Of the many questions that people perennially ask pastors, some of the most uncomfortable ones are about financial giving. Most of the questions I get about money go back to the idea of the tithe, the Old Testament principle of giving the first 10 percent of our income back to God. (For those who are curious, you can read my thoughts on tithing here.) But another huge question I get is about the destination of our giving. In other words, should I be giving to my local church, or is it OK to redirect my “tithe” to other ministries?
To cut to the punchline, I don’t believe Christians should give only to the local church, but I do believe that Christians should give first to their local church. In the Old Testament system, the tithe went to the work of God’s institution, the temple. Other important things, like funding itinerant rabbis, or providing for the poor, came from giving beyond the tithe. The principle there, I think, is that the firstfruits of our giving should go to God’s new institution, the church.
But maybe, you say, the Old Testament is not supposed to set the pattern for our giving. In the New Testament, however, we see the believers (in Acts 2 and Acts 4) giving their money, not to specific projects they were passionate about, but at the feet of the officers they had appointed in the church. And it was through the local church that the believers accomplished everything God had called them to.
As we say around here, the local church is God’s “Plan A.” It’s the vehicle through which we care for the poor, feed the hungry, equip people to minister in the community and send people out to the nations. When we give to the local church, we give to the central institution for the mission of God.
Just so you know, writing that is really convicting for me as a leader. Money given to The Summit Church is given to the mission of God. I will answer to God for what we did with it. We believe, therefore, that the church should set the example for people by giving extraordinary amounts away to missions and the care for the poor. Buildings or salaries can be a necessary expense of ministry, but we must also be careful not to become a stagnant pond where resources pool—when we should be a flowing river that enlivens the nations. We often say around The Summit, generosity is contagious, and so is stinginess. The institutional church should lead the way in being generous with its resources.
Should I give to a different church than I attend?
This whole “church-as-firstfruits” perspective can get tricky when people attend one church but want to give somewhere else. You might be surprised how often this comes up. And it works in both directions. For instance, I know of people at The Summit who give to their “home church” back in Anytown, Ga., because, “The Summit has plenty of money, but my home church doesn’t.” On the flip side, many people in smaller churches send money to The Summit, because, “The Summit preaches the gospel and is involved in God’s mission, but my church isn’t.”
Even if this ends up being a wash financially, it’s simply not a good situation. To the first group, I would say: The motivation to give to your local church shouldn’t be a lack of funds. You should be giving as a response to the grace of God in your life. And you know as well as I do that when you pour your resources into a place, your heart follows. Giving money to your local church is just one of a dozen ways that you and I say, “This is my church. This is my mission. I’m all-in.” Giving will inherently cause you to pray more and to pay better attention to how the church is stewarding its resources.
And to the second group, I would say: I can certainly understand wanting to give to what you might see as a bigger and more exciting ministry. But I can assure you: Every ministry and every church has mundane expenditures, even ours. It’s still best to give locally. The only relevant question is: Is your church following Christ in his mission? If so, then be the church were you are, and own it! And if not, perhaps it’s time for you to be part of the solution in your church, instead of funneling your resources elsewhere.
As for me, the majority of my post-tithe giving goes back to The Summit. I believe that deeply in our mission. But I will say—as I often do—that if you’re at The Summit and this seems self-serving or manipulative on my part, you have my blessing to give somewhere else. I mean it. I know God will take care of The Summit, and if bad experiences have made you cynical, I’d rather have you be faithful to Jesus and experience the joy of giving than have that part of your life impeded by skepticism about us.
But if you see your church doing what God has called it to do (give some grace here!), then honor God by making your first investment there. And after you do that, of course, there’s no reason to stop giving. Be generous to the poor; support missionaries; give to food shelters. Give first to your local church, and then let the Holy Spirit move you to give like a gospel-touched fool to everything God has put in your heart.