Why do we give to outreach?

Incarnation gives away 15% of its income every year to local and global outreach partners in accordance with our outreach priorities. In addition, at Christmas, Easter, and occasionally other times of year (e.g. in response to war or natural disaster), we collect special additional offerings for outreach ministries beyond our usual partnerships. Our Deacon, the Rev. David Griffin, has written a helpful rationale for why we give in this way.

Deacons were traditionally tasked with keeping the church connected to the needs of the world, as seen in this Fra Angelico fresco of Stephen, the first deacon. St. Peter Consecrates Stephen as Deacon (L) and St. Stephen Distributing Alms (R), Niccoline Chapel, Apostolic Palace (1400-1455)

It’s that time of year again. As Easter approaches, more and more Christian organizations are taking the opportunity to raise funds for various causes. For my part, it encourages me during the seasons of Easter and Christmas that there’s at least one area in our culture when the average person can still take charitable giving for granted. It just feels like the right thing to do. For all its intuitive appeal, however, it may not be obvious why, as a worshiping community, we at Incarnation Anglican Church take up special offerings during Advent and Holy Week beyond our normal patterns of giving.

As a member of our Outreach Committee, I’ve been invited to reflect on why we give, and why we often choose new or different ministries to give to. You might consider the following remarks as a sort of expansion on my homily from Ash Wednesday, and an invitation to put some of it into practice.

So first, why do we give at all? The reason lies in Jesus’ simple message about money: our currency is collapsing, because the world is ending.

It’s not that dollars are in free-fall in currency exchanges. Jesus was not foretelling of the collapse of the ruble, nor speculating (more plausibly) on the Roman denarius. Jesus warned that, because the Kingdom of God is at hand, all earthly stores of value were rapidly depreciating. Do not store up your treasures on earth, he ordered his followers, because thieves break in and steal them, and moth and rust destroy whatever the thieves leave behind. The only secure treasury is heaven itself (Matt. 6:19-21).

If you would like to exchange perishable treasure for the imperishable kind, then sell what you have and give it to the poor (Luke 12:32-34; 18:22), and follow Jesus. If you have a surplus of, say, grain, give it away. Whatever you do, don’t tear down your small barns to make room for bigger ones to secure your future enjoyment in this present life. For tonight your life may be required of you (Luke 12:16-21). Jesus often spoke this way about the final reckoning when the Kingdom comes in its fullness (which, on this side of the Ascension, we call his Second Coming).

If we want the wider world to take our expectation of Jesus’ return seriously, we could hardly do better than by giving away our money and possessions. I can’t help but think of it in terms of that modern literary masterpiece, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. An alien posing as a human, Ford Prefect, is not pleased to learn that the Earth will be demolished to build a galactic highway, which means his years of research about the planet will have gone to waste. So he takes his hapless human friend to a pub for a few drinks, where naturally no one believes Ford’s matter-of-fact pronouncements that the Earth will be destroyed within minutes. That is, until Ford goes to pay the bartender.

…Turning quickly to the barman [Ford] asked for four packets of peanuts.

“There you are, sir,” said the barman, slapping the packets on the bar, “twenty-eight pence if you’d be so kind.”

Ford was very kind—he gave the barman another five-pound note and told him to keep the change. The barman looked at it and then at Ford. He suddenly shivered…

The barman reeled for a moment, hit by a shocking, incomprehensible sense of distance. He didn’t know what it meant, but he looked at Ford Prefect with a new sense of respect, almost awe.

“Are you serious, sir?” he said in a small whisper which had the effect of silencing the pub. “You think the world’s going to end?”

I love that exchange. Everyone around him writes off Ford’s words about the imminent passing of this world. Only after he leaves a lavish tip does it register to anyone that Ford means what he says. No one who expects the world to go on for more than a few minutes lets you keep that much change. As satirical as the humor may be about human magnanimity, Ford’s reckless generosity validates his claims about the future.

Second, what’s the value in giving to a variety of different ministries?

Over the past few years I’ve seen a few critiques of charitable giving, of all things. One of the more interesting objections is that, in the United States at least, individuals often give small amounts to many different causes, rather than large amounts to one cause. The latter form of giving, the argument goes, would be a much more effective use of donated funds or goods. The basic idea is sound: imagine we had one dollar to give to every person on earth. With over $7 billion at our disposal, there must surely be a better way to improve some people’s lives than by giving everyone a single dollar, which is so diffuse as to be no help at all. But the criticism is still misguided.

For one thing, we’re concerned about more than the effectiveness of dollars, even though that’s important. We’re building relationships. There are ministries both in our own backyard and in places all over the world that are doing really important work. They help people in myriad ways. Intentionally giving to different organizations allows us to build bridges with both the people who serve and with the communities served, and we learn about the institutional mechanisms that connect the two. We discover needs in communities near and far that we might not ever hear about or, if we do hear about them, they might not catch our attention. By giving widely, we keep our sympathies wide.

Moreover, Jesus taught that when someone asks you for something, you give it, and more. “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Luke 6:30; Matt. 5:42). That teaching alone should bias the disciple of Jesus toward promiscuous charity. There are, of course, many factors to consider when a person or organization asks for a contribution. If we plan to actually live as disciples of Jesus, to practice what He preached, then we cannot neglect practical considerations.

But all too often we let these considerations come before Christ’s command, as though the question were whether to give, not how to give. To be sure, His teaching at face value is supremely unreasonable. But then, no one ever accused Jesus of being too reasonable. His statements about giving will naturally tempt us to spiritualize them, to tame them by reading Jesus’ words figuratively. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m as much a devotee of reading the Bible according to its spiritual sense as anybody (see my homily inspired by Origen). Yet in this case, the literal sense of scripture serves to keep us honest. It ought to haunt our practical concerns towards our finances and serving the needs of others. All of which is to say, we should err in the direction of understanding Jesus to mean something like, “have compassion first, ask questions later.”

It is therefore entirely appropriate, even necessary, to give broadly, and trust God to supply us with the necessary wisdom to do it well. Fortunately, we are blessed with an abundance of wonderful organizations to partner with as we consider how best to answer Jesus’ call to give.

- David Griffin