Where Your Treasure Is...
A fresh look at our life and our resources in light of the Kingdom.
Believers are called to give of their resources. Most evangelicals would accept that statement as truth, whatever else they might say or feel about how well they’ve done in their personal practice of giving. Indeed, the principle is based squarely on a multitude of Bible passages—in both the Old and New Testaments. The widow’s mite provides ample illustration of the type of giving that is glorifying to God.1
North American Christians, for their part, have a long and established pattern of giving. The swelling number of options—very specific options—for giving, as well as breaches of trust and salesmanship from the pulpit, can make us reticent to stretch ourselves to give sacrificially. The number of needs—as well as the number of established institutions—have increased and are contending, if not competing, for our contributions.
In light of the Scriptural mandate for giving and this vast array of choices facing the giver today, we carry a burden to find ways to give with wisdom, giving special attention to causes that advance Christ’s central mandate in the Great Commission.
In part, the very reminder to use wisdom in our giving is an implicit recognition of the success of efforts to mobilize the Church in the U.S. towards the cause of missions. Many more people today want to play an active role in the Great Commission and are seeking ways to give of themselves and their resources. The results, as we would expect, are mixed. Numerous are the tales of the sad, inadvertent impact of short-term efforts gone awry. But there are also sweet stories (and a new appreciation) of songs of praise being uttered in the languages of people groups hitherto unreached.
Giving to advance the cause of the Church among a people halfway around the globe with needs vastly different from those in North America is an increasingly complex task. Strategic giving, then, seems to be an appropriate designation for the type of giving we’d like to advocate.
A recent U.S. News and World Report article on charitable giving notes with a bit of amusement a recent trend in North American charity: a desire to control and measure those things that we give towards.2 This has contributed to an urgency to make a difference now—and it is not altogether compatible with the long-term view necessary in mission.
In some respects, a desire to see fruit born from one’s generosity is entirely reasonable. But when it comes to the cause of church planting, results are not frequently measured as easily as are quarterly earnings of a corporation or returns off one’s investment in a mutual fund. How many a missionary would have lost all funding because, as pioneer church planters, one or even two generations pass without a single soul confessing allegiance to the person of Jesus? Few (at least few evangelicals, it seems) would argue that an investment in such a missionary should be viewed as a failure.
But giving for the cause of Christian mission and giving to charitable causes in general do have some similarities—and trends and lessons learned in one arena are relevant in another.
The wealthy in America, in particular, have become standard-bearers for philanthropic giving that many, especially in Europe, are seeking to emulate. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which started with a $21-billion grant, targeted for immunization of the world’s poor, is the largest such giveaway to date. It has been widely viewed as very generous, even in light of Gates’ vast wealth.3
The American inclination to control can easily manifest itself in unhealthy ways. But if that tendency to control can be tempered, the yearning to be involved with and knowledgeable about supported causes is a commendable attribute and could well lead to the advancement of the mission cause. Short-term mission work, for example, is increasingly utilized effectively as a tool to keep senders abreast of ongoing developments on the field.
The current generation of American philanthropy has also shown a desire to address root causes of problems— rather than simply applying ointment to wounds. Smarter philanthropy is better philanthropy, in whatever arena we find it. At its very core, the Great Commission itself could be construed as addressing the ultimate root cause—the condition of man’s heart before God.
The mission world in North America is drawing support from the same big pool as philanthropy at large, and it would do well to recognize and build on some of the positive philanthropic trends in a fast-changing culture. But significant parts of the mission community seem to have left sectors of wealth in our nation untapped. It has been widely recognized that many rich, especially the newly rich, have shown signs that they want to be a force for good.4 Maybe the burden is on us to show them just how good and God-glorifying an investment in missions can be.
An Attitude Toward Giving
Before we move into an analysis of and criteria for strategic giving, let us offer some broad strokes of our perspective on what constitutes giving that is strategic. The U.S. Center for World Mission and Mission Frontiers have been built on a core premise that the priority in our mission giving ought to go to those peoples (ethnic groups) that do not have a legitimate, viable church movement that would enable them to be reached by their own kinsmen. The Center was one of the early institutions to hoist a flag for what were once labeled “hidden peoples” and have long since been referred to as “unreached peoples.”5
Kingdoms in Conflict.
We see in Scripture a battle between two opposing Kingdoms, Satan’s dominion of darkness and the Kingdom of God. Colossians 1:13 states plainly that it is Christ who rescues one from “the dominion of darkness” and brings him “into the Kingdom of the Son He loves.” In light of this battle between two opposing kingdoms, it seems that one of the clearest ways to recognize the advance of the Kingdom of God over the dominion of Satan is the establishment of a viable Christian witness among peoples who previously had no opportunity to yield themselves to Christ’s benevolent Lordship. Stated more simply, mission to unreached peoples is a strategic thing to invest in—with one’s life, learning and resources. Other causes may very well be strategic; wise giving towards creating a Christian witness among the unreached is always strategic. Any donor should have work that advances the Gospel among the unreached on his or her short list of strategic causes.
But advocating unreached peoples as a central and strategic target should not be understood as supporting a proclamation of the Gospel without a demonstration of it. Though often characterized otherwise in recent discussions on the subject, traditional mission agencies have long sought to give attention to the whole man—giving help to material and physical needs while offering people new life through yielding themselves to Christ. Holistic mission to the unreached is neither altogether new nor at tension with a central call to see a living witness for Christ among these people.
If giving towards frontier mission6 were viewed as a strategic, high priority, one would expect measurements of our monetary giving to reflect it. But, as it is, giving to frontier mission is really quite dismal. When looked at worldwide, those who did give to Christian work saw 82.6 percent of their donations go to home pastoral salaries, and, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, only .02 percent of Christian ministry expenditures went to unevangelized peoples.7
Even so, as a nation, the U.S. continues to lead the way in charitable contributions and in giving to religious institutions. And, according to Barna Research, those whose beliefs were classified as evangelical were the most likely to share their wealth.8
While the accumulated charitable giving of all sorts last year surpassed $200 billion in the U.S. for the first time,9 religious giving, as a portion of one’s income, has shown a marked decrease over the last 30 years. In 1968, for example, the average portion of one’s income given to the church was 3.10 percent. By 1998, that figure was 2.52 percent— nearly a 20 percent drop.10 And the practice of tithing is really quite low as well. In the year 2000, Barna Research reported that less than 8 percent of those who were classified as born again gave at least 10 percent to the church. 11 According to the research group Empty Tomb, Inc., if Americans simply tithed their income, giving would increase $131 billion annually.
“What we’re seeing is a wholesale accommodation to culture,” says Sylvia Ronsvalle, Executive Vice President at Empty Tomb. Noting the correlation of the great rise in personal income with the relative decrease in giving to Christian causes, especially Christian charity (which includes mission), she finds little room for optimism. “The way we are spending our money is like a thermometer of our spiritual condition—and there is not a lot of encouragement,” she says.
A Biblical Attitude
Beyond the Biblical call to give, Scripture provides additional principles pertinent to the subject of strategic giving. The guidelines provided below are not intended to be exhaustive principles, but helpful ones.
We should give as God has given to us. 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 illustrates that the abundant joy we have in Christ, the overflow of which results in our generosity—is the wellspring of our giving. The act of giving may increase our joy—but the source of that joy is Christ alone. When the Church gives less than 4 percent of its income to all charitable causes, we need to ask ourselves why we invest so little in His Kingdom from those resources He has entrusted to us. Do we give grudgingly or cheerfully?
Use a consistent measurement
We are evaluated—or judged—in the same way we evaluate or judge how we give (Mt. 7:1-2). Do we dismiss a missionary need for a sturdy, off-road vehicle used to transport community development supplies over rough, unpaved roads while we casually purchase an SUV to ferry the kids to school or soccer practice?
Our giving should reflect where our treasure is
(Mt. 6:21-22). When one considers the disparity between stated beliefs and Christian practice when it comes to giving, one can readily question whether, in fact, we really believe what we say we believe. In the last issue of Mission Frontiers, K. Rajendran posed a question in light of the apathy he sees in himself and in the Church at large: “My complacency causes me to question whether or not I really believe that hell is real…. If India is to ever change we must be committed to the ethos of Jesus and convinced of the reality of salvation through Christ.” Similarly, the change necessary in the Church at large is dependent on a renewed commitment to the centrality of the person of Jesus.
Give and live strategically
While American charity at large is increasingly financed by large-scale donations and charitable foundations, the mission enterprise today is still largely funded by relatively small donations of individuals, families and churches. We should be keen in scrutinizing our own lifestyles and be willing to amend— perhaps streamline—our lifestyle in order to increase our contribution to the Kingdom. A strategic view of all of life gives attention to how we spend our time and talents—as well as our resources.
Recent studies done by both Barna and Gallup point out that those who are involved are more likely to give of their resources. That fact may seem obvious, but we often advocate people increasing their commitment largely through giving their resources. But the notion of a nonactive giver may, in fact, be an increasingly rare one. Behavior patterns indicate that, if our desire is for people to give to mission, they need to be increasingly involved in mission. When they can see and understand the central, strategic and God-glorifying role that mission plays, they will be willing to commit to it long-term—whether that means serving on a mission committee or a foreign field, supporting a missionary or committing to daily, disciplined prayer.
We should give more of ourselves as well as our resources. Beyond the giving of ourselves to mission, are we willing to yield up our children to be God’s servants, advocating, even fueling, their mission inclinations?
As to how this applies specifically to strategic giving in frontier mission, consider ministries or projects that fulfill many of the following criteria:
- Squarely address systemic issues that few others can or will address
- Show creative initiative (culturally, geographically, or conceptually)
- Convey transferable concepts, replicable models, multiplying leaders
- Show “bench strength” on the team, reducing dependence on one person
- Integrate evangelism and church-planting with holistic development
- Carry a prior track record of effectiveness and responsibility
- Demonstrate healthy mechanisms for comparing goals to results
- Distinguish applications of capital giving from operational income
- Evidence a capacity and care to honor the other “players” on the scene
- Demonstrate a desire to learn, grow, and adapt
Dependency can be a great problem in world mission. Indeed, Mission Frontiers has been an active voice in articulating healthy and appropriate cautions in attempting to avoid dependency. Yet, a consideration of the Biblical emphases is helpful. The Scriptures include admonitions to personal responsibility in financial affairs (especially in the wisdom literature and pastoral epistles), but there is an even greater weight of emphasis on generosity, mutual responsibility and stewardship on behalf of the greater good. We should not, for example, allow our anxiety about dependency to choke out the generosity spoken of in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 or the stewardship-for-others commanded in 1 Peter 4:10. Peter Drucker’s admonition, spoken to an audience of organizational managers, is equally relevant in this context: “Make sure you know your degenerative tendency and try to counteract it.”12 Care must be taken lest a desire for wisdom degenerate into stinginess in giving.
Give to the local church
Too often, mission has been seen as the competitor to the work of the local church. First and foremost, we ought to see ourselves as members of a local body—and view it as our first responsibility and privilege in giving. Within that body, we ought to advocate and educate on missions, cultivating a deeper understanding and commitment on the part of the group.
Paul’s admonition in Romans to offer up our bodies as living sacrifices emphasizes the active dimension of our life before Christ. Our offering to Christ is not static, dead or distant from us. What we do with our lives (including our resources) does not earn us salvation or merit, but does bring pleasure to our God. Though our culture of affluence might bristle at embracing, even choosing limitations or hardships, God exhorts us to “spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”13 What we ought to be spending on behalf of the needy and oppressed, then, is our lives—including but certainly not limited to our resources.
Give for the long haul
If “I want to make a difference now” is the heart desire of many givers to mission today, Paul’s exhortation to be long-distance runners is in order. The North American desire to leave a building as a tangible and immediate fruit of a short-term mission endeavor has likely served us better than it has served the cause of advancing the Gospel. We ought to be deliberate in tempering our fast-food culture that seeks immediate gratification and be willing to invest for the long haul. One of the most obvious—and strategic—investments one can make is a dedicated, growing commitment to a missionary that increases over time.
Be willing to take a chance
Sometimes the most innovative and potentially ground-breaking endeavors in mission are projects that do not have a guaranteed “return.” We should have a willingness to give in faith, hoping that a particular ministry venture bear good fruit, but not feel as though money has been wasted if results are otherwise.
A Complex Task
What is provided here is intended as a guide and a catalyst, not a step-by-step manual for where to place your personal investment in the mission enterprise. The issues are admittedly complex, and one does run the risk of giving to a project that doesn’t meet its intended objective.
Recognizing the layers of complexity involved in missions, we ought to commit ourselves to being lifelong learners, increasingly wise in our giving. But any response that fails to give as God has given the ability falls short of faithfulness to the central place Christ has given the Great Commission.
Perhaps one of the greatest problems North American believers face today is the sad apathy we often feel in the face of grand, awe-inspiring Biblical truths and Scriptural causes. We should never give grudgingly, but it is not inappropriate to give with the sincere hope that the heart’s affections will follow.