I’ve been doing a series of posts on my own ecclesial journey recently, and I think this one fits within that series as a sub-post geared toward answering a frequently-asked question among believers who are in simple churches.
“Simple Church” is terminology that is used in a variety of ways, but for the purposes of this post, I will define a simple church as a minimum of two or three believers gathering together regularly under the Lordship of Jesus Christ who are also on mission together to proclaim the good news about Jesus to others, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus taught. There. Simple church.
In a recent Facebook dialogue with some friends about this idea, one of my friends asked, “What about tithing? Where do you give the 10%?” I was grateful for her commitment to be a giver. In fact, every person I have talked to about this way of thinking about church over that past 9 months has the same exact question, and I can almost predict when it will come. The question is, “What about giving and tithing?” or “What about money?” I think it’s a wonderful question and it needs a lot of thought.
The first temptation when many of us think of starting churches is to (1) register with the United States government to get a 501(c)3 non-profit going, (2) get a set of bylaws drafted, (3) elect corporate officers, and (4) open a church bank account. And let me say right here that if you do those four things, you pretty much have everything you need to be a legitimate church.
This may sound totally weird, but somehow Christianity has survived for 2000 years, has spread all over the world, and originally multiplied from 120 disciples on Pentecost to 3000 in one day, and then to tens of millions in less than 300 years. Shocking.
Without the U.S. government issuing a non-profit status to early believers, they still regarded themselves as the church of Jesus Christ. They never asked, “is this tax deductible” when giving for the good of their shared mission. They didn’t even have bylaws or corporate officers (so it’s a wonder they ever got out of Jerusalem – I know!). And still, lacking all of this legitimacy and functionality, the earliest believers still shared their finances as a way of facilitating their shared mission and mutual responsibilities.
In the next few paragraphs, let me suggest what is no doubt a VERY idealistic model for giving and tithing in a very organic simple church, and then you can jump in to the comments and share your ideas, feedback, push-back, etc.
Church bank account, or not?
Does the church need a bank account? No. Why? Because you probably all already have bank accounts and you can all keep your money in those.
My wife and I have two bank accounts. If we want to set aside 10% of our income every month, we can transfer funds between our savings and our checking. If we are ready to give to ministry, we can transfer funds out of the savings account dedicated to tithing into our checking, then write checks directly to vendors for the things our fellowship needs.
If someone needs to write very big check for a shared expense, someone in the group can collect smaller funds from everyone, then write one big check out of their own account, and a full record of all of this can be kept in a treasury file. Here’s the question: What do you do at work when everyone wants to throw the boss a party? You all pitch in once you know the cost, right? Then someone goes out and buys the stuff with the money collected, and gives back your change if you’re owed any. There is still “treasury” work involved in this way of doing things, but it doesn’t require the church to open a checking account. In fact, you may have someone in your group who is awesome at thinking about these things, so you can all recognize that person as the one who helps you carry out these functions. That leads to two more questions.
Tithe how? Tithe where?
I don’t see any reason why people in organic simple churches can’t tithe. In fact, I think tithing is the baseline for New Testament giving regardless of what kind of church you go to.
By the way — if you are part of a more traditional, organized, or institutional church, and it is your choice to join them, then you should tithe to that church! It’s not fair to be part of a church that you don’t support. It was always shocking to me as a pastor to have people involved in our churches who simultaneously didn’t believe in supporting our collaborative work financially.
Likewise, if you’re part of an organic or simple church, you should still be committed to tithing – though it will likely look pretty different in terms of the mode of giving and the giving priorities of your group.
As a starting place, to answer the HOW/WHERE questions, read this text slowly and carefully and see how much sense it makes…
On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. – 1 Cor. 16:2
This verse doesn’t even need to be re-contextualized because it can work in any time, any culture, and any context.
When you get paid, calculate 10% of your pay. Transfer that money into a savings account of your own that is just for tithing (we’ll talk about how to use it in a minute). That’s what’s meant by “store it up.” Paul was trusting everyone to set aside their own tithe and not to use it for their personal expenses. Then, as he would come into town to share ministry needs, he would not have to ask them for an extra collection. They would already have, as a group what was needed.
Here’s the thing about this way of tithing. It takes commitment and intentionality, it relieves the burden of the group to hire someone to manage all the money (which costs money), and it frees everyone in the group to listen to the Lord personally about what He wants them to do with what they’ve put aside.
Paul was assuming that early believers would be consistent givers. But he was also placing the responsibility of managing those gifts upon the person giving them rather than a treasurer and a finance committee who looked over financial statements together.
Give to what?
Okay, you have your tithing account set aside, and after two months you have $800 in it. What should you do with that $800? I suggest three things:
1 – Give as the Holy Spirit prompts you. This is the FUN part about giving in a simple church. When you hear about a need, you can listen to God, and you can write a check. So, there’s a girl at your job who just got separated from her husband, and she’s trying to make it on her own. She can’t afford the daycare this month while she re-figures her income and adjusts to the changes. You have $800. You can pay for her childcare for the month! You can say, “I want to meet you after work today and talk to you.” Then you can tell her that you are a praying person and you care about her struggles, and you really felt like God wanted you to help her. Guess what! You just witnessed to your friend with more than words. Did the church give her money? YES! Because you are being the church, and you didn’t have to get this approved by the church finance committee. God wanted you to give it, so you gave it. You, my friend, have the makings of a missionary! Good work!
2 – Give to things your group is regularly or occasionally doing together. Do your part. If your simple church wants to meet every month in a larger venue, someone can calculate the cost of sharing that space and all that is involved in it. They can come to the group and say… “For all 35 of us to meet in this clubhouse, it will cost $450. Then there is the cost of food, we need to rent some chairs, and there is a deposit required.” He can ask the group to consider an amount that would be fair for each family (but be careful about larger younger families with limited funds). In this kind of church, those with more can do more for the group. There may even be a very financially successful person in the church who says, “You know what, this month my husband and I felt that we should bless our whole church family, and we’d like to pay for all the hard costs.” Back to the question of what you do in an office party. You ask everyone to help with a donation for that shared expense. Shouldn’t the church pay for that? YES! You’re the church, so if you’re part of this kind of gathering, then you should set some money aside every month. Then, when there are things everyone does as a group, you can do your part. This can also work for retreats, camps, and seminars.
3 – Give to a common missionary activity. In a church like this, you can all take a mission trip every year together. And you can afford it because you’ve been setting aside funds every month. When someone arranges a short-term venture to Mexico, San Francisco, or the inner city, you can go along because you’ve been saving your tithes and offerings for such work and ministry. In this way, everyone in the church is given an opportunity to participate in missionary ventures beyond missional living in their every-day context. The same dynamic holds true for yearly camps, retreats, and even training seminars. “Can the church pay for us all to go?” Sure it can. You’ve all been saving your tithes so that you can go. And if you have way more than you need for the trip in your account, you can go back to #1 and ask the Holy Spirit if he wants you to pay for someone else in the group who works for minimum wage, and can’t afford to join you.
So far, in my idealistic world, everyone is tithing, there is no bank account, poor people are being cared for, people are listening to the Holy Spirit, your church is having big events sometimes, and you even take mission trips. If the church needs a credit card, use someone’s card in the church, but work together to develop an accountable process so that trust is not violated. Again. This is VERY idealistic, and assumes that you’ll walk together in relationship rather than along the lines of business.
If there are poor people in your church, people who suffer financial catastrophe, or a season of suffering, you don’t have to ask the church board if something can be done. You can just do it. And a few of you can even get together and talk about doing more. You don’t have to pressure others, nor do you have to succumb to pressure. You just SAVE every time you get paid, and you GIVE when it’s time to give…
– When the Holy Spirit says to
– When your group is doing something that requires whole-group participation
– When you want to expand your missionary ventures outside of your own locale
Can the church help that poor mother? Can the church pay for your mission trip or your camp or retreat? Can the church give a gift to a visiting teacher? Can the church rent a hall for training or worship? Can the church buy paper plates for the picnic? Can the church pay for a “feed the homeless” outreach?
Of course the church can!
You’re all the church together, so you can pay for whatever you’re supposed to do just like you do with everything else in life.
Of course, there will may be questions about whether or not (and how) you would share your finances with someone who is a lead-overseer in the congregation, but getting bogged down with that question too early, before you’ve walked together, and before you get good at being a family of believers can just push you hard and fast toward becoming a business.
You may have a guest come and minister to you on occasion. Should your church give that person a gift? Of course! And leaders can let the group know it’s happening, and ask everyone to come to a gathering like that ready with something to share – and the group can receive and offering and give it to your friend who comes to bless you.
When it starts to get way more complicated than this, it’s time to think about other things, but my guess is we can (and should try) to be as faithful, as innovative, and as consistent as our ancient relatives, the first Christians, when we think about things like money, ministry, tithing, and giving.
And the more we preserve that simplicity, the more, I’m convinced, we can just focus on enjoying the mission we all share.
Okay – That’s my perfect little world. Anyone want to mess it up? Jump in! I’d love to dialogue about this more.