Money Talk in the Church: Breaking the Taboo

Wearing a US one dollar bill as a blindfold, this old woman looks sad but resigned to being kept in the dark.

“Money is tight. We’ll have to cut our budget again this year. People just aren’t giving like they did in the past.”

“Half of our families don’t give anything to the church. How can we turn that around?”

“I’m just uncomfortable going to church; they’re always asking for donations.”

Money is a problem even in the strongest church. We could always use just one more dollar to do one more dollar’s worth of ministry!

This isn’t a new challenge, though. It has been with us at least since Jesus’ time. He dealt with money issues during his ministry.

In U.S. churches, money is a particularly vexing dilemma. We need money to fund our ministries. But we don’t want to openly talk about money or ask people to give money.

Jesus and Money

Jesus’ thoughts on the subject are well documented. Of the forty-three parables identified by George Buttrick in his classic The Parables of Jesus, at least twenty-seven of them deal with wealth and possessions. The Prodigal Son is a prime example.

We normally don’t consider the parable of The Prodigal Son as a stewardship text. However, consider what the younger son demands: “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me,” Luke 15:12. And what did he then do: “he squandered his property in dissolute living,” Luke 15:13.

On a more positive note, consider another famous Lukan parable, The Good Samaritan. As the hero of the story looks after the needs of the beaten man, “he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’” Luke 10:35.

In each case, Jesus equated the use of money and wealth with choices about faithfulness.

Jesus also taught his followers more directly. To the rich young man, Jesus said, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” Matthew 19:21. And in the Sermon on the Mount, “You cannot serve God and wealth,” Matthew 6:24.

For Jesus, our money and our relationship with it are always a spiritual issue first. Money and wealth, while neutral themselves, present a compelling temptation: will we serve God first, or our wealth?

But What Is Money, Anyway?

At the grocery story, the gas station, the theater, and at home paying bills, it is a constant presence in our lives. How often do we step back from our accumulating, spending, and saving to consider what money truly means to us? What exactly is money?

Imagine a time in human pre-history before money existed. Small family groups survived on their own by providing for their own needs: food, water, shelter, clothing.

One fateful day, a sheep farmer smells roasting fish coming from the beach below him. Thus began the concept of trade and bartering. But how many fish make a fair trade for how many sheep?

Before they developed writing, our ancestors addressed this trade problem by establishing a common denominator. Precious metals and other objects began to stand in the symbolic place of items of value that were previously bartered.

A Symbol

By Jesus’ day, money had reached its full symbolic potential. Pressed metal coins helped people trade easily, with values established by centralized authorities (today it would be federal banks). That same system continues today, and has become even more virtual and symbolic, with credit cards, online billing, and ACH transactions.

We use money to express our values and our personhood. Take a look at your own monthly spending, and you will quickly see what is important to you. Shelter, food, transportation, clothing, but also family, community, and, if you’re reading this, faith.

So, What About Church?

No doubt, then, the church has something important to say about money and wealth. Who we are, as Christians, has everything to do with how we spend our treasure. Money is simply an extension of our personalities and our choices. The church’s preaching, pastoral care, and teaching must be infused with the faithful use of money from this spiritual perspective.

But there’s more. In a society that values the separation of church and state, the church must ask for financial support. The prior funding strategy, ie., government subsidized religion, is not available to churches today. Nor would we want it to be.

The church continues struggle with voluntary funding. But that is the only source available. Thankfully, the church’s need for funding coincides with the believer’s need to be generous.

Tying It All Together

You can see, first, that role of money in our lives needs to be addressed from the standpoint of our faithfulness to Jesus Christ. The financial decisions we make demonstrate the values we have, and those values should match our faith.

I have a challenge for you this month. I want you to explore the connection between money and spirituality. Here are two choices, pick one or both:

  • Think about a time you have been the recipient of someone’s financial generosity. Write a thank-you letter to them, being specific about the nature of the gift and the difference it made in your life.
  • Or write a newsletter article that demonstrates how generosity is making a difference in your church. Use a specific example is possible (perhaps the giver will be anonymous).

Whether you send the letter or publish the article or not is up to you. When you’re done writing, theough, meditate on the spiritual attitude of the giver in your story. Why did they choose to make that gift? How would it feel to be generous like that? Is that an expression of their values and spirituality?

The taboo surrounding money in church is not a permanent condition. As we dive deeper into the connection between our use of wealth and our faith and spirituality, we find that we’re inspired to grow in our generosity and in our cheerful giving.