Monday, July 22, 2013

Killing Pious Platitudes: Giving for all the wrong reason

Perhaps we are encouraging giving for all the wrong reasons. 

A few theses on giving up pious stewardship platitudes:

1) We don't give in response to how much God has first given us. Although this tends to be a dominant motif in stewardship preaching and theology, it is simply too religious. But also, if you pay attention to sociology and philosophical reflection on gift economy, you will see that such a gift, properly understood, is no gift at all. This is more like a gift exchange, and may in fact be commodifying giving.

2) Everything we have comes from God, but it isn't clear that means our response is to give some of it back. In fact, it is unclear how you can give back to God when if it all came from God in the first place. With gifts, it is customary to keep the gift given, and say thank you. Right? It's even offensive to the giver if you give a portion of it back, because it feels like either a rejection of the gift, or a conversion of it into some kind of transaction.

3) All "responses" to gifts from God other than thanksgiving are at risk of undermining the nature of the gift qua gift.

4) All of this being the case, we need a different way to talk about giving in the church. Since God does not need our gifts, and perhaps it is impossible to give a gift to God even if we would like to give a gift to God, our best move is...

5) Give because the neighbor needs it. Give because the mission needs it. This way of thinking frees the church up to speak about gifts in the most sensible way possible. Please give to this mission because the mission needs your gift. Please give to your neighbor, because your neighbor is in need.

In a recent post reviewing Craig Satterlee's book on preaching and stewardship, I summarized his "why" of giving in this way:

So, why give money to the church? Satterlee suggests we do so a) as an act of worship, b) as a way of participating in God's reign, c) as an act of resistance, d) as a way of bearing witness, and e) to grow in grace. Perhaps also we give in order to receive.

Reflecting further on this list, it felt unsettling to leave it there, not because any of these reasons for giving are necessarily wrong, but because so many of them are potentially pious and perhaps overly complex. They don't call the thing what it is. Though you can add layers to a gift, and claim it is an act of worship, participating in God's reign, an act of resistance, bearing witness, or growing in grace, it's also true that you can and should give without claiming any of those additional layers, and you can and should give simply because your neighbor needs it.

Feed the hungry, because they are hungry.
Donate to your church, because the staff need to be paid.
Fund a new mission start, because the mission start needs funding to get started.
Give to your alma mater, because it costs money to run a college.
Give to the guy who asks for money at the gas station, because he needs it, and he asked.

If we add any other layers to this basic definition, "Give because your neighbor needs it," we get into all kinds of analysis that take the phenomenology of the gift beyond what is warranted, perhaps even beyond what is comprehensible.


Thanks to my good friend Dr. Gregory Walter of St. Olaf College, who inspired these reflections. We've had many conversations on gift economies as he prepared to publish his book, Being Promised.

p.s. I have the intuition, though this will need to be for a subsequent post, that these reflections on giving to the neighbor have analogy with our doctrines of atonement. Many such doctrines think Jesus was "giving" something to God through is death, whereas I would content that Jesus himself in his death was giving "to the neighbor in need"--us.


  1. Anonymous3:13 PM

    This reminds me of a remark that Marc Kolden once said about good works, which could easily apply to giving. "God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does."

  2. While I agree that stewardship language in the church is in constant need of clarification and the emerging realities of our world call for constant review, I think you too quickly discard theological meat for the fashionable pragmatism of the day. I am more than willing to re-frame and review what passes for mission. I do it every day, in fact. Perhaps however, I am simply weary of the popular notion that everything the church ever taught and thought before we enlightened folks were on the scene is to be disregarded. I think Paul's advice to the Corinthian church in 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 call for us to give to God first, and then by the grace of God to others. Ala Bonhoeffer, I can only have a true relationship with another (or a need) as mediated by Christ. The centrality of offering in the act of worship is certainly scriptural. Satterlee has the core correct. Mark Allan Powell in his "Giving to God" makes some of your arguments, but without seeing a need for an either/or abandonment of the spiritual act of giving. Your suggestions also have a dark side. Giving to the need helps advance the mission of institutional salvation that plagues us all.