On Saturday, someone I know posted a Facebook status asking people why they thought people didn’t give to the church. I was interested in what people might say so I kept going back to the post over the afternoon though I had no intention of answering the question myself. Why, you ask? My answer would have been more complex and might not have fit in the character limit for a Facebook comment. Actually, that’s not true. 🙂 I don’t know what the character limit for a Facebook comment is. I just thought it would help you understand that my experiences with giving involve a story more complex than a Facebook comment.
But, then I saw the sound bites start to come in. “up to their eyeballs in debt” “not agree with church leadership choices” “not connected” “easiest expense to dump when necessary” “We are all selfish.” “amount spend on bricks and mortar and not on helping people” The sound bites went on and on. Now, I’m not saying these aren’t true. Most news reports have sound bites that draw people to listening to the whole report, and with the attention span we all have nowadays, the sound bite might be the most we get out of the issue. This is sad, but it is what it is.
That’s when I heard the promptings from God. ‘Daughter, you need to share your story. People need to know giving to me isn’t a sound bite.’ I argued with God a bit. My story involves a painful part of my past that I would prefer not to revisit. But, as those of us who are believers know, arguing with God tends not to work.
So, in all its glory, here is my giving story.
I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. God wasn’t spoken of in my home, and neither was tithing. If we did go to church, which wasn’t often, it might have been at Christmas or Easter. My parents would hand me a few dollars to put in the offering plate, but that was it.
When I was a teenager, they allowed me to go to church with a friend. I think it was a prompting from God. I heard about Jesus and his unconditional love and grace, and it was amazing to me. I accepted Christ as my Savior not long after. I started learning about the Bible in my youth group and during the services. I heard teaching about tithing and giving too, but it seemed far above me. I was a teenager, after all, and didn’t have a regular income to tithe. It was also not being reinforced at home. So, I continued putting a few dollars in the offering plate at this church and the other churches I went to as a teenager and didn’t think about it anymore.
Then, I went to college across the country from my family. I found a college church and a campus ministry to become involved in. I thrived in college because of this community and made lifelong friends. We were encouraged to give, but community was what was most important. We were college students, after all. This was a precious time for me. Like I have said, I still have relationships with some of these people over thirty years later. We did mission work. We were a part of our community and impacted lives for Jesus. I ended up going to graduate school at the same university so I was in college for six years.
Eventually, though, I entered the real world and started working as a teacher. I was still going to church and still giving, but something changed. It was no longer about the community or serving God. It was about seeing how much you could accumulate. The talk among my friends was who had the newest car, who had the newest clothes or music, or who had a boyfriend. I was still at my college church which I loved, but there was one thing it was missing. Single guys! The message I was getting was that it was time for me to settle down. I decided I needed to try some of the larger churches in town. I went through a couple of boyfriends and then found the man I would eventually marry when I went out for visitation with the church I had started going to. It was love at first sight. He was recovering from surgery, but there was something about his kind eyes, his sarcastic wit, and the way he made me laugh that I was drawn to. He asked me to marry him six months later, and we married a year after that.
For the next few years, we drifted between churches. We were both Christians and wanted to go to church, but we couldn’t find anywhere we felt comfortable. He also had not been raised in the church so neither of us had good teachings about giving to draw from. We also had not had good teaching about community. In particular, I remember one Sunday School class where we were asked when we were going to buy a home with the implication that living in an apartment was not a good thing and that we would not be welcome if we didn’t buy a home. We did not stay at that church.
We moved across town a few months after I found out I was pregnant with my first son. After he was born, we decided we wanted to plant roots in a church, but not one where we would be noticed. We went to a few smaller churches, but then found a bigger one we liked. There were things to be involved with and ways to serve so we became involved pretty quickly. We also started giving more, but we weren’t tithing, and it wasn’t as regular as it should have been. We had our second son, and he was dedicated in that church. Life was good.
But, we started noticing things, little things at first, and then they got bigger. Because, you see, we had moved to one of the wealthier parts of town. We were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. The talk at some of our Sunday School class fellowships started to be about what houses people had bought, what cars or boats people were thinking about getting, and where was the best place to get exclusive children’s clothing. My husband and I tried to keep up, but there was only so much we could do. The talk was about the toys and not about Jesus. Oh, we still helped people, but the unspoken implication was that we were better than them. As I think back, it makes me sad that we lost sight of who Jesus was in this church.
Then, it started getting noticed that we didn’t have as much or give as much as other people. The people who gave the most were recognized at our church. It was a competition we had no hope of winning. People would give us the side-eye if we were not wearing the best clothes or not driving off in the nicest cars. Conversations would stop when we walked up. I remember one thing in particular. My husband asked a guy in our class where his jewelry store was–that he wanted to buy me something. The guy replied in a snooty voice, “Don’t bother. You can’t afford anything in my store.” We were in shock and didn’t know what to say.
This was all building to something though–something that would take us away from that community. A family tragedy brought something out of the shadows that had happened a long time ago. It was something that made us unworthy in the eyes of the person who found out. He thought it was necessary for the whole church to know, and we were betrayed. The hurt was unimaginable. We had lost what we thought was our community. Fortunately, my husband found a job in another city, and we moved there not long after.
My first thought upon moving to our new city was to find a new church. I wanted to meet people. We did find one. It was where our older son was baptized. It didn’t take long for the same things to happen again though. People thought they were better than us because they had more and gave more. What we gave wasn’t enough. It hurt me down to the core of my being. We left that church and the church itself for what we thought would be forever. We told ourselves we could be Christians without having a church. This is true, but we didn’t understand what we would be missing out on since we had never been in a true Christian community.
Years passed. We moved to the Midwest and then back to the Southeast. Our kids grew, and we decided to homeschool them. Finally, we moved southwest from where we had been after we had experienced another family death, surgery, and job loss. Finding another church wasn’t even on our radar, but God hadn’t given up on us. My fifteen year old son asked if we could go to church, and a friend told me about one and said we needed to try it. We’re still there, almost five years later. It was so refreshing. No one cared that we lived in an apartment. We were welcomed warmly every single time we walked in the door. And this was with me staying in the background after I had walked in trying to figure out these people and what agenda they had. For the first several months, I just came and participated in the services and figured the agenda would come out soon enough, and we would be hurt again. It didn’t though. My sons made friends, and the trappings didn’t matter. We learned the way God truly meant for us to love one another. I didn’t know how wealthy some of the people were until we actually went to their homes. They were that down-to-earth. No one knew how much other people gave to the church.
Several months passed with all of this staying the same, and my husband and I talked about becoming consistent givers. We had never done this, but we were in a place that was touching our family in miraculous ways so we wanted to try. God blessed us from that first time of giving. Now, I’m not saying we became instantly wealthy. We didn’t. We have gone through heartbreak galore over the last four years–unemployment, multiple hospital stays, health concerns, and just struggling to believe God and our community wouldn’t desert us again. It was logical. We had been deserted before so there was every possibility it would happen again. We haven’t been deserted though, and I don’t believe we will be even though I relive our pain every year at stewardship time. Sometimes, I flash back to the past when I hear stewardship sermons because of what we went through, and we are giving now.
So, before you reduce someone’s giving to a sound bite, ask them what their giving story is. It will probably be more complex than you think.
God’s blessings on all of you today!