Jason Coker

Stop Asking People to Give Money To Your Church

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

Some new church plant (or old church traditional church, or hipster-deep “worship experience”) doesn’t have enough money to pay the bills. So the pastor, or the elders, or the “stewardship committee” decides it’s high time to start preaching more about money.

Unfortunately, this works. At least, it works in the short-run. The psychology of sales and fundraising are well known, and can be effective in the short-term when we learn to push people’s buttons and pull their triggers.

But when we treat people like the most important thing they have to give is money, we are exploiting them as objects to be used. When we will say or do nearly anything just to get folks to write a check, we de-humanize them. And eventually, because of that, we will burn them out. This, by the way, is a sure-fire sign that we have slipped into the trap of working to preserve the institution rather than advance the mission. Why? Because institutions are built by resources, but a mission can only be advanced by people.

Most of us know this intuitively

This is one reason most of us in ministry find selling and fundraising distasteful. We know how gross it makes us feel when someone treats us this way. As pastors who are trained to be sensitive to a person’s spiritual well-being, we are repulsed by anything that feels like manipulation.

And we should be.

The problem is, when faced with the discomfort of asking for money, we tend to shrink back and ask for less (or, we simply don’t ask at all), when what we should be doing is exactly the opposite. We should be asking for more. Far more.

I’m not suggesting we travel down the well-worn path of over-busying and overwhelming people until they eventually burn out. That’s just another, all-too-familiar way of exploiting people. The solution to exploiting people is obviously not to exploit them more. Rather, the solution is to learn to truly see and relate to people as whole persons who have more to give than merely money.

Every one of us has a vocation

We all have an innate, whole-hearted purpose or calling in life for which we are gifted and equipped, more or less. But many people (maybe most) haven’t discovered it yet, and this is one reason why many of us are so spiritually broken – because we haven’t yet figured out what we should be sacrificing our lives for.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.

~Romans 12:1

People are looking for where their whole lives fit. Once they find it, they’ll usually give their whole hearts to it. This is their spiritual vocation. You are doing your people and your mission a disservice by simply asking for money. One key to forming a healthy church or nonprofit is to learn to discover and empower the whole-hearted vocations of those who are genuinely called to work together in a common mission. That is what true organizational development is about, because in a mission-driven organization like a church, it develops more than the organization; it develops the people, it develops the community, it develops the world.

In the world of nonprofit leadership, this kind of holistic, person-centered approach is often referred to as humanizing the organization – and it applies to more than just fund development. It is the intentional counter-measure to the common and de-humanizing modern management paradigm which sees the organization as a machine and the people in it as the cogs that keep it running.

How does this relate to giving money?

One of the most important things you can do to develop your church or nonprofit is to stop asking for people to give their money and start asking them to give their hearts. In other words, genuinely treat them as persons who are critically important to the mission. Because they are.

Of course, this is a process, and it is usually a long one because it is relational. It starts with caring enough to pay attention and listen. It means discovering people’s hearts and being honest about whether their vocation really does align with yours. It also requires making space for people to engage to whatever extent they are willing and able; allowing them to ask difficult questions, make suggestions, participate in decisions, offer a critique, commit mistakes, achieve successes, enjoy a little credit, and so on. What that begins to click in a community, many of your fellow workers will start to give more of everything, including money. In fact, in my experience, people will seek you out to give you money for the mission.

Of course, giving won’t run that deep for everyone – in fact, it won’t run that deep for hardly anyone – and that’s good and right for all kinds of reasons. But everybody does have something to give, and having permission to give whatever they have, coupled with access to whole-heartededly participate, will make a profound impact for the better on everyone who comes into contact with your organization.

Here’s the shift I want us to grasp

In this way, asking for support from someone who is whole-heartedly invested is actually an expression of deep care for them as a person. Yes, even asking for money, when it’s appropriate. There is nothing quite so life-giving as giving deeply into the vocation of your gifts and passion. By appropriately asking for the gift of a person’s heart in all if its expressions, and by creating a meaningful way for them to give it, you are offering them a powerful gift as well. The gift of being truly human.

For obvious reasons, no organizations on the planet should be better at this than communities of faith.

There are all kinds of effective ways to do this. Ways to lead and govern well, ways to ask well, and ways to engage people as whole persons. That’s why I offer courses and training here (shameless plug). The good news is, all of that can be learned.

MLK’s Most Audacious Dream

BEE369 Minister Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching at an event

Today we remember the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. for his civil rights legacy. I am especially inspired by his most audacious dream:

So what, exactly, was King’s economic dream? In short, he wanted the government to eradicate poverty by providing every American a guaranteed, middle-class income—an idea that, while light-years beyond the realm of mainstream political conversation today, had actually come into vogue by the late 1960s.

The patchwork of social services we’ve half-heartedly assembled over the past generation have barely made a dent in American poverty. Since the 1960’s, deinstitutionalization of mental health services combined with runaway corporate profits and stagnant wages have combined to create a potent brew of hopelessness for America’s most discriminated and challenged citizens.

It’s time to make genuine equality a reality. It’s time to support a Universal Income in America. It’s an idea that has support across the political spectrum.

The best way to honor Martin Luther King Jr., is to pursue his greatest civil right’s dream.

The Life of Gifts in a Kingdom Economy

Yesterday, I wrote about an experiment my wife and I started several years back, and how it took off faster than expected.

I couldn’t believe my luck. All I’d wanted was to promote a little generosity in the midst of isolated individualism. Maybe even counter a bit of mindless consumption and make people think a little about the insane pursuit of product-driven happiness. I wanted people to experiment with a life of gifts rather than a life of greed. All that seemed to be happening to some extent, plus a little friendship on the side.

But then came the “grandmother incident.”

On that day a woman logged into the website and posted a need for a “surrogate grandmother.” A surrogate grandmother! She and her husband, it seems, had recently moved into the area and didn’t know anyone. A few months before, she’d given birth to twins, whose early delivery had complicated their health. Without a network of support, the couple was simply overwhelmed. So, on this site where people had been happily exchanging floor lamps and toaster ovens, here is what she wrote:

HI! As the mother of twin girls with medical issues, I need a surrogate grandma or just a good friend. Is there someone out there with a kind and patient heart who has a few hours a week during the day that they would like to spend playing with 2 little darlings or helping me tackle a few big projects???

Within days an older woman responded. Herself the mother of three grown boys who’d all moved out of state, this older woman felt drawn to the young woman’s needs and was ready to help. They arranged to meet. Got know each other, and a kind of kinship grew. Soon the older woman was babysitting, helping with hospital visits, and offering advice. And to my utter amazement something far deeper than mere gratitude or friendship has grown between them – they’d formed a family.

That’s when I realized a life of gifts is about more than lamps and toasters. It’s about trust and love. In a culture where people are defined by conspicuous accumulation, ordinary stuff tends to dead-end in someone’s closet or garage. Like Manna that has been hoarded it eventually rots, becoming the symbol of our stubborn, self-sufficient isolation.

Yet true gifts never rest. They move freely from one to another shifting from shape to shape to become the stuff that enriches, nourishes, and sustains the community through an economy of grace and mercy. Sometimes it’s lamps and toasters. Sometimes it’s surrogate grandmothers. But every time, no matter the object, the grace of generosity animates the life of stuff and transforms it into something new and life-giving for all who enter into that new kind of economy.

This is how the economy of God operates. The Spirit is at work ceaselessly among the people of the world imparting gifts of grace and mercy that must be shared – or risk rotting. This is just as true of cash and checks as it is for household goods or friends and family. More than anything else, being missional means joining God in His work. That is exactly the kind of economy America needs now more than ever.

The Sufficiency of the Kingdom

Several years ago, as a fun experiment, my wife and I started a website where people could post the stuff they no longer needed, and others, who needed those things, could simply claim them. Pretty simple. The idea caught on in our church and people started giving each other lamps and toasters and other random items. That alone was amazing to me. For years I’d been fascinated with Acts 2:44-45:

“The believers had everything in common and gave to each other as they had need.”

Really? Everything in common?

As a fired-up young Christian that bit about “everything in common” clobbered me. That’s not how we live, I often thought. Our church was full of people who acquired as much as possible, while others barely scraped-by. Also, I couldn’t help but notice that the folks who built wealth and lived comfortably usually ended up in the seats of power at church.

Worse still, I wanted to be one of those people. I wanted the absolute freedom of self-sufficiency that wealth seemed to promise.

But Acts 2, and 2 Cor 8, and especially Exodus 16 kept bludgeoning my conscience. There was something at work in these bits of scripture, something altogether different than naked capitalism. When the Spirit of God was in charge, the outcome looked more like abundance for everyone, rather than obscene luxury for a few. And when conspicuous wealth was depicted in scripture, it always came with the heavy prophetic warning to responsibly use that wealth liberally for obtaining the abundance of all. 

It seemed, as far as God was concerned, that being rich purchased you the smallest possible measure of freedom.

Again, this is not what I observed in church. Why didn’t the Bible literally revolutionize our lives? As a young Christian, I asked pastors and elders point-blank, but was generally met with condescending smiles and tousles of the hair.

Then, one day, I stumbled across Luke 3:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

There it was again. Sharing. Giving. Prophetic warning. Was it really that simple? An odd thought began to creep into my mind. Maybe the solution to poverty isn’t about making everyone on the planet more self-sufficient, maybe it’s found by inviting everyone into community-sufficiency.

So, we did what everyone in a globalized world does when they think they have a cool idea: we started a website. We encouraged people in our church to post their extra things so others could freely take what they needed. The idea being, this was a small expression of Luke 3.

The next thing I knew people were showing up at church carrying lamps and toasters and giving them away to each other in the lobby. That alone was pretty cool. Mission accomplished, I thought. But then people outside the church started joining and that’s when everything went pear-shaped. We started bumping into non-Christians and poor people and rich people and witches and buddhists and Methodists. You know, the sort of people we normally would have avoided at all costs.

In the process, something new was birthed between us, something which hadn’t previously existed for the most part: genuine gratitude. And that gratitude came pretty naturally and sincerely, because even though we all had something to give, we also all had needs. So our equality came not merely just from any kind of material equality, but from the realization that, in essence, we were all empty. Out empty, outstretched hands were, simultaneously, hands that give and receive.

That gratitude usually sprouted kindness and kindness sometimes blossomed into friendship and somewhere in the midst of it all the Kingdom of God showed up. And within that rooted-and-connected Kingdom, we discovered all the sufficiency any of us needed.


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