I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about the theology and wisdom of tithing and supporting ministry. This line of thought stems not only from my current academic research on priests and worshipers eating sacrifices in the Old Testament, but also–as you would guess–from my transition into vocational ministry that is supported by the gifts of others.
(Given all the time Corrie and I have been spending on raising support and preparing to move, perhaps “current research” is a stretch! But hopefully I’ll be able to resume when things have settled down in a few months.)
Corrie and I are becoming partially-supported, short-term (or definite-term) missionaries. Roughly 35% of our expenses will be provided by the mission itself (LCC International University), and we are responsible for raising the other 65%. Our term is three to five years, but we are open to staying longer if we feel that God is calling us to do so.
Many of our friends and family have opened up their hearts and wallets and have given generously. Others have evaluated their finances and have decided that it would not be wise for them to give at this time. No doubt others could give, but have other missions or ministry priorities.
This essay is not directed at any person/family in particular, nor is it strictly about our ministry. But I wanted to present an argument for giving gifts to ministries, however small. Corrie and I currently regularly support four ministries in small amounts ($30 or less), so this comes from my heart as someone who wants to give more but is trying to balance many concerns in wisdom.
Here are some bad reasons to give small gifts…
Perhaps you’re the kind of person who sees a plea on behalf of a charity or a mission, and feels guilty for not being able to give. So, you give a little to assuage your conscience. Unfortunately, many charities and missions feed off this guilt, by bombarding us with images of starving children, or reminding you that your daily cup of coffee adds up to $75/month that you could give up for the sake of the poor or the gospel–or something like that.
Now, we do need to be aware of suffering and injustice, and many needs are urgent. It is also true that little expenditures can add up (see below). But giving to a charity or mission for this reason alone is wrong for two reasons. First, it makes the gift about the giver’s selfish feelings, rather than the glory of God. Second, it contributes to a mindset of perpetual guilt which can prevent the giver from enjoying any good gift from God. It is not wrong to enjoy a latte. It is wrong to enjoy a latte in a self-oriented attitude, and to disregard God’s priorities for the resources He has given us.
This reason is related to guilt, but is more about the relationship with the recipient. Sometimes I am tempted simply to give a small gift in order to make someone happy–or to get them off my back! But this is also a self-oriented reason to give: it is about the giver rather than the glory of God. It can also lead to an attitude of false satisfaction that prevents further acts of service: “I already gave, so I don’t need to do anything more about this problem/mission.”
As you may be discerning, I will argue that good reasons to give all revolve around the glory of God…
1. Symbolism matters.
A small gift is sometimes called a “token,” because it symbolizes something greater. A token can be meaningless, if there is no link to what is symbolized, or if the token is so small as to denigrate that which is symbolized. But small tokens are meaningful as reminders, and as symbolic of the feelings and thoughts of our minds. It is not necessary to eat and drink the bread and wine (grape juice for you Baptists) of the Eucharist until our stomachs are full in order to reflect on what Christ has done and to symbolize his very real presence with us.
A small gift to a mission or a charity, given in sincerity, hope and gratitude to God, is just as meaningful in God’s sight as a thousand-dollar gift. Don’t get me wrong: we need wealthy, generous givers! But in God’s eyes, the widow’s mite and the windfall from a millionaire are the same.
2. Substance matters.
A gift to God’s kingdom, no matter how small, is an investment. A small investment still has more substance and is of more worth than no gift at all. This has nothing to do with a “prosperity (pseudo-)gospel,” some sort of financial return on gifts to God’s kingdom–it doesn’t work like that.
I feel more of a connection to ministries that I have supported with my own funds, and that connection leads me to pray for them more often. It also means that I share directly in the fruits of the mission. I’ve used this analogy in conversation with some supporters: I have conceptualized our donations to the missionaries we support as representing X hours that I’ve worked in a given month to allow this missionary to do the work to which God has called him/her. I like to think of it as me doing that ministry myself for those hours that I worked–it helps me to remember that I’m part of the ministry, and that there are dozens (hundreds?) of other individuals partnering with me in that ministry in Spain, or Central Asia, or Lehigh Valley, or Alaska, or Lithuania, or wherever. 50 documents processed in North Wales = a 1.5-hour English Bible study with Muslim women in _____-stan. It’s miraculous, when you think about it.
If you believe a mission is worthy of support, and all you can wisely commit is $5 per month, then give $5 per month–in faith! You are throwing your lot in with this mission, and you will reap with your fellow laborers in due time.
3. “Where your treasure is…”
“…There will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). This point is closely related to the first two. Your budget (or your bank statement) is the clearest statement of your true priorities, what you value. Most of us spend most of our money taking care of our families, as Scripture calls us to do. But what do your spending choices say about your priorities? If you cannot wisely support missionaries or charities because of poor spending choices, then perhaps God is calling you to change your behavior. I’ve already said that guilt should not be a factor in giving. But if your spending reflects priorities that are placed above God’s kingdom, then perhaps there is idolatry that needs to be confessed, and the guilt over not being able to give is only a symptom of the larger problem.
4. It adds up.
Small gifts add up! If 25 friends of modest means each wished to support our mission to LCC, and instead of saying to him/herself, “I can only give $10/month, and that’s not worth it, so I won’t even bother,” decided to commit that $10/month–well, you do the math: $250/month would get us halfway to our departure goal of 85% funding. This is true in every aspect of finance–savings, spending, giving. No gift is too small. (OK, OK: I’ll admit that gifts that cost more to process than they are worth are too small. If you can only give $1/month to charity, give it to a local charity–don’t send it to us at LCC because of administrative costs! But the principle is still true.)
Small gifts add up for the giver, as well. When Corrie and I were in pre-marital classes [not that many] years ago, the teacher gave this exhortation to couples who wanted to start tithing but had such a small margin that they could not give 10% of their income: Start with 1%. After all, you can’t get from 0% to 10% without getting to 1%! Just as the father of the demon-possessed boy said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” God responds to and increases our small steps of faith. After several years of giving $5/month to many different missions and charities, you may realize in looking at your budget that God has allowed you to help many ministries–and you didn’t even feel the pain of a drastic change in spending habits. Once again, the key is that all things should be done for God’s glory.
I hope that some of you read this and decide to support us. I hope that some of you read this and decide not to support us, but for the right reasons. My hope is that in all our spending and giving decisions, we continue to bring our priorities, thoughts and attitudes more in line with God’s.