I grew up in church, and my family rarely missed a Sunday. I don’t remember a single sermon, but I do remember feeling nervous about the word stewardship.
Every September our church hosted Stewardship Sunday, where the minister would preach an emotional sermon stressing the need for everyone to give more. It worked—I left those services feeling guilty. To make matters worse, when I was in high school I was recruited to visit the homes of church members and present them with a Stewardship Pledge Card. It was my job to compel them to fill out their giving commitment for the coming year. They felt awkward. So did I.
Thankfully, in my mid-20s I was exposed to some outstanding teaching about the biblical perspective on stewardship. It changed the trajectory of my life. Things I had never seen before jumped out at me. I discovered that the Bible speaks about money and possessions more than any other topic except love. Jesus talked often and openly about our relationship with money.
For the last 14 years, I have served on staff at two large churches leading their stewardship ministries. During that time, I realized a surprising number of church leaders also have an awkward relationship with stewardship—similar baggage to my own. Here is what I wish I had known about stewardship.
1. “Stewardship,” “generosity,” and “giving” are not synonyms.
I now realize, using these terms interchangeably confuses people. Stewardship is a role, giving is an act, and generosity is an attitude. In biblical times, a steward was a respected person of high integrity who was entrusted with the master’s possessions. The steward managed the possessions in accordance with the master’s wishes. Since God created and still owns all we have, stewardship is recognizing that God is the owner and we are his managers, responsible for using God’s possessions to please him. This elevates “stewardship” for people.
Generosity involves a willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of others. Giving is merely the act of releasing something of value. Giving can be done without generosity (the Pharisees are one example), but you cannot be generous without giving. However, generosity is only one characteristic of a biblical steward. A steward’s primary responsibility is to manage the resources that are not given away. Take a look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14–28 for a good example of both positive and negative stewardship.
2. Poor stewardship is dangerous for you; rich stewardship is for your benefit.
When I communicate to people about money, I guide them to understand that I want something for them, not something from them. If my teaching on money is only about giving to the church, people will check their phones, and I’ll miss a great opportunity to help them grow.
Poor stewardship is dangerous for you. Between 25 and 50 percent of church attenders give nothing or next to nothing. This is not a financial problem but a spiritual one. God is a giver. Our willingness to give reveals our relationship to God.
Examples can be found throughout Scripture, but two of the most potent are found in Luke 12 and Revelation 3.
In Luke 12:15–21, we see a rich farmer blessed with an abundant crop. He gives no credit to God, nor does he give thought to being a steward. He thinks only about himself. Jesus calls him a fool, not because he had great possessions, but because his possessions had him.
In Revelation 3:14–17, we get to eavesdrop on God’s letter to the church in Laodicea. The people in the church believed their material blessings indicated they were right with God. But God exposed their blindness, nakedness, and depravity.
In both cases, a harmful relationship with wealth became the root of spiritual blindness.
On the other hand, rich stewardship benefits everyone.
The Acts 2 church provides an encouraging contrast to the church in Laodicea. In Acts 2:42–47, the early church lives out a culture of stewardship. Verse 45 says, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” This first-century church is a beautiful picture of generosity in action, even in their scarcity.
3. Stewardship is about hearts, not causes.
We live in a world fraught with causes to support. Yet the point of stewardship isn’t about causes, important as they may be. Jesus surprised his disciples with this principle. The story of Mary and the expensive perfume in Mark 14:3–9 is one example. During a visit to the home of Simon the Leper, a woman emerges with a year’s wages worth of precious perfume and pours it on Jesus. Some of the disciples grumbled, imagining all it could have accomplished for the poor. But Jesus wanted to focus their attention on the heart of the giver. This woman showed her deep love for Jesus through the use of her resources. The disciples missed the point. When we make God our highest priority, our desire is to honor him. This releases a spirit of love, which releases resources to meet real needs.
In 2 Corinthians 8:8, Paul addresses this same concept when challenging the early Macedonian church: “I am not commanding you, but want to test the sincerity of your love.” Generosity, even amidst poverty, reveals our love for God (2 Cor. 8:2).
4. We need more teaching about money, not less.
When I became a stewardship pastor, I was shocked to discover how much people were struggling financially. Money is an emotional topic, so people want to hide their financial struggles. They often feel they are not in a position to be generous. Avoiding the topic of money only deepens the problem. Preaching frequently about money creates a greater willingness in your people to address their financial health.
Here are three aspects of money to address to help your people grow as stewards:
The practical aspect: This involves teaching people how to organize their finances and manage their money. We have all preached at some point on the Good Samaritan, but have you taught this parable from a financial perspective? In Luke 10, the Good Samaritan not only gave of himself, but he was also a good steward. He saved money in advance for an unknown and unforeseen need. Because he was a saver, he had a surplus from which to express his generosity to the wounded traveler.
The emotional aspect: This is rarely addressed and usually leads to bad financial decisions. When it comes to money, if the heart overrules the head, the result is frequently disastrous. Just follow teenagers around the mall to see what I mean.
The spiritual aspect: Your people will never be good stewards if they do not align their financial decision making with the wisdom of God’s Word. It’s that simple.
A powerful example of how our relationship to money impacts our spiritual lives is found in the parable of the four seeds and the four soils in Mark 4. Beginning in verse 18, Jesus explains the meaning of the third seed: “Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful”. Don’t miss the striking message here. A wrong relationship with money robs God’s Word of its fruitfulness in our lives.
However, Jesus gives us good news in explaining the fourth seed: “Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.” Isn’t this the kind of multiplication we want to see in every area of our lives and churches? Teaching your people to resist the deceptive power of wealth will keep the door to their hearts open to accept the Word and to experience fruitfulness.
5. Your relationship with money impacts your relationship with God.
This energized me to leave behind the financial apprehension of my childhood and commit to helping people grow in this area. Stewardship is not a financial ministry; it is a discipleship ministry. If people don’t hear teaching and preaching about money, they are left exposed to one of Satan’s favorite tools.
In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says it is impossible to serve two masters. Either we will follow and serve the powerful force of Mammon (greedy pursuit of wealth) or we will serve the one true God. It is not possible to do both.
In one of the saddest passages in Scripture, we experience a conversation between Jesus and a rich young ruler. In Luke 18, the intelligent and influential man asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus engages him in conversation and learns that the man believes he has kept the commandments from an early age. Knowing the one thing holding the young ruler back, Jesus asks him to part with his wealth and follow. When confronted with prioritizing Jesus or his wealth, the rich young man chooses his wealth.
The stakes are high. We cannot leave our people lacking a clear understanding of the spiritual implications of their relationship with money.
As I’ve learned over time, if you build a healthy stewardship culture, your church will never be the same. Your people will grow closer to God, your congregation will experience increased spiritual vitality, and greater resources will be unleashed for kingdom impact.
Dave Briggs is currently the Stewardship Pastor at Central Christian Church of Arizona. Previously, he held the same position at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. He lives with his wife, Debbie, in Phoenix, and they have two grown sons and six grandkids. If you have any issues related to stewardship in the local church, contact Dave at Dave.Briggs@CentralAZ.com.