Several years ago I read detailed Global Mission strategy documents that included descriptions of projects to be initiated. The finance page had a general reference to "faith" and the "cattle on a thousand hills." It provided small comfort to a skeptical conference treasurer.
The kind of governance attributed at its root to the wisdom of Jethro has served us well for many years. It has enabled Seventh-day Adventists to project the gospel throughout the world and build institutions that address local needs. However, this strength is presently counterbalanced by growing overheads that inhibit deeper penetration. Critics within the church feel that the remoteness of our system lacks the ac countability and feedback that it once had when we were a small body. These tensions create competition within the church for resources, which in turn poses a threat to farther ordered growth. We need to recognize weaknesses and threats in the system while acting on identified opportunities. This recognition and action must include and emphasize such foundational principles as the joy of salvation applied to a culture of graciousness and accountability.
Emphasize the positive
The generation of Adventists born since World War II and their offspring do not sup port the church with the same enthusiasm and commitment common in their fore bears. This may be a result of diminished vision, but the change parallels a shift away from perceived legalism to an experiential emphasis in which obedience is a response to the joy of salvation. There are many who engage in the law, liberty, license debate. At the same time there are few who are willing to explore the risks of revisiting the imperative language of Malachi 3:10. Yet in most Seventh-day Adventist churches tithe envelopes perpetually remind members of their need for commitment and responsibility, while they emphasize the cost of mission and spell out formulated percentages to guide the giving in the local church.
We need to ask ourselves some hard questions. How do we communicate the tithing principle to children? Are adults that different from children? What prompts people to give gifts to one another, and what are people actually doing when they give each other gifts? Do we actually enjoy a repetitive routine in giving, or can it be come monotonous? Do we project technical stewardship dogma to the exclusion of genuine joy?
When we ask such questions, loaded as they may be, some challenging and interesting opportunities become clear. For ex ample, when we understand that in giving "it is the thought that counts," and we encapsulate our regard for the recipient of our gift in the way we package and present our gift, there is a fundamental change in us and in the spirit in which we give. Should it be much different when we bring God our offering?
In the South England Conference we have produced a variety of colorful tithe envelopes with messages that emphasize the joys and blessings that God has promised in connection with giving. This is an experiment to determine whether we can enhance the experience of joy through giving.
Although the jury is still out, one small example seems to characterize the change we are beginning to see. We have a member who sends her tithe directly to the conference. Usually the tithe has been accompanied by a letter describing and explaining her ailments. We have responded with thanks, sympathy, and encouragement. Recently the woman sent in a substantial do nation enclosed in an envelope designed for children. This time her covering letter was filled with cheer. We think that our positive approach to her was helpful. Members may not contribute more, but they may contribute in a more joyful spirit.
Identify the blessing intended
Our stewardship materials have always been specific with respect to the meaning and calculation of the tithe, and have detailed how welcome a second tithe would be. We are less specific when it comes to the con sequential blessing! The really sustainable blessing is in the overall community that we build as the body of Christ. A community that is rich in opportunity and personal experience, that rewards each member with trust, acceptance, and support, from which they become experientially and even materially prosperous, is the blessing that God intends.
"I give my tithe to the Lord. How He uses it is not my problem" characterizes the trust placed in church leaders by many of the senior faithful. This mystique is not shared by a younger contemporary generation who demand serious accountability. Many today tend to respond through direct giving approaches, funding foundations and projects that operate with the marketing skill of a major corporation. We can respond with authoritarian policies, but they avail us little. The church at every level needs to recognize the value, opportunity, and example available in willing ac countability. This is inherently a part of stewardship. It builds trust. Trust builds relationship, and relationships are the building blocks of community.
During the past three years our conference has embraced the practice of more open governance. Our budgets, financial statements, projections, and performance data are readily available to all in a timely and understandable fashion. Funding decisions have been inclusive where possible. Many members have expressed pride in their conference in contrast to the suspicions they once held. It has changed the nature of management from governance by stealth to governance through open debate. One cannot claim without question that tithe has increased as a direct consequence, but it has nevertheless increased.
Cultivate a theology of gratitude
Several years ago I scrawled a few words of encouragement and thanks on a compliment slip to a member who had returned tithe. She wrote back thanking me for my few words and noted that this was the first time in 40 years that her church had expressed personal thanks for her contribution.
The Old Testament concept of sacrifice is often associated with sin, penance, or the support of the Levitical system. The idea that the priests should respond with thanks does not seem obvious, but it is certainly consistent with wise, gracious, and godly leadership.
Whatever our theology, we live in a society that emphasizes customer intimacy. Along with this, consumers expect to be served with excellence. Whatever their personal spiritual experience, our members will compare the attention they receive from commercial enterprises with the care and responsiveness offered by the church community and its corporate body.
In our conference we are in the process of determining how we can express genuine and personal thanks to our members. Corporate statements in the conference pa per lack the personal touch. Brief flyers mailed out lack credibility. One idea we are contemplating is from time to time enclosing thank-you cards with offering receipts.
Clarify the focus of stewardship
For many of our members stewardship has become synonymous with faithfulness simply in tithe. Stewardship directors have tried to broaden the perspective to include time and talents. Others have tried to establish Christocentric authenticity. The perspectives have all been valid, but few have captured the imagination of ministers or members.
Since its inception the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been dependent on the largesse of North American members. Much of their generosity stems from a culturally entrenched puritanical work ethic and concept of stewardship, which they probably take for granted. Much of the rest of the church, though experiencing rapid growth, is by contrast existing in cultures where debt, poverty, and unemployment are endemic. Francis Fukuyama in his book Trust: Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, comments on how the "radius of trust" varies from one culture to another. Interestingly, his thesis demonstrates the correlation between people's ability to trust and their social prosperity.
Much of stewardship has to do with the service we offer to, and our relationship within, our communities. It flows from our relationship with Christ and extends out ward to fulfill our purpose in society. Our spiritual orientation determines the way we go about making a living. Having made a living, we must give recognition to the Lord who gives us the strength and enterprise from which the blessings flow. This recognition must in turn lead us to em brace an altruistic concept of stewardship that includes service, the development of trust and trustworthiness, and personal ac countability that contributes to the well-being of all people. Stewardship has the potential to stand alongside health and education as a life-enriching service improving both the social fabric and faith of our members.
Adopt a culture of graciousness
Critics may view this approach as an at tempt to customerize our members with sweet talk. I would be the first to reject such disingenuous graciousness. Our members contribute altruistically and expect nothing in return. But the church cannot become presumptuous about member loyalty. Those of us who are on the receiving end of member faithfulness need to become stewards of a culture of graciousness.
Many of our strategic initiatives have been inspired by the recognition of need and a desire to address that need in a dynamic manner. We have great orators who have the ability to rally the faithful to support entrepreneurial methods associated with calls for new offerings. Additional commitment is fine, but not as a substitute for core stewardship and trust-inspired loyalty.