PREACHING ON STEWARDSHIP
By: Mark E. Yurs
By any standard preaching is difficult work. And its most difficult chore is addressing financial stewardship. If left to our own, we would probably avoid the subject altogether.
The Bible refers directly to tithes or tithing some 30 times, yet the lectionary includes only one of those readings (which, incidentally, is the parable of the Pharisee and the publican). To be sure, a preacher can overlay a stewardship theme onto texts that indirectly suggest that topic. Nevertheless, since it overlooks these direct passages, and other venerables such as Acts 20:35, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 9, the lectionary, one may say, does not encourage stewardship preaching.
Meanwhile, local church leaders expect their pastor to address the theme periodically. Denominational authorities likewise press clergy to raise the subject occasionally, focusing especially on financial support for mission work. Above all, the gospel requires a pastor to discuss practical ideas on giving and the holy use of money.
How should the minister preach about money? By focusing on what I call the seven cardinal virtues of stewardship preaching.
1. Direct preaching. In recent years it has been in vogue to stress that stewardship refers to more than giving money. That is true, and it needs to be heard. One minister reports that his congregation will pay for just about anything that is requested. But ask the members to do anything, and they refuse. That congregation needs to hear that stewardship is more than money.
Even so, ministers and churches use that contention as a smokescreen to avoid speaking directly about money. They use that clever ploy to change the subject “to one that is more comfortable, such as stewardship refers to the use of time or spiritual gifts. Soon, the idea that stewardship does refer to money is forgotten. We need to preach directly about financial stewardship.
2. Unashamed preaching. The minister who decides to preach directly about financial stewardship should do so without apology. Harry Emerson Fosdick was usually a master at constructing sermon introductions. However, he diminished his abilities in one of his sermons – one on financial stewardship (“Stand by the Church”). Here the two-paragraph introduction virtually apologizes for bringing the subject up. It trivializes financial stewardship and diminishes the importance of the sermon that follows.
We should preach unashamedly about financial stewardship.
3. Positive preaching. Paul says “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). The Greek word for cheerful is hilaros, which, along with Latin’s hilarus, is the basis for the English word “hilarious.” It stands to reason, then, that the hilarious givers whom God loves are not discovered through negative preaching.
How does one preach positively about stewardship? The experience of a layperson from a large congregation may help explain it. After hearing a sermon on stewardship that explained its basis and function, he reported that he finally understood what tithing is all about and he was eager to begin. Positive preaching compelled him to do what he had misunderstood before.
Negative preaching, on the other hand, assumes that people are not interested in giving and need to be prodded. This type of preaching may lead to giving, but it may be reluctant, full of guilt and devoid of hilarity. We are on better ground, and reach happier results, when we believe the best about our people and teach them how to act on their beliefs.
4. Theological preaching. Why should people give? A pastor must answer this important question with theological accuracy. It is common for ministers and church stewardship committees to base their financial appeals on the needs of the church’s budget. No financial appeal is more common than that.
Yet such appeals do significant theological damage. They run the danger of making God appear to be a pauper instead of the Supreme Giver, for they see the wealth not in the God who gives but in the people who have. Similarly, such appeals make it seem as though the church needs money more than it needs God. What could be more idolatrous?
The proper basis for giving is not in what the church needs but in what God has done. A Christian gives, ideally, not because she supports what the church proposes to do by way of mission or program, but because she is blessed by what the Lord has done to fill her with joy. One gives out of the abundance that God has already given. One gives out of gratitude for what God has done. One gives out of one’s fullness rather than out of the church’s need.
If our stewardship preaching is to do any lasting good, then it needs theological grounding. It is inaccurate to preach on the basis of any other appeal or ideology.
5. Regular preaching. A pastor may emphasize stewardship more than once a year. Each season of the church year has possibilities for stewardship sermons.
Advent is rich with opportunities for teaching about stewardship. The prophetic witness is not without suggestions here, nor is the preaching of John the Baptist. Inspiration can come, too, from the dedication of Mary or Joseph. Above all, there is the example of the gift of Christ, the wealth of God sent because of human kind’s poverty.
Epiphany is bright with stewardship opportunities, chiefly in reflections upon the gifts of the magi who travel far to give them.
Lent, with its emphasis on taking up the cross, is likewise a fertile field for planting the seeds of stewardship.
At Easter we are ready to say with Paul, “Thanks be to God for the inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15). At Pentecost we are ready to think about using our spiritual gifts.
None of this is to suggest, of course, that we should preach about money every two weeks! Rather, it is to say that we should preach about it often and in various contexts throughout the course of our pastorate. Stewardship Sunday could be the starting point. A pastor could add to it by following up with Advent and Epiphany references; next year he could use Lenten and Easter opportunities. At sometime during the long Pentecost season, though perhaps at a different point each year, a pastor could also preach about financial stewardship. about stewardship.
The key is to preach about stewardship regularly to reinforce the message and to preach with variety so that the message does not become stale.
6. Interesting preaching. Through illustrations, a preacher may show the joys of tithing at work or else the pitfalls of selfishness doing their damage. Nurture a collection of stewardship illustration from reading and personal experience.
Phillips Brooks must have had such a file. In his Yale lectures he told of a man who asked to borrow ten talents from Alexander the Great. When the latter gave the borrower 50 instead of ten, the borrower said ten would be enough. Alexander answered, “True… ten are sufficient for you to take, but not for me to give.”
Recently I attended a meeting at which I learned about a youth home my denomination sponsors. An adolescent who lives at the home spoke at the meeting and said that since she has been there, she has been getting A’s in school. Before moving to the home she had never gotten an A. Using that illustration can convey the increased self-esteem that that adolescent now enjoys; and parishioners will be happy to learn that their tithes do God’s work.
If we expect people to give hilariously, then we should not preach tediously. Preach interestingly, which often means using illustrations liberally.
7. Pastoral preaching. Among the luminaries of yesteryear, George W. Turett was one who made financial stewardship a significant part of his pastoral work. His purpose for doing so was: “We emphasize stewardship, not for the purpose of getting the money, but for the purpose of developing the giver in the Christian life. To give is to live; to withhold is to die.”
In this light we see that we ought to preach about financial stewardship for the sake of what parishioners gain from being faithful stewards, not what we can get from parishioners. Our purpose is not raising money but growing souls and ministering to families. Many families today are trying to garrison themselves in a fort of things as they strive for happiness and protection. However, the biblical ideal calls for obedience rather than entrenchment, and that means becoming lost in service. That sort of service includes financial giving. Part of our pastoral role is to encourage financial stewardship.
When we think about these seven cardinal virtues of stewardship preaching, many of us are convicted of the deadly sins we are prone to practice when preaching about money. Chief among those is neglect, which may be followed closely by hypocrisy.
Rather than wallow, we can resolve to do better. Since the lectionary does not afford us many direct opportunities to preach on stewardship, we need to import them. As long as the subject is not forced, congregations will respect our preaching efforts on stewardship.
(The above material appeared in the November/December 1992 issue of The Christian Ministry.)
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