Below is chapter 4 of my book, The Generous Soul, available for your reading. The standard restrictions (do not copy, do not print) still apply. You many quote for sermons, teaching and the like.
the missiology of missional giving
does God have a plan for my stuff?
“For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To whom be glory forever. Amen.”
Romans 11:36 (NKJV)
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”
Luke 16:10, 11 (NIV)
“All too often, I fear, we are bad givers. If I am only a receiver and not also a giver, I am unworthy of the God who sent me. The divine principle is not ‘Save and you shall grow rich.’ It is ‘Give and it shall be given unto you.’”
A Table in the Wilderness69
“Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging things to grow.”
Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand)
“Do not value money for any more nor any less than its worth; it is a good servant but a bad master.”
“’What then should we do?’ the crowds were asking [John].
He replied to them, ‘The one who has two shirts must share with someone who has none, and the one who has food must do the same.’”
Luke 3:10, 11 (HCSB)
It is difficult for a follower of Christ not to be moved by a missionary story. From the earliest moments of salvation, it seems stories are relayed about the faithful lives and sometimes deaths of those intrepid servants of God who left most—if not all—in pursuit of souls. David Brainerd, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Gladys Aylward, Stan Dale, Phil Masters, Lottie Moon, Bill Wallace, John Paton, Mary Slessor, and countless others have inspired believers for centuries. What believer, having heard the story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, Elizabeth Elliot, Rachel Saint and, now, Steve Saint, has not marveled at the grace and wisdom of God among the Huaorani people and been challenged in his or her own spiritual journey.70
Meeting with missionaries on their field of service is always a humbling experience. Crowded around a kitchen table or crammed three-people-too-many into a small car, listening to the stories of call, training, and experiences are enough to warm any cold heart. Some of the richest “God moments” of my entire life have taken place in these kinds of situations. I think the lack of these times constitutes a hole in the spiritual development of many believers.
On the move
The gospel of Matthew contains what is generally referenced as “The Great Commission,” those words of Jesus preparing His disciples for their mission, which soon would become a reality.71 In Acts 1:8, Jesus informed the disciples that they would be witnesses to Him (meaning His life, death, and resurrection), beginning where they lived and continuing across the entire world. Over time, this is exactly what happened. In fact, two millennia later, you and I came to faith in Christ as a result of their initial obedience.
As long as those early followers were in predominantly Jewish areas, they were able to tell the story of Jesus among Jewish people using Jewish history and Jewish ideals, hopes and expectations, explaining that Jesus the Jewish rabbi was Jesus Christ the world’s Messiah. As they moved out farther into the Roman Empire, where cultures began to be mixed or distinctly different, it was common to utilize some of those particular cultural forms to share the gospel. They did not change the message, but they did use word pictures and ideas familiar to their audience so the truth was communicated. These—Paul, Barnabas, Mark, Silas—are thought of as some of the first Christian missionaries.
Over time, the idea has taken hold that only those fitting this kind of criteria are missionaries. It will be helpful to determine whether this idea fully squares with Scripture.
On the move
The scriptural record seems clear that all followers of Christ are missionaries no matter their country, culture, or context. God is a sending God and we are a sent people. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”72 Like John the Baptist we are sent “from God.”73 We may not be sent from heaven, but we are definitely sent by heaven. We may not be sent across a culture, but we are definitely sent into a culture. Our town is a culture, our schools have cultures, our neighborhoods have cultures, our activities—golfing, cycling, running, scrapbooking—can each have a culture of its own (often called a subculture). The culture where we live and/or spend significant portions of our time is often termed our “host culture.”74
Virtually all of us reside in a host culture that is ignorant of, indifferent about, or hostile toward the gospel. As missionaries, our role is to understand the culture and attempt to enter it in every way we can, so the gospel may be introduced in a way that is both comprehensible and convicting. The goal is not to make the gospel palatable, but understandable; not to cover it, thus producing questionable conversions, but to unveil it, thus producing authentic ones.
Missional believers do not wait to be sent by a church or mission board into a foreign land, but recognize they are already sent from heaven to earth as Christ’s messengers wherever they live, work, study, and play. Missional believers receive the call to participate in God’s mission when answering the call to enter God’s kingdom. All believers are missionaries to somebody, somewhere.
That includes us.
The world is not our home
Despite that call, observers of Western religious culture, perhaps especially American evangelicalism, would be hard pressed to believe that we view finances in the same way the average missionary is expected to do. Missionaries routinely sell their houses, cars, and furniture, fly far from home and live in a modest dwelling among the people they wish to impact for Christ. They drive a modest vehicle (often just one, sometimes provided by a mission board sometimes not), wear clothes appropriate to their new home and, generally, have enough money to live. Often their money is spent in ministry, especially if living in a less than affluent area. Though some missionaries engage in business, more often than not it is for the purpose of building relationships and may or may not be a profit-making venture. They typically view everything about their assignment as directly related to God’s kingdom.
The contrast with American Christians could hardly be more stark. Most of us are multiple car families, have more house than we need, more stuff than we can use, make wasteful purchases without a second thought (much less prayer), and give 2.8 percent of our income to “charity,” many of which have nothing to do with Kingdom purposes. Some Christians spend hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to enroll their kids in every manner of activity, far outpacing the amount given so the gospel can be taken to those who have never heard. Because we have so long believed that missionaries are “those super spiritual people who get sent to live with cannibals,” and have failed to understand our own calling, it has been easy to excuse our lifestyles that might otherwise have been called exorbitant, wasteful, or excessive. When each believer begins to live as a sent messenger, a missionary on assignment, an ambassador in a foreign land, we can begin to more biblically evaluate our money and possessions.
Dr. Jerry Rankin is the president-emeritus of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. In his book, Spiritual Warfare: The Battle for God’s Glory, he recounts two instances in which missionaries struggled with money or possessions. Of one, he writes: “A missionary, serving in a high-cost economy, resigned, explaining he could not possibly live on the support being provided…As an illustration of how they could not make it on their missionary salary, he pointed out that it cost his family $57 to eat out at McDonald’s each week.”75 Another missionary struggled with the idea of moving to an area with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Rankin records, “A lady stood up in our meeting and spoke with emotion. With tears she said, ‘We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to move to the villages and kampungs (neighborhood ghettos) if we’re going to be used of God. We can’t isolate ourselves and continue the way we’ve been living.’ Then she blurted out between her sobs, ‘But I can’t give up my refrigerator!’”76
In our mind these stories might sound extreme. “How could a missionary be so concerned about this kind of thing? Are they not living in poor areas? Are they not expected to make sacrifices?” We might even laugh sympathetically at the lady’s desire to have a refrigerator while we are grabbing a drink from our side-by-side LG with water and ice dispensers and, maybe, a built-in TV or computer screen. Are we guilty of judging in the midst of indulgence? James indicted his first century audience over this very issue, “You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (5:5; NASB).
Country, culture, context
The point we may miss is that each follower of Christ is a missionary in our country, our culture, and our context. There is not a single follower of Christ who is not called and sent. Should we judge that a missionary is not sufficiently in love with Christ when we do not give a second thought to vastly more wasteful expenditures than wanting to eat at McDonald’s once a week? To tell some American Christians that they could only eat out once a week would be akin to putting them on the fast track to starvation since so many meals are eaten at restaurants. Years ago a young lady named Kirsten at the church where I was on staff had just returned from Papua New Guinea, or “PNG” as she called it. After two years of teaching children in the Wycliffe Bible Translators missionary school, she was sitting across my office and had this to say as she slowly shook her head, “I cannot believe how much money Americans spend going out to eat. If they only knew how much Kingdom work could be funded by that money.”
A former pastor of mine, who answered the call to ministry after being married (and having three children), moved to Louisiana to attend seminary. His wife drove a school bus during their seminary years and he pastored a church (part-time) many miles from where they lived. I recall him telling many times that they would scrape and save every penny and nickel they could, putting the money in a jar. Then, once at year they would attire themselves, he in his best suit and she in her best dress, and go out to eat…at McDonald’s.
Compare that with the attitude of the missionaries who felt somehow slighted because they could not eat out once a week. Now think about how much money Americans spend eating out; not out of necessity as when traveling away from home, but out of convenience. Some Christian businessmen eat breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner at restaurants. Some pastors eat breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner out at an exorbitant running cost.
The question for us should not be, “Can we not have what we like?” but “Can we not live with what we must and use the rest for the Kingdom?” The scripture says, “To whom much is given much is required,”77 not “To whom much is given much is allowed.” There seems to be no end to how much we can spend on things that bring us pleasure, while specifically ignoring the things that bring God pleasure. This is the result of materialism.
Remember the statistics from the introduction? Remember how much money is spent on pet stuff every year? Remember how much it costs to help all those male animals have better self-esteem through fake “parts”? Did you know that people in the United States and the European Union spend more than thirteen billion U.S. dollars annually on perfume and cologne?78 Imagine how many children could be supported through Compassion International at thirty-four dollars a month with that surplus of redirected cash. (Save your imagination—it is 31,862,745 children.)
Scripture is not silent as to how we understand this earthly life: “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.”79 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.”80 “We are ambassadors for Christ.”81 “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.”82 Our problem is not that we have no access to the truth; the problem is that we have carefully censored the parts that make us uncomfortable. We are practicing revisionist missiology.
The worst-case scenario?
Actually, the problem may be worse than that. The worst-case scenario is that we have actually folded materialism into our worldview and are now unable to recognize it as such. Americans, for instance, have instilled within us from our earliest years that this is the “land of opportunity” where “each generation has done better than the one before it.” Done better how? Morally? Philosophically? Spiritually? No, financially. Each generation has accumulated more stuff than the one preceding. This is expected; it is part of what it means to be an American. In fact, when the recent “Great Recession” wiped out so much paper and real estate wealth, the lament became that the next generation would be the first in our history not to have more than their parents.
The combination of the American Dream, the lack of understanding about each believer being a missionary, and the reality of God’s universal ownership has birthed a generation of American believers who are blinded to their own materialistic worship. There is a very simple test that will demonstrate the kingdom to which we are aligned; ask yourself this: When is the last time I had to forgo the purchase of anything at all, delay or cancel a vacation or cancel entertainment plans because my giving to the kingdom of God would not allow it? The simple, but disheartening fact is that too often the opposite is true: we have often missed God-given opportunities due to our base worship of things. Before he reached the peak of his wealth, Andrew Carnegie wrote, “Man must have an idol—the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry—no idol is more debasing than the worship of money.”83
How our position as missionary relates to our use of possessions is only one side of the coin. The other side is that we are managers of portions of God’s wealth as He distributes it.
A familiar tale
Years ago there lived a wealthy landowner who had an estate with numerous servants. Each of these servants had varying degrees of responsibility, which they performed for him at his command.
One day, the landowner’s business carried him away for an extended period of time. He called some of his servants together for the purpose of giving them management responsibilities over certain segments of his possessions. To one of them he entrusted fifty thousand dollars, to another twenty thousand dollars, and to another ten thousand dollars; the decisions were made based on the management abilities that each had already demonstrated.
When the rich man left, the first two servants went to work in short order investing the money left in their care. Each was able to double the amount, the first to $100k, and the second to $40k. The third servant, however, took a different approach. He took the $10k entrusted to him, built a waterproof box, found a place on the back side of the property, dug a hole, and buried the box and money in the hole.
When the owner returned, he called the three servants, expecting an accounting for the money he had given. When the first two gave their reports, the owner was ecstatic. “Here,” he said to the first, “you’ve done well. Now, experience my joy by taking authority over these ten cities!” The second servant received a similar commendation receiving responsibility over five cities.
The third servant then stood before the master who demanded to hear a report. “It’s like this,” the servant began, “when you gave me the money, I knew that you were a very forceful man, an austere boss. To tell you the truth, I was kind of afraid of what you would do if I didn’t meet your expectations.” Noticing the narrowing eyes of the master, the servant continued, stammering, “So, I t-took the entire $10k and b-buried it on the back of your property. Here it is, every p-penny!”
The master was visibly angry as he closed the short distance between he and the third servant until the faltering man had no personal space remaining at all. Almost nose-to-nose he finally spoke, “You are not just a foolish servant, you are a wicked man! You say that you knew I was a powerful, that I reap harvests that I had not sown. If you really believe that, the least you should have done was to have put the money in a CD at the bank and let it earn some interest! Do you not realize that inflation has actually made the money worth less than its value when I gave it to you?”
The master then stepped back a pace and yelled to some other servants standing by, “Take the box of money, open it and give it to the most successful servant. At least he knows how to properly invest my money. After you have done that, take this loser and throw him off my property forever. I don’t care what happens to him, just get him away from me.”84
Those familiar with the New Testament may have noticed similarities to the parable of the talents taught by Jesus Christ. Despite the belief of some, this parable has nothing to do with abilities like playing piano, solving math problems, or hitting a baseball. The parable very specifically states the servants are managers of property and money. They are also judged by what kind of managers they each turn out to be. Two were well rewarded while one was judged and destroyed. This parable provides a great New Testament insight as to what God expects from His servants in relationship to what He owns.
The coming opportunity
This parable was given not long before Jesus was to return to the Father. His disciples would soon be given responsibilities they had only partially experienced while walking with Him. The unequivocal expectation God had for them was for faithful management; that expectation applies to us today. Everything we oversee by way of money and possessions is a test of faithfulness for us.85 This faithfulness was (and is) to be exemplified by managing the investment opportunity in the way that the owner would were He here. How we manage God’s possessions is a matter of faithfulness; how we give them is a matter of love.
Speaking of his denomination, a friend of mine likes to say, “There is only one pot of money and it’s in the pockets of the people in the pews.” It may sound simple, but that is true. It may come as a shock, but God has no bank account in your town. He has left a certain amount of wealth under the control of His children and that wealth is in bank accounts, stock accounts, safety deposit boxes, mattresses, Mason jars, goat pens, cow herds, and the hulls of ships worldwide. God’s wealth resides in gold Maple Leafs, American Eagles, and Krugerrands; in silver and platinum bars, in collectible figurines, ’65 Corvettes, pictures autographed by Jerry Garcia, and guitars that once belonged to Eric Clapton. He has wealth scattered everywhere under management of different people with different abilities. To those who have little, He expects faithfulness with little; from those who have much, He expects faithfulness with much. But do not be deceived; God expects faithfulness. As the Corinthians were reminded, “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”86 Alfred Edersheim, who was a scholar of 1st century Jewish culture, believed such mismanagement resulted from irresponsibility and a lack of effort. Writing of the wicked servant referenced above, he states, “The prominent fact here is, that he did not employ [the money] for the Master, as a good servant, but shunned alike the labor and the responsibility, and acted as if it has been some stranger’s, and not his Lord’s property.”87
“Our” possessions are as much God’s as if His name was on every deed and every single piece of ownership paperwork. “Our” money is also just as much at His disposal as if He had a debit card to our account and His name was on every check. Imagine checking your account online one morning to see that God had used His debit card to take three hungry people to IHOP the night before. What would you say? Would you complain about how God spent His money? Think it over: are we careful to spend our money the same way that God would? Spending the money God has entrusted to our management, without His involvement, is no different than embezzlement.
The authors of A is for Abductive issue this challenge:
It is also time for the church to ask its members some probing economic identity questions: Are you consumers? Are you citizens? Are you Christians?
If you are the first, your economics revolves around the question, Is this the best deal for me? If you are the second, your economics revolves around the question, Is this best for the nation? If you are the third, your economics revolves around a very different question, Is Christ calling me to do this?88
It will help us more easily accept our calling as missionary and our role as manager if we truly believe that God owns and sustains everything. It will also help to remember that God has taken upon Himself the responsibility to take care of His children. He has promised to provide for our needs; we are about to see that we can take Him at His word.