A recent report found that now 1 of every 7 Americans lives at or below the poverty level.
How should a church respond?
The first and most obvious response is to engage in as much compassionate ministry to the poor as possible, which most churches do in various and strategic forms both internationally and on the domestic front.
But is that all a church can offer?
Hardly. The church must also offer the full biblical counsel on matters related to fiscal fitness. We must help people break the cycle of poverty that is caused by financial mismanagement, helping them escape the stranglehold of consumer debt, build savings and prepare for the future.
So why don't we?
Because we have lost our moral authority on matters related to money.
We have lost our moral authority as a result of those who preach a prosperity gospel.
We have lost our moral authority as a result of those who misuse donations to support a lavish personal lifestyle.
We have lost our moral authority as a result of those whose only teaching on the matter involves guilt and shame, giving and need.
So how can we recapture our voice during a time when it is needed more than ever?
Here are two important steps:
First, get publicly clean so as to remove any doubts about your church's financial state of affairs through an annual outside audit. And then make the results of that audit available to an appropriate accountability group. This creates an indispensable climate of trust.
Second, teach regularly on money in a way that is both comprehensive and compelling.
Most people think that one of the cardinal rules in church life is to be sure to not talk about money. The conventional wisdom is that it turns people off, and you want to turn them on.
Here's the truth about people and money: They are incredibly interested in issues related to their personal finances. That's why they subscribe to magazines about it, go to seminars on it, buy books about it, visit websites devoted to it, and log-on to their financial accounts daily. They want to know how to manage it in a way that serves them and, as they grow in their spiritual lives, would honor God.
And those in financial difficulty? They would count any assistance in achieving financial life-change among their deepest of felt needs.
The reason they hate it when the church talks about money is because of the way the church has talked about money. We have had a one-word vocabulary: give. We've had one way of talking about that word: guilt. We've had one concern when we turn on the guilt for giving: self-serving institutional needs.
So how do you bring it up?
First, make the teaching comprehensive. This means that your teaching about money isn't simply about giving, but about savings, debt, retirement and wise choices. The Bible is rich in financial guidance, counsel and insight - share it with them, help them apply it to their lives and let them see how God can impact their financial world when they place it under His leadership.
Second, when you do talk about giving, help them to see that giving is a matter of the heart. That it's more about them than it is about the church and its needs. They need to give to honor and worship God. We must convey the deeply biblical idea that where your treasure is, there your heart is also. This is the heart of discipling someone in regard to stewardship.
So what might a helpful money series look like? Not long ago I took six weeks to unpack this for our church through a series titled MapQuest: Journey to Financial Freedom. The economy had just taken its turn for the worse, and there was nothing I wanted more than financial freedom for our attenders.
But how would a six-week series on money play?
Exactly like you wouldn't think.
Attendance climbed each week (since when does that happen when a church talks money?), giving increased by over 20% (and I never gave a single talk solely devoted to giving, much less the tithe), and most importantly of all, our church became filled with stories of people getting on the path toward financial freedom in a way they had only dreamed of.
It didn't stop there.
Singles and young couples, early on in their financial journey, saw how they could take a few simple steps and ensure financial freedom for the rest of their lives. People who had lived for years with guilt or shame about their giving patterns found ways to begin in small but significant steps while honoring their creditors. Countless numbers saw a light at the end of the tunnel of debt; scores saw savings actually began to accumulate for the first time in their life. The content of those six weeks was so popular it became the foundation for small groups and seminars.
It reminded me that no one is better situated to address the immediate needs of life in the real world than the local church. No one is better suited to offer truth and wisdom, life-changing counsel and advice, than a pastor who stands before God's people and actually brings the Bible, God's Word - raw and unfiltered - to bear on life's great pressure points.
Even with money. Perhaps most importantly with money.
Because it's not just the 1 in 7 who are living in poverty who need the Bible's principles for financial freedom.
The other six need it too.
James Emery White
"Recession Raises Poverty Rate to a 15-Year High" by Erik Eckholm, published September 16, 2010, online at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/17/us/17poverty.html?_r=1&hpw
"Congregations Reeling from Decline in Donations" by Samuel G. Freedman, September 24, 2010, New York Times, online at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/25/us/25religion.html?_r=1&hp.
If interested, audio downloads of "Mapquest: Journey to Financial Freedom" can be obtained athttp://www.churchandculture.org/audio-downloads. For manuscript downloads, go tohttp://www.churchandculture.org/pastoral-resources. If you are a pastor of a church and cannot afford to purchase these resources to use in developing a similar series, contact us and we will make arrangements to send you these resources at no charge.