Why don't we just stop sending any money to the conference office until we get this matter settled once and for all?" asked Brother B. in the midst of a lively discussion at a church board meeting. The board had been discussing a sum of money the local church felt it had coming from the local conference office.
"Yes! That's a great idea," Sister S. chimed in. "Then they'll know that we really mean business. You'd better believe they'll sit up and take notice when the money stops coming in!" Although several other board members agreed with Brother B.'s suggestion, the discussion closed with a recommendation that further efforts be made toward reconciliation before resorting to drastic attention-getting methods, and the matter was finally resolved without any withholding of funds by the church.
What is the local church's responsibility to organizations outside its own domain? Shouldn't the church have the right to decide just how all of its members' contributions are used, and to withhold its contributions to other organizations in the event of disputes over proper usage?
These sorts of questions seem to have hardly been discussed within the Seventh-day Adventist Church until recently. Since the early days of the denomination, tithe funds have been sent from the local church to a centralized organization rather than being used on the local level. And in addition to tithe, members have always given a significant portion of their offerings to support the worldwide work of the church. In 1930, more than two thirds of members' after-tithe offerings were given for world missions and other General Conference needs.
But questions about support for world missions seem to be coming up with increasing frequency today. Not everyone expresses their questions as overtly as Brother B. did, but the questions are obviously having an effect on members' giving patterns. By 1983 giving habits within the church had reversed so drastically that only one fourth of offerings given were for world missions and other General Conference needs.
Why give to the world?
Should the decline in mission giving be a concern for our church? Aren't we still supporting one of the largest Protestant mission organizations in the world? On what basis can local churches be expected to support work that they have no direct part in, and can expect no direct, personal benefit from?
The church was founded by Jesus. Its conception took place while He walked among the disciples. But its inception really took place on the Day of Pentecost. Up until that day, the disciples' express commission from Jesus was to stay in Jerusalem, in their own little fellowship group, awaiting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4, 5). Their mission up to Pentecost was much the same as that given to the nation of Israel over a millennium before: to center their worship on God, to let Him bless them, and to let the outside world benefit simply by observing their closeness with and blessings from God (Deut. 4:1-14).
But Pentecost changed all that! Suddenly with the descent of the Spirit, the centripetal influences of timidity, fear, and national pride were dissolved along with language barriers. The infusion of a tremendous centrifugal force from on high broke down the barriers in one fell swoop, and the church instantly gained international credibility. No longer could the believers contain the good news within the confines of their little room, or even within their own race. Instantly they learned to proclaim the gospel in a manner that assured its rapid dispersion throughout the world.
Pentecost changed the mission of God's people for all of history. It wasn't long afterward that Philip was sent on a special mission that assured the gospel's spread to Ethiopia. And soon after that the Spirit informed Peter through special visions that he should not fear to evangelize Gentile God-fearers. Even the persecution that arose after the stoning of Stephen worked out for good in assuring the dispersion of believers throughout the Western world. And of course the special effort Jesus put forth to convert Saul of Tarsus shows that worldwide evangelism had very high priority on Heaven's agenda.
God's activity in the early Christian church emphasized again and again that the church was not to become self-sufficient and self-centered. There was a world to be evangelized if Jesus' followers wanted to see Him return. His promise to return was contingent in part upon the successful propagation of the gospel to all the world (Matt. 24:14).
Early giving patterns
How rapidly would the gospel have spread if the Antioch church had not soon come to perceive itself as more than a local congregation with responsibility only to its own community? Would we even have the Pauline Epistles if that church had ignored the prophetic utterance directing them to set aside two of their most able teachers to carry the gospel to other parts of the world?
While it is true that the book of Acts does not say that the Antioch church gave financial support to their first missionaries, it seems barely believable that they took the prophecy to simply mean that they should send Paul and Barnabas away.
Paul's teaching in the churches he founded gives clear evidence that he had settled on the principle that each church was responsible for giving offerings for more than local needs (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 9:1-15). Antioch's daughter churches soon became involved in sup plying the needs both of missionaries (Phil. 4:15, 16) and of other Christians in less fortunate circumstances (Rom. 15:25-27). Since Paul had only brief contact in founding some of these churches, it seems clear that the principle he taught was that as soon as a local congregation was functioning it must begin to show consideration for needs other than its own.
The world's needs
"But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?" (chap. 10:14, 15, R.S.V.). Current statistics show that less than one third of the world's population makes even a nominal profession of belief in Christ. Add to that the fact that the majority of the human beings on our planet do not have enough to eat, and it becomes obvious that conditions have not changed drastically since Paul's day. Christians are still confronted by a world very much in need of spiritual and financial help.
While many countries, even whole regions, are virtually closed to the preached gospel, many of these same regions have a door wide open to the practical gospel--to the sharing of God's love in the very practical ways described by Jesus in the judgment scene of Matthew 25:31-46. The church has a definite, undeniable opportunity in these areas to show forth the good works of our Saviour and to give glory to our heavenly Father (Matt. 5:16). While the governments in these areas may be opposed to Christianity in principle, their propaganda stands defenseless against the ministry of caring, committed Christians who give their lives in service to those in need.
The smaller the circle of concern a person draws, the smaller the person becomes. God's greatness is shown not so much in His physical size, or even in His creative power, but in the size of His circle of concern. "God so loved the world, that he gave" (John 3:16). The Creator of the universe with its billions of galaxies would have had to draw His circle only infinitesimally smaller in order to put this world outside of His concern. But we have the gospel record that instead of casting this rebellious, ungrateful mass of mutineers out of His circle, He drew us in by sending the one Gift most precious to Himself.
The goal of the gospel is Godlikeness (1 John 3:2, 3; 4:17). How big is God? And how big will we grow in seeking to match His dimensions? His circle of concern does not leave out the most insignificant soul on this planet. And neither should ours.
Our greatest need is to grow to be like God. Giving of ourselves to serve the needs of others is God's chosen means for helping us to enlarge our circles of concern.
Concern starts at home
A well-known pastor and stewardship educator tells of visiting a church member who did not believe in giving to the local church. The parishioner had been especially impressed with the ministry of a certain nationwide radiobroadcast, and had chosen to give all of her offerings to support that outreach. His persuasive appeals were to no avail until he asked a series of questions.
"The radio program is supposed to win souls for the church, isn't it?" he asked.
"Yes, of course. That's why I give to it. They do such a marvelous evangelistic work."
"And when people respond and join the church, where do they join?"
"Well, our local church, I hope."
"And what if no one ever gave any money to support the local church? What church would they find to join?"
The parishioner had no answer. But after that she had offerings for her local church as well as for the radio ministry.
Most of the scriptural evidence we have looked at thus far has pointed out the importance of the local church looking beyond itself to worldwide needs. In emphasizing the wide scope, though, we must not neglect the home base. The strong and active church in Antioch that sent out Paul and Barnabas is surely as important a part of the story as the missionaries themselves.
But must the question come down to one of local needs versus world needs? Or can it be kept on the less adversarial level of local needs and world needs? To put it on a practical level, when the question comes down to whether I should give my dollar toward pew padding at home or toward building a simple mud-brick chapel in some less affluent country, must I make an either-or choice? Or is there a practical way that I can take a both-and option?
Rightly dividing dollars
The question of either-or or both-and comes down finally to a question of how I can rightly divide the dollars I have to give to God's work. As a practical matter I know that I am an emotional being who likes to respond to needs as they are presented to me. So I know that if, on the day that I plan to give $100 toward padding my church's pews, a missionary appears in church and tells heartrending stories of little children singing "Jesus Loves Me" outside in the mud, rain, and malarial mosquitoes because they have no chapel to meet in, I will probably feel guilty and give the $100 to the missionary to get a roof put over those poor kids' heads! If no missionary shows up, the dollars will go for padding.
But giving on the basis of the wheel that squeaks the loudest getting the grease is hardly wise. Those who give consistently on that basis set themselves up to be duped and defrauded.
In recent years the Seventh-day Adventist Church has developed a more rational plan for assuring adequate sup port to all phases of its outreach. Called the Personal Giving Plan, * it encourages each member to examine individually the needs of his local church, the needs of the wider area of his local conference, and also the needs of the world field. Individual members then covenant with God to give gifts in proportion to blessings received. They distribute their gifts among the local, conference, and worldwide offerings on the basis of percentages they determine themselves in counsel with the pastor and steward ship educators.
Gifts received from individual members who are on the Personal Giving Plan are then used at the various church organization levels, also according to a percentage distribution plan that is decided upon by the body receiving the funds.
In other words, at the local church level, the church body decides what percentages of funds designated for the local church will go into various needs and ministries. At the conference level similar decisions are made, and at the worldwide level gifts are distributed among various organizations according to published percentages.
The Personal Giving Plan relieves individual givers from having to weigh the merits of each appeal that comes their way. While some may argue that the plan also usurps certain prerogatives that ought to be left with the individual, no one is coerced to cooperate.
The loudest objection usually heard comes from people who feel that they should be able to give to or withhold from organizations according to performance. But the fact of the matter is that an individual seldom has a good opportunity to examine the work of distant organizations. We are all at the mercy of the effectiveness of various public relations campaigns.
Church organizations that do not have a Personal Giving Plan to work with can still apply the plan's principles. Even in congregationally organized churches a budget could be set up to divide gifts wisely and equitably so that funds are designated for missions even if no one stops by with stories. The key is to have church members commit themselves to giving to God in proportion to His blessings. (This is usually computed on a percentage-of-income basis.) Then the church as a whole can establish a budget, based on projected income, and begin to set aside funds for various areas of need systematically.
How can the church and its individual members rightly distribute their gifts? There does not need to be an adversarial relationship between local and worldwide needs. Neither does there need to be a frantic throwing of funds at whatever seems most direly disabled at the moment. Nor should giving be totally self-centered, requiring visible returns on the home front, for that is buying, not giving.
All gifts should be given to God, who has given so much for us. By giving by choice instead of by emotion, we become more like God, Appeals for funds can be based upon carefully determined and equitably balanced needs. And members can enter into the joy of giving without worrying. It may take more planning and study than simply appealing for needs that are near. But God's work will prosper. And so will Christian growth among your church members.
* Outside North America a very similar plan is called Planned Giving for Systematic Benevolence.