During the first couple of weeks of May we posted a link where people could donate to Sapphire on the web, via credit card. It generated a lot of tension between me and you. I have received a wide range of phone calls and e-mails and blog comments criticizing my methodology and telling me how to do it right.
The purpose of this article is to push back quite firmly and to make clear that I am utterly unrepentant for my values and theology. You are free to keep arguing with me, but please understand that I am not doing what I do because I am clueless about how you feel or unaware of the contemporary methods of fund-raising. I am quite aware of both and quite deliberate in walking as I do, even though it violates the social contract you have created for me.
If you want to see the full theological underpinning of my belief system, go to the CD album “Perspectives for the Church in the 21st Century” and purchase the CD on Giving. This is the application of the principles I developed there.
Now that I have done the requisite “full disclosure” making plain that this is not a happy article, let’s look at how the culture and the Book are out of sync.
In the contemporary Christian culture of North America, there is a dominant theme that is communicated broadly, insistently, with the claim that it is Biblical. Namely, Christians have an economic obligation to God which should be principally fulfilled by giving their funds to an institution, preferably a local church.
I flatly disagree.
One of the dominant verses on giving in the New Testament is James 1:27. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” NIV
Now you can interpret that three ways. The narrow meaning is a literal “orphans and widows.” A broader interpretation is “fatherless and husbandless.” This would include the children of divorce and the single moms. A very broad interpretation would be to care for a broad spectrum of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in the community around you.
Wherever you draw the lines, the average believer is guilty of gross malfeasance because they are not involved with any non-institutional mercy ministries to their own needy neighbor.
Yet, the command in James is absolutely, positively, unequivocally directed to the individual Christian. We as individual Christians are to have as the cornerstone of our religion a direct, hands-on involvement with the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our culture. That is what the Bible commands. Delegating mercy ministries is not an option.
Why aren’t we doing that?
Very simple. IT IS MESSY!
I should know.
Several years ago, I worked with a single mom who was about to get evicted in December. I gave her two months rent to get caught up and she promptly spent one month on rent and the other month’s cash on Christmas presents for her kids.
I worked with a pastor who had some serious issues in her church. She was broke, so I sent her some CDs for free. She made 1,000 copies for sale (I know because she told me so). When one of her elders challenged her on it, she kicked him off the board and went on.
I hired a guy from the rescue mission in order to help him rebuild his life. He ended up breaking into our church office and stealing checks from the mail.
And my life is full of those kinds of situations. I have made a huge number of poor investments in people because I was good hearted and thick headed. I was an easy mark — still am sometimes — and I got used by needy people who I was trying to help. I ended up enabling them because I was not skilled enough to empower them.
This is not just my issue or a reflection of the quality of people I work with. Anyone who works on the edges of society, rebuilding lives has the same experience. They face two problems.
Those who work in a homeless shelter, a drug and alcohol rehab center, a crisis pregnancy center, a home for unwed mothers, a half-way home for ex-convicts or any such place find out quickly that the culture creates formidable barriers for those people.
Once they are marginalized, it is tougher than tough for them to get back in the game and some significant infusion of outside resources is almost always required to help them restart their lives.
The life givers will also tell you that as huge as the financial need is outside these people, there is a larger need inside. They not only need money and opportunity, they need retooling of their inner person. And it is a major challenge to be financially life giving in a transformational way to people who are highly likely to exploit you along the way.
“Major challenge” is a euphemism for “really hard work.”
And since it is hard, we don’t do it. The average North American Christian delegates to the church or to a professional ministry their God-given responsibility to be involved with the needy. We have created a caste of specialist whose job it is to deal with the difficult cases, making the hard choices of who to resource and who not to. We in turn fund those ministries.
Now there are a lot of really fine “parachurch” ministries out there that do exceptionally effective restoration of the marginalized. Whether they are secular or religious in nature, they are effective. And I am in no way devaluing their work. I am simply saying they exist for the most part because they are filling a vacuum that never should have been there. Also, their existence and the fine work they do, does not change the original command for us to be personally engaged in mercy ministries.
But why is this not happening in the church when the Word of God is abundantly clear that it should happen there too? In I Timothy 5 there are detailed instructions about how the churches are to financially support the widows in their midst.
That is Scripture. Clear. Unequivocal. Unambiguous.
I am sure there must be a few thousand churches in America that do have “Care for Widows” as a line item in the budget, but they are a drop in the bucket compared to the bulk of the churches in America. The bottom line is that the institutional churches are shrugging off this command with no particular excuse for doing so.
Not only are they not caring for the widows which is the most explicitly articulated command, altogether too many churches have little to do with rebuilding the highly broken people, choosing to focus on the middle class needs instead.
But even if the churches were doing a good job, and you were assured that your donated dollar WAS reaching the broken people, it does not satisfy God’s command for us to individually be involved in helping the needy.
Try to move around to the other side of the table and look at it from God’s point of view. Why did He not bless the current structure and allow the mass of believers to fund the subset of believers who are doing mercy ministries as a vocation?
Very simply. He wants US to grow.
We are the primary target, not the needy. It is in wrestling with the realities of the hurting side of life that we are forced to learn what works and what doesn’t work. We learn more about the principles of God’s word by getting down in the trenches alongside some wounded person and trying to heal them inside and outside than we learn in a lot of sermons.
It becomes a win/win proposition in the Kingdom as we grow and they grow because there is personal, transformational contact between the haves and the have nots. I could share pages and pages of stories of how I have messed up, and occasionally gotten it right, and how I am a better Noble Subject for having gotten down in the trenches, with dirt under my fingernails, working with some pretty gritty people.
I love C. T. Studd’s little couplet.
“Some want to live within sound of chapel bell.
I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.”
I would not have the insights I share today if I remained in my lovely sanctuary, spending all my time in Bible study and meditation. I learn great things there. I learn immense things in the gutter.
So we come back to the great delusion. The institutional church has broadly claimed the lion’s share of your Kingdom money with the promise that you have fulfilled your duty toward God by delegating all ministry to them. The only problem is that the church too often does not do that kind of messy ministry so it is a patently blatant sham.
And the lay people are happy to buy into the codependent relationship with the church because it is so much easier to fulfill their supposed obligation to God by putting $500 in the offering plate than it is to get in the trenches and do personal ministry.
The only problem is that I don’t think it fulfills their obligation at all.
I don’t see from Scripture that any amount of investment in other ministries — even mercy ministries to orphans and widows — absolves you of the crystal clear command to do your own mercy ministry.
The average middle class North American Christian is lazy. By disobeying the “hands on” command, they deprive themselves of massive growth opportunities. And that is a devastating loss to the Kingdom. Our Marines look awesome parading on the 4th of July in their dress blues, but heaven help us if they had to storm a stronghold. They are chocolate soldiers to borrow George Bernard Shaw’s line.
Allow me to drill down to one more level of non-reality. Because churches are broadly in need of money, they not only proclaim a theology of duty, but they own the responsibility to make it extremely easy for you to execute your “duty” by donating.
In addition to putting an offering plate in front of you at every opportunity, there are pre-printed offering envelopes, credit card slips, donations online during the week, and automatic transfer of the tithe by your boss before you get your paycheck, so you don’t have to mess with it at all.
A bank here in California has even devised an attractive little freestanding device for the foyer of the church where you can slip your debit card in, select the amount of your offering and be done in seconds. So convenient.
That systematic enabling by the institutions has produce a sense of entitlement on the part of believers who feel that they have a moral right to have donating to the agency of their choice be consummately simple.
Let me use a secular illustration. Micky Arison is the owner of the Miami Heat. They are looking pretty good in this year’s playoffs and might possibly win it all. This is a hugely profitable franchise. Micky is a shrewd businessman who took over from his father and is building wisely, for the long-term. He is not only winning, but making money.
If I owned stock in that corporation, I would be getting a very good ROI. However, Micky, so far as I can tell, owns it all. He has a great profit center, but he is not inviting you or me to be part of the action.
This is right and it is reality.
If a Christian organization is doing a super job, bringing in a great ROI for the Kingdom, that does not necessarily mean you have a right to jump on the bandwagon and share in the eternal payoff from their good work. They do not owe you a cut of the action, and especially do not owe you a clean, simple, fast way to buy in.
So let’s bring all this theory and theology down to what it looks like on Monday morning at Sapphire Leadership Group. Here are some scenarios and my perspective on them.
#1. Joe listens to the redemptive gifts, finally understands his teenage daughter’s gift and is able to embrace her design. Their home is transformed. He is profoundly grateful and writes a letter to us with the glory story, cuts a check, goes on the web to get the mailing address, gets the letter to the mailman and sends it off. It is an act of gratitude sufficiently deep that he thought nothing of all the effort it took.
#2. Sam listens to the same set. It transforms his marriage. He is grateful, means to tell me so some day, but never gets there until he sees the donate button and quickly makes a donation with never a comment about the glory story in their lives.
To me, they feel different. #1 feels like deep gratitude. #2 feels like a 5% tip at Denny’s. I very much appreciate people’s gratitude, whether it is expressed verbally or financially. I feel it is quite appropriate to give back where there has been benefit in your life. The reason I think that is because it says so in the Bible. Galatians 6:6
Now here is another pair of scenarios.
#3. Amanda is deeply involved in people’s lives and she has been for years. She is transformational and works with both the inner and outer needs that people have. This is a consistent part of her life. She walks with great wisdom because she has wrestled with great problems over the last 40 years.
Amanda has found that the tools which she received from SLG have been very helpful as she works with people in her unnamed, freestyle, personal ministry. She wants to widen and deepen the stream of revelation coming from SLG so she sends a donation to enhance whatever project we are working on. She feels it will benefit her as well as the rest of the Kingdom if the next new insight arrives sooner rather than later.
#4. Bob and Vicki have left the institutional church but still feel an obligation to divest themselves of some of their income to fulfill a Kingdom duty. They hang with a fairly wholesome middle class group of people and pretty much don’t do mercy ministries. They look at the available groups out there and decide to donate to us because they feel they will get a good ROI in heaven.
To me, these feel different. Amanda is investing in getting more tools for her transformational work. This seems very legitimate to me. Bob and Vicki are dodging their responsibility to do hands on work, and therefore are not growing the way they should. I wonder what the math looks like in heaven. Plus ten for donating to SLG. Minus twenty-five for overtly disobeying the very hard command to engage with the messy part of the world.
Don’t get me wrong. I do think we are a GREAT investment. Our overhead is low. Our systems are highly efficient. Our products are transformational. And with the range of products from free things to (soon, I HOPE) an intensive training course, we have the capability of touching a lot of lives around the world. There is something for people in all sorts of different places in their walk.
But I don’t think donating to us because we are a good investment is the right thing to do. I really, really don’t. I think that is too often a smoke screen, a salve to the conscience for some people who are not loving their (bruised and battered) brother.
So where does that leave us — you and me?
First of all, do I have the right to judge you and your motives for giving? No, individually. Yes, corporately.
Whatever you donated went into the bank. I asked God to clean up anything that needed to be cleaned up. I proclaimed that I was not involved in guilt manipulation of anyone and did not claim that I deserved anything from anyone. So individually, I accepted every dollar and I will dole it out in my usual parsimonious manner, getting a great ROI for each one. I do not sit in judgment on any individual purporting to know their motive.
But corporately I am pushing back against the whole mindset that you can buy your way out of responsibility. During the Civil War, men could pay someone else $600 to represent them in battle so they did not have to leave their farm and go bleed. I don’t think God accepts a financial substitution for loving your (complicated, hurtful, ungrateful) brother.
And I sure don’t believe for a second I have a moral obligation to make it possible for you to donate in the manner easiest and most convenient for you.
So here is where I am going to meet you. The donate page is still there. The donate button is not. You can use the search feature, bumble around a bit and donate if you feel you should. Whatever you donate, I will invest in Kingdom ventures, continuing to steward the money carefully.
But consider this picture before you donate. I personally know some of the largest donors from the last two weeks. It brings me great pleasure to know that they are in-the-trenches kinds of people who are NOT just buying off God with their donations. They are like Amanda and this is a beautiful thing.
But what if all of the other donors from the last two weeks who have been brainwashed by the religious culture into delegating personal ministry to institutions like ours, were to cease donating to any cause for a year?
What if they were to take all that money and look for a place in their own community where they could invest the dollars and some high risk face time in restorative (not enabling) personal ministry? Suppose they specifically crafted this personal ministry around their own redemptive gift and calling.
What would happen in the Kingdom if that money were diverted away from SLG?
First of all, it would take a lot of time for them to do due diligence and find a need that matches their skill set and calling, and that allows them to be transformational, not just palliative.
Second, it would take a lot of effort to synchronize to the world of the wounded, before they could be drawn into the walk God has made them for.
Third, unless they are a whole lot better on the start-up than most of us are, they will probably bumble around at first. In fact, they may totally fail to bring about any transformation in their first year.
But at the end of the year, they would be quite different in their view of themselves, of our God and of their neighbor. And that is priceless.
Let’s do some math. Suppose we have 100 people who each have $1,000 they want to invest in the Kingdom. If they gave it all to SLG, we would have $100K in capital. We could then do a couple big projects we are not working on now. That would be great for the Kingdom.
But imagine what an unbelievable treasure it would be for the King, if 100 of you were to invest $1,000 of your money and a whole lot of time and heartache in the community, learning to be transformational with the marginalized.
Do you really think the benefit to the Kingdom from SLG would be greater than the benefit to the King through your growth?
I don’t believe that for a second.
I think it would be very hard work for you to learn to do effective mercy ministry, in your very own key of music, with your neighbors, with money being a secondary tool, and your love and wisdom being the primary tools.
But out of that hard work would come 100 people who are so much bigger, so much more connected to their King, so much more transformational than they were a year ago.
I would joyously forfeit any amount of money you could donate to me, if you would become Biblical Christians and engage in self-funded, non-institutional, hands-on, mercy ministries instead.
I would exult if I were able to give my King the gift of a handful of Noble Subjects who have escaped the trap of the Christian ghetto and are now running a rescue shop within a yard of hell.
Copyright May 2011 by Arthur Burk
From the Quarterdeck, in Anaheim