Beyond Tithing & Generosity: Thoughts on Faith and Money

Growing up in the church, and as an adult Christian, I have had the following financial values hammered into my head for as long as I can remember:

I should tithe.

I should be generous with what I have to those in need.

I should be judicious in my spending and where my money goes.

And nothing is wrong with those principles, of course.  But I do think that they can be reductive, even repetitive: every believer I know sits through the once-a-year “tithe sermon” and almost everybody’s church has some version of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University on offer.

I suppose that’s fine as far as it goes.  But in addition to the principles mentioned above, I’ve started to wonder how my approach to finances might be different if I incorporate it as a broader and more integrated part of my faith.  In other words, what does my money and spending say about me?  What do I want my money and spending to say about me?  What do the concrete specifics of “being Christian with my income” look like for me beyond tithing and regular giving?

I landed on the following set of questions.  Hopefully you’ll find them helpful, too.

Am I local?

It can very easy to spend charitable money on a large and national scale, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Major organizations are always in need of donations.  But when I think about generosity and need, I am struck by how much of an impact I can make in my local community.  For me, this looks like two things:

  • Supporting local charities, like our city food pantry, our local animal sanctuary, and local women’s shelters.  It is good to give to those in need—and it is particularly meaningful for me to give to those in need who are my geographical neighbors.
  • Supporting local business (like local farms, small businesses, and artists).  This year, for the first time, my husband and I engaged in a local farmer’s co-op.  Local people, who depend on the farm for their livelihood, provide our veggies and fruits.  It’s a little more expensive than buying them at the local chain.  But it’s meaningful to me to funnel that money to local people who then turn their work around into our community.

For you this might look like something different. But we can make a world of difference in our own small communities with our generosity.

Am I offering my money in service of the good, the true, and the beautiful?

Craft is important to God, and so is the creation of objects for beauty and joy as a sign of praise to Him.  We see this in the temple.  We serve a God who creates, and who allows us in our smaller turn to create. 

But creation is also labor.  Knitting a sweater is work.  So is writing, painting, sculpting, and making music.  I think it is imperative as I approach my finances to: a) support those who put good and truth and beauty into the world through creating, in various ways, and b) to acknowledge what that labor entails.

For me, that means being willing to pay what artists or craftspeople ask for their work.  To support these believers in their endeavors to my benefit.  To not complain or grouse that something handmade should be “cheaper.”  To not haggle artists down.  To recognize the merit of the work.  And to simply go without rather than to pirate, download something, or otherwise procure a cheapened copy.

I know too many believers who demand the work of God’s people—books, music, items—and then complain about the prices, as though none of those objects required time, effort, or resources to make.  It’s important to be fair.

If I want to see more of the creativity that brings me and others closer to God, it’s only fair to me to give the worker their appropriate wages.  And if I can’t, I don’t need whatever I’m after.

Am I mindful of waste?

 A while back, I paid for a year for a little subscription app on my phone.  It was useful at the time for the purpose that I required it.  But time went by and, before I knew it, I got charged for another year again!  And I didn’t use the app at all.  Ever since then, I keep any subscriptions/renewable services I have on a list, and every year at a set time I evaluate my needs.  What I don’t require gets canceled.

It’s good to try to avoid waste.  Sometimes this looks like different things:

  • Canceling services you no longer use
  • Buying something once (a reusable cheesecloth, for example) to replace something you would otherwise buy a bunch of times (non-reusable cheesecloth)
  • Asking yourself what shipping is really necessary for the item you’re buying
  • Eliminating redundancies (in this age of nightmare news, do you really need three newspaper subscriptions)?

Am I personal?

By far, the biggest struggle I have with money is the temptation of simply writing a check.

Are people hungry?  Write a check to the food bank.

Are people in jail?  Write a check to the prison ministry.

Did someone die?  Order flowers and food.

Is someone sick?  Order more flowers, and more food.

Is someone down?  Encourage them with a gift card.

Money is not the ministry.  Money is a tool of the ministry.  And yes, sometimes “just money” is precisely what is needed—our local food bank prefers that to the umpteenth donation of canned beans, for example—but sometimes money plus service, or money to supplement service, is more vital.

That person will be encouraged by a gift card, but doubly so if you drop it by their house and chat with them.

Making a call to someone who is bereaved matters as much as flowers.

Showing up, reaching out, making calls, serving the food yourself—all of these things matter.  If my giving isn’t personal, it’s really just a payment.  And Jesus was always deeply personal. 

So yes, tithe and be generous, and be judicious with your money.  Feel free to ignore all my questions above.  But do feel encouraged by them to ask your own questions about what fully-integrated generosity looks like for you.  If the money is just a tool, what does it mean to use that tool to become more like Christ?

Our hearts direct where our generosity goes.  Be mindful and prayerful in the process.

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