Any one who pays attention to such things will tell you that giving to Synods and Districts has gone down or plateaued over the years and now is pretty flat. At the same time there is evidence that giving to churches and charities is actually going up. So how can this be? Better yet as Lutherans the question is “what does this mean?” A great change in the way people give and what they expect their giving to “do” has taken place. As one of my friends says, “people don’t want to give money to pay for toilet paper and toner for the copier at the District office or the Synod International Center”. People also know that toilet paper and toner are reasonably important things if you happen to work at the District Office or the IC in St. Louis. More and more people want to know that they are getting a “bang for their buck” and so they give to a specific project and that is called “restricted money”. These are usually mercy or mission projects and folks like me take great pains to see that your gift goes where you intend it to go. Unrestricted money, what I like to call “self help” (money that can be spent on toilet paper and toner) is getting shorter and shorter. Why? I don’t have an answer but all of us have experienced the interesting situation where an organization seems to limp along without a lot of money and then a project comes along like roof repair. Someone stands up and says this is what we need, and suddnely there is enough money for the project and everyone is happy until the next crisis comes along. It is not a matter of all of us being broke and having nothing. We simply choose not to give to the things that run the day to day operations. So what is going on?
Here is my theory and most people that are in the “know” will probably disagree. For years I heard relatives and friends, and then as I moved into the ministry, parishoners, say things like “paying the church dues”. I saw many people look at a church budget and divide it by the number of members and then say that was their “fair share”. Of course this drives “stewardship” people crazy and the truth is that if all of us gave as God has given to us we wouldn’t need budgets and we would struggle to give the money away. But there is another truth here as well and that is that from my meager studying of passages from the Old Testament and some of the customs of Jesus day as well as stories like the temple tax found in the fish, it appears that “stewardship”, caring for the household really has the feel and the tone of a tax, or “paying dues”.
Matthew 17:24-27 (New International Version)
The Temple Tax
24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma (half shekel) tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes -— from their own sons or from others?”
26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him.
27 “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
Now obviously Jesus is disputing the tax and yet he pays it. The point I am trying to make here is that many of the passages we use for stewardship have to do with a tithe or a tax or dues. This is what it costs to be a part of this operation that was supposed to be, by God’s direction, a light to the world and a Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation. You paid your “dues” to care for the hosuehold of God that gifted you to go out and do your task and be a Priest and member of an organization that was to bring the whole world into fellowship with God. This is where you would be blessed to be a blessing – here is what it costs to run it.
Here is an interesting article for you to check out – http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=95666
The passages that we also use for stewardship that I believe are improper are the ones from Paul and Peter in the epistles. These passages are exhortations for giving money to relieve the suffering of poor people. This is really charity, grace, true fellowship. This is what we do because we have been blessed and gifted in worship and in the sacraments to be blessings.
So get ready. What if we actually move to a point where Synod sends out a letter and says to every District “this is what it costs you to belong to this fellowship”? The District in turn sends out a letter to every congregation and says this is your assessed fee to belong to the District and by the way mission congregations are not exempt. Then, you guessed it – every church sends out a letter to every member and says – “here are your ‘dues”. Now let’s get busy and by God’s blessing and gifts we receive in this place let us go out and do what we have been called to do. Pretty outrageous huh? We will talk more about this.