In the middle 1970s, “born again” Christianity became a media focus. Our public visibility shot upward to the peak of its trajectory when 1976 was hyped as “The Year of the Evangelical.”

Then in 1978, United Press International listed the investigation of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s finances as one of the top ten religious news stories of the year. (Notably, the investigation of Graham found nothing.) This report was soon followed by a complete listing of evangelical organizations that failed to meet various standards of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Full disclosure of financial records, accounting procedures, voting trusteeships, decision-making and reporting practices—all came under scrutiny.

Ironically, financing our response to the Great Commission seems most troubled at a time when evangelical Christianity has become quite popular. Christian organizations have discovered that with the warm glow of public visibility comes the piercing, cold light of public accountability.

To the credit of such leaders as Sen. Mark Hatfield and Ted Engstrom of World Vision, the call went out for fiscal self-regulation of evangelical Christian ministries. Heeding the call, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) was formed as a voluntary association of Christian organizations dedicated to the high standards and good practices of fiscal responsibility. The effectiveness of the ECFA is represented not only by the size and scope of its membership (more than 300 organizations representing denominational and parachurch ministries), but also by the fact that it monitors its members, investigates alleged abuses, and makes public its reports.

Unfortunately, some of the most visible evangelical Christian organizations have chosen not to become ECFA members. Their fiscal practices may be sound, but without accountability to their peers or full disclosure to the public, a shadow of doubt remains over their ministries.

Abuses In Christian Fund Raising

Such doubting by the public can be traced to the much publicized blemishes of a handful of Christian organizations. When headlines call the public’s attention to a relief organization that squanders its donations or a television evangelist’s fraudulent tax returns, fund raising in general becomes suspect. And abuses have occurred frequently enough to cause genuine alarm within the Christian community. Consider the following fund-raising practices:

  • Promising the moon. According to Arthur Borden, president of ECFA, Christian fund raisers have a tendency to overstate their promises of what a potential donation will accomplish. Part of the problem may be our zeal to win the world. Who has not heard appeals for funds with the promise of winning the world through new and expanded ministries? By its very nature, world evangelization has dramatic appeal. Yet, to promise more than can be delivered is a tactic for fund raising that is unworthy of evangelical Christians.
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  • Skimming the top. Administrative overhead is inevitable among organized ministries. The purpose of an organization is to increase the effectiveness of the ministry through the efficient allocation of resources. Institutions, however, have a natural tendency to become top-heavy, bureaucratic, and costly. When this happens, funds given to serve a need are used to sustain the organization. The problem is so prevalent among fund-raising groups that 24 states passed laws limiting the amount that can be charged for administrative costs to 25 percent of the dollars raised. Although the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law as a violation of the freedom of speech, the abuse still cannot be justified. Christian organizations that use more than 25 percent of the dollars raised for promotion and other administrative costs need to ask, “What is being served, the need for which the institution was founded or the institution itself?”
  • Manipulating the mind. Religious fund raisers in particular must avoid the temptation to use manipulative techniques under the guise of a spiritual motive. “If you send a gift to my ministry, I will pray for you” is a most common ploy. Common sense suggests the prayer will be impersonal. Yet, in a culture hungry for personal attention, this technique works (and it gets another name onto the mailing list).

Emotions, too, always take precedence over giving to a cause or an idea. When my mother was dying of leukemia, I found a receipt on her dresser for a gift to a faith healer whose exaggerated claims she had criticized when she was well. I asked her, “Mother, why did you give him this gift?” Honest, as always, Mom answered, “When you are desperate, you give.” Later on, I read the article about another television faith healer preying on senior citizens by promising them new health and prosperity as an appeal for giving.

Although Jesus said little about the ethics of fund raising, he reserved his most biting condemnation for scribes or attorneys who counseled lonely widows with the intention of profiting from their estates. The exploitation of senior citizens is a most vicious form of manipulation that will increase as the population grows older and fund raisers become more desperate. God will demand an accounting for such tactics.

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  • Raising the score. The techniques of manipulation carry the seeds of their own destruction. Once a fund-raising organization resorts to emotional appeals or a crisis mentality, continued success requires “raising the score.” The Ethiopian food crisis is an example. After the British Broadcasting Company pictured the starving children of Ethiopia, millions of dollars flowed into the coffers of relief organizations, religious and secular. Our emotions, however, were soon saturated. Although the food crisis continues, one executive of a relief organization put it bluntly, “People are no longer giving to pictures of babies with bloated bellies.” Some other more dramatic means must be used to stimulate the gifts—or so the thinking goes.

Thus, raising the score follows a predictable process. Idealism rules in the beginning, with a simple statement of the needs of the ministry. As the program expands, the time and space given to fund appeals also expand. The initial plea is usually gentle, “Give me money to show your love.” Further expansion and a tight budget will add a new dimension to the appeal, “Give me money to get God’s blessing,” implying the assurance of answered prayer, personal success, and economic prosperity. If a cash crisis comes, however, the fund raiser can always appeal to loyalists, “Give me money to save my ministry.”

However, crisis after crisis can dull that appeal as well. So, as desperation dominates a ministry and escalates the begging, it is not unusual to hear the veiled threat, “Give me money to save your soul.” Then delusions of grandeur take over. Whether winning the world, building an empire, or averting death, Christian fund raising can become a sad blight on the faith and a legitimate laugh in the press when financial desperation rules a ministry and obsesses a fund raiser. What does a fund raiser do for an encore after the impassioned plea, “Give me money to save my life”?

Such abuses compel us to return to the Scriptures, yet Jesus left us no formula for financing the spread of the gospel. Wisely, he left us only the fundamentals of biblical stewardship with which to work. Our failure to follow these fundamentals accounts for the current abuses in raising money for Christian ministry. At the same time, a return to the fundamentals of biblical stewardship holds the promise of correcting the abuses in Christian fund raising. If our response to Christ’s marching orders is to be successfully financed, it will be done through preaching, teaching, and modeling biblical stewardship. A good place to start is in our current attitudes toward wealth.

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The Disease Of Affluence

When we in the affluent Western church think about world evangelization, we immediately think about dollars. Little do we realize how pervasively our attitudes have been influenced by money. We have become victims of a disease called “affluenza,” with its companion, self-interest.

Affluenza is a strange malady that affects the children of well-to-do parents. Though having everything money can buy, the children show all of the symptoms of abject poverty—depression, anxiety, loss of meaning, and despair for the future. Affluenza accounts for an escape into alcohol, drugs, shoplifting, and suicide among children of the wealthy. It is most often found where parents are absent from the home and try to buy their children’s love.

Affluent Christians and affluent churches show some of the same symptoms. Guilty because of the lack of personal engagement in missions and evangelism, we allow money to become the substitute for love. Although our guilt is relieved, we still show the symptoms of spiritual affluenza—meaninglessness, anxiety, and the loss of joy. In the Book of Revelation, the angel of the Lord found these same symptoms of sickness in the church at Smyrna and wrote, “I know your affliction and your poverty—yet you are rich!” (Rev. 2:9).

Persecution was predicted for the purifying of the church at Smyrna, and perhaps there is no other cure for our own affluenza. As Walbert Buhlmann notes in his book The Coming Third Church, the present church of the West has the resources for world evangelization, but lacks the spiritual vitality and the sacrificial will to give itself away. After his release from a Romanian prison, Pastor Richard Wurmbrand said he suffered more under American affluence than under the heel of the Communists. He suffered the loss of the “beauty of his persecuted and purified Church, serving Christ in poverty and nakedness.” While none of us seeks persecution for our purification, we must confess the poverty of spirit that comes with the attitudes of affluence.

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The Symptoms Of Self-Interest

Self-interest always lurks in the company of affluenza. Almost a decade ago, warnings about radical self-interest were being sounded by such secular prophets as Christopher Lasch in his book The Cult of Narcissism and Daniel Yankelovich in New Rules: Living in a World Turned Upside Down. Today, other scholars are tracing their predictions into the reality of radical self-interest dominating American culture and changing our character. The book Habits of the Heart reads like prophecy as the authors see the biblical vision of a “moral community” and the republican dream of the “common good” being undercut by utilitarian and expressive individualism. Without the “habits of the heart” that are created and sustained by the impulses of spiritual renewal, a sense of responsibility for the moral community gives way to “doing whatever we want for our own profit” and “being whatever we want for our own pleasure.”

Not surprisingly, self-interest has invaded the normally other-directed world of fund raising. The federal government originally created the charitable deduction in recognition of the value of voluntary giving for the common good. While tax reform has maintained deductions for “charitable gifts,” the item has been shifted from a “pre-tax” category as a benefit to the society into the listing as a “tax expenditure,” which is a cost to the society and a potential “loophole” to be plugged.

Corporations and foundations, the major givers to charity in the United States, have also taken on the attitudes of self-interest. While we presume that corporation and foundation giving is a charitable response for the common good, the fact is that most of these gifts follow the “identifiable self-interest” of the donor. A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal noted this disturbing trend. An airline is commended for withdrawing from making general gifts for the common good in favor of a free flight of mercy for a person who needs an organ transplant. The editorial notes that the gift serves the interest of the airline in the free publicity about the flight of mercy. Other corporations are urged to follow this example of identifiable self-interest as the motive and the policy for their contributions.

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However, churches and religious organizations that are both the recipients and dispensers of charitable gifts are not free from the influence of self-interest. In the distribution of those dollars, direct aid to the needs of the hungry at home and abroad ranks high. But, at home especially, there is evidence of increasing gifts in support of “advocacy” positions, ranging all the way from peace issues in the liberal sector to voter registration among conservatives. Advocacy is its own form of self-interest.

With the intrusion of self-interest into every level of charitable giving as well as across Christian and secular lines, the contemporary climate is not conducive to financing the Great Commission. Sacrificial giving for world evangelization runs counter to the attitudes of affluence and the ends of self-interest. Furthermore, if an excuse is needed, the well-publicized abuses of evangelical Christian organizations in fund raising can stop the flow of dollars.

Biblical Principles Of Stewardship

Is there an antidote for the disease of affluence and the symptoms of self-interest in Christian fund raising? Radical answers include eliminating the tax deduction for charitable contributions, expecting the federal deficit to put us back on bread lines, or waiting for the backlash that will return evangelical Christianity to its position as a beleaguered (if not persecuted) minority. Pessimists who predict these actions may be right, but we cannot grant them their day until we have tried to restore the full understanding and consistent practice of biblical stewardship among evangelical Christians. This is our hope, not only for curing the disease of affluence and correcting the abuses of fund raising, but also for financing the Great Commission.

In the parable of the talents, Jesus gives us the fundamentals for a biblical understanding of stewardship. Because the parable is so well known, it need not be repeated. But also because it is so well known, its familiarity may cause us to miss the hard-hitting principles of biblical stewardship that Jesus taught.

  • We are owners of nothing. According to the parable, the servant-steward is a person who owns nothing. All belongs to the master. In theory we accept this fact, but in practice we act the opposite. Our budgeting begins with our needs and adds our wants. God gets what is left over. If we really believed that we own nothing, the process would be reversed.
  • We are entrusted with everything. Scholars agree that the parable of the talents addresses all of the resources that God has given us to manage—time, talents, and treasures. Yet, it is significant that money is used as the symbol for our stewardship of life. Jesus reinforced this principle when he said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Paul added further reinforcement when he wrote, “The love of money is the root of every evil thing.” Therefore, it is not out of order to suggest that the totality of a person’s spiritual commitment is reflected in how he spends his money. Once that is established, it is easy to see how biblical stewardship goes beyond monetary values. God has entrusted to us his creation, his Word, and his grace. Paul the apostle saw the highest level of stewardship in the astounding truth that God has entrusted us with the “mystery of the knowledge of God,” or the gospel itself. Thus, stewardship of money and the gospel parallel one another.
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  • We owe all. The “love-slave” relationship between the servant and the master in the parable is implied. Total obedience is the servant’s commitment, but out of love, not fear. Both the motive and the goal of Christian stewardship is giving out of gratitude for the grace and the trust God has given to us. Any other motive for asking or giving is a distortion of biblical stewardship.
  • We invest all. Stewardship in the Old Testament tends to be “trusteeship” with an emphasis upon the preservation of assets. In the parable of the talents, Jesus advances the Old Testament meaning by adding the element of risk and introducing the idea of investment. The test of our stewardship is more than a question of conserving the resources that God has entrusted to us. We are expected to lead in the multiplication of those resources through risk ventures such as investing in Third World leadership training. The line between faith and foolishness, however, is very thin. Only the check-and-balance of the Holy Spirit can keep our vision clear and our objective in sight as we are responsible for “asking in faith” and “counting the cost” at the same time.
  • We serve all. Stewardship is an earthy word with spiritual meaning. It derives from the image of the “sty ward” or the keeper of the pigpen. Extended and dignified in the parable of the talents, stewardship means “household” and is the same word from which we get economics. We are responsible for the “household of God,” which begins with our domestic family, extends to the body of Christ, connects with the needs of our neighbors, serves all those who suffer, and embraces the whole human family. Jesus has little to say about the means of fund raising but he has much to say about the use of our resources. In his encounter with the rich young man, his parable of the rich man and Lazarus and his vivid picture of the final judgment leave no doubt that we are responsible to share our resources with those who suffer from poverty, hunger, oppression, and nakedness.
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  • We are accountable for all. God is an absentee landlord in the parable. He puts full trust in his servants. And while his return may be a surprise, his standards are no secret. In his commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” the Lord lets us know how our stewardship will be judged. Are we faithful to his mission? Do we have integrity in our practices? Are we effective in our performance? Of course, these criteria can be put in spiritual terms, but we cannot ignore their practicality for judging our motives, means, and effectiveness in evangelical Christian fund raising today. To fall short on any one of these standards is to fail the accountability test for Christian stewardship.
  • We are rewarded by God. The Master rewards as well as commends his servant who is faithful, good, and effective. And the reward is both professional and personal. Professionally, the servant is entrusted with greater responsibilities. Most of us do not think of money as the test that God uses to determine how much he can trust us. Yet, this is one of the lessons of the parable. If we want to understand our spiritual poverty in the midst of our economic affluence, the parable of the talents gives us the answer. Also, we may begin to understand why the Spirit of God seems to be bypassing our rich Western culture in favor of the impoverished nations of the Southern hemisphere. If we have failed to exercise biblical stewardship with our money, can God trust us with the blessing of his Spirit? Or, to follow the apostle Paul’s thinking, if God cannot trust us with the investment of his dollars, can he trust us with the stewardship of the gospel?

Joy is the personal reward for the good, faithful, and effective servant-steward of God. Time and time again, I have told candidates for fund-raising positions, “Don’t expect to be thanked.” Most people are not only suspicious of fund raisers, they neither understand nor appreciate the emotionally exhausting nature of this ministry. The fund raiser must be satisfied with the joy of the Lord rather than the acclaim of people.

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Stephen, the deacon, is our model. Chosen for the task of soliciting adequate resources for the early church and distributing them fairly, he did his job so well that the Lord entrusted him with the defense of the gospel before the Sanhedrin. He died under a hail of stones, but with a shining face. Joy is the ultimate testimony of Christian stewardship.

Investing In The Great Commission

As fund raising has become a major growth industry in American life, codes of ethics have been developed to protect the public against fakes and fraud in the field. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education, for instance, dedicated the January 1987 issue of its magazine to a question for fund raisers, “Do you lie, cheat, or steal?” In posing five test cases, the magazine illustrates the answer, “Even if you don’t, you face tough ethical choices.”

Christian fund raising is subject to the same tough, ethical questions. Certainly as a starting point, we will support and practice the ethical codes for fund raising adopted by secular associations and advanced with specific implications for Christian organizations by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Over and above these standards of good practice, however, we are also responsible for the standards and spirit of biblical stewardship. Therefore, as a guide for evangelical Christians who want to invest in the Great Commission, the biblical theology of stewardship leads us to support a ministry that asks: Are we investing in a ministry that:

… focuses upon the Great Commission as its primary mission?

… identifies people rather than money as the priority resource for fulfilling its mission?

… presents itself through leaders who show the spirit of servanthood?

… models biblical stewardship as the Christian’s way of looking at the whole of life?

… teaches giving as gratitude for the grace of God?

… demonstrates its commitment to the spiritual growth of the donor?

… builds up the whole household of God in a complementary rather than a competing ministry?

… states its needs rather than begs for money?

… spends its dollars for the purpose to which the dollars are given?

… multiplies the gifts through creative, spirit-guided strategies?

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… meets the ethical standards of professional and Christian fund-raising codes?

… rejects the gimmicks and tactics of manipulation?

… avoids a crisis-to-crisis mentality?

… accepts full, accurate, and timely accountability to its donors, the church, the community, and appropriate agencies?

… maintains the witness of a “good report” with the general public?

… serves and saves persons who are suffering?

… reports spiritual results that have eternal value?

All generations of Christians are given a special grace by which they can serve their present age. In the latter part of the twentieth century, evangelical Christians in North America have been given the grace of financial resources. If we rediscover the biblical theology of stewardship as given to us by Jesus Christ as a means for fulfilling the Great Commission, we can still be honored with the joy of being given increased responsibility for the gospel. It means a change in our policy and practices of fund raising. Biblical stewardship is a whole-life investment in ministries that are spiritual in motive, moral in means, and eternal in ends. Stewardship has been defined as what you do after you say, “I believe.” So whether we represent evangelical Christianity as individuals or institutions, the critical test of our commitment to the Great Commission is the challenge, “How have your spending habits changed since you became a Christian?”

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