Be Generous—Give People and Money
A few days before “the day” arrived, I sat in my office and cried. We were about to do a great thing, a “gospel thing,” and send away about 30 of our members and all their kids to plant a new work on the other side of the city. Our launch Sunday was days away and I had decided to preach on John 12:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
The death I saw before my eyes was manifold. People I really loved were really leaving: an elder, some deacons, several ministry leaders, family members, and good friends. For the foreseeable future, they would have that rush of excitement of starting something new. The following Sunday, we would be left understaffed with a smaller budget and a whole lot of lonely. More than that, we would never be the same. The old version of us was gone.
Don’t get me wrong, I was all for the plan. The whole church was. But there was a dark cloud on the horizon that Thursday afternoon.
John 12:25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Dying, losing, and hating sound almost romantic in the abstract. But now, here we were. We were about to risk pain and loss. But we were taking God at his Word. We wanted to be about “much fruit” and “eternal life” and the hope of being on the same page as our Savior.
John 12:26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
So, we sought to be as generous with this group as we thought we could wisely be. There is no formula to these things. We promised (and delivered) salary and help and prayers and encouragement, but we also failed to think of a thousand other things we might have done to strengthen our friends in the Lord (see 1 Samuel 23:16). Still, we tried to do our best and take Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders as our own: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35)
“It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” How we wanted to live that out the best we could. I can tell you: Jesus didn’t lie. Through the years, we’ve found that trying to be generous with our time, scant resources, people, space, and leaders has brought us the joy he promised.
I wonder sometimes if we get this mixed up. Sending away my faithful and capable associate pastor to the other side of the city was slug to the gut. It didn’t feel good. I loved working with him! I still love him. Yet we could identify need in that part of our metropolis, and we all agreed it would be good to try and plant there. And I think without Jesus’ instruction through Paul I would have been tempted to hang on to what we had, rather than attempt to do anything about that need. On the surface, keeping everything status quo, continuing to build our own church—that looked like the path to joy!
But Jesus tells us there is joy in generosity. In giving. In dying to our preferences and pleasures. In taking the way of the cross rather than the way of collection.
It would be a lie to say the joy was immediate, or even sustained. Not long after they left, our own church surged in attendees. Now we had fewer elders and deacons and more need. We were getting run down and did not realize the Lord had things yet to teach us about working in his strength.
John 15:5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
Ah, this deceptive heart! So quick to turn everything true upside-down. I thought our generosity would earn us some relaxation. Surely, this was where we would find our joy. But God had other plans.
I speak here mainly in the first person or on behalf of us as elders, but the entire membership was in on this. In fact, the reason I preached that sermon from John 12 was that I did not want them to be surprised by the death of our old church. Things were going to be different. Members had to give up friendships and co-laborers and “a way of doing church.” New leaders had to be born, new office holders needed to step up, and new ways of doing things had to take place. This required the church as a whole to be generous. Praise God they were.
And they remain so.
This spirit of generosity has (I hope and pray) settled into the DNA of our church. We buy books to give away, we hold a monthly pastors fellowship to encourage local ministers, we just this year sent another pastor down the road with another 30 of our members to help re-ignite a sister congregation. We have temporarily taken in the membership of still another local church for a season to help them navigate out of some difficult waters. I hope we are doing all these things with the cross in mind.
Jesus gave up his life for us. That thought should startle us. He was generous with his entire self, so when we can find spots to act with generosity, we are aligning ourselves with the very core of the gospel message. To hoard resources and stockpile people should feel foreign to followers of Christ. We ought to glory in giving!
I am thankful for one local church pastor I watched like a hawk in my college and seminary days. He plugged away at the same local church for a gazillion years and kept on planting, revitalizing, sending, and sowing long before it was hip. I once added up the total number of members of all the congregations his church had planted and realized, if all these folks had stayed under his roof, he would have been the pastor of one of the largest churches in Los Angeles.
But he was different. He was all about giving people opportunity, raising up new leaders, and planting new churches. He was also one of the most joyful and content people I have ever met. I decided way back then I wanted to be like him. I saw something in his life that rang true. Generosity. It wasn’t until writing this article that it dawned on me that he was the first person I ever heard preach John 12:24. No wonder he preached it with power. He had lived it.
All told, we have helped to plant three churches and strengthen two others over the course of the last twenty years. We ourselves were a plant that started with a whopping six people. All of these efforts cost us. They required us to give time and money and attention and prayers and people. They also required us to give up things that would have made for an easier life. So, in many ways, we look back on these years with wonder. How exactly did God allow us to do these things? I also wonder: what more could we have done if we had risked even more?
In Malachi, God asks his people why they weren’t being generous toward him: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. (3:10)”
Taking all the particulars of her covenant relationship into account, one cannot help but note how God loves generosity. He loves it so much that he will not allow himself to be outgiven. As Paul tells the Corinthians, “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2 Cor. 9:6)”
Perhaps it all boils down to whether or not we believe the call to discipleship that Jesus gave his followers:
And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:29–34)
Pray to be a church with a generous heart.