in God’s ears, as much as an exquisite solo or a stirring sermon. Witness the way that Jesus was moved when he watched a widow drop two coins into the plate long ago.

The church changed its policy. I still didn’t like it. But by the time I became a pastor myself, I had learned my lesson. The offertory is a legitimate part of Christian worship.

For most Generation X pastors, it’s a hard lesson to learn. The truth is that we do remember the excesses and embarrassments of previous generations, and we try our best not to repeat them. We’re also trying to resist the pull of American culture, which defines success in financial terms.

The answer is not to avoid talking about money, as many of us do. Instead, we must address the topic forcefully, just as Jesus did. It’s a matter of giving people a chance to worship God with their resources, of everything they own and hold dear. In a strange way, if we don't encourage people to give, then we are withholding an opportunity to worship God from them!

So ... ahem, I guess that leaves me where I started -- money. You’ve got it. We need it. The Cameroon Methodist Church needs it. It belongs to God anyway.

An usher will be by shortly …