The language of Christian giving

I wish to register a complaint. It’s about how we, the church, talk about giving1The word “giving” in this context can be ambiguous. I am using it in this article to refer specifically the contributions made by church members to the common funds of the church.. I don’t mean them, the big stage TV millionaire prosperity doctrine teachers or the shady con men who ride on the back of honest Christianity. I mean us, the well-meaning local church which never has quite enough funds or willing hands for the work before us. The church which loves God, loves its members, loves its community, loves the wider world. The church which is not looking for a quick buck and will use well the money people offer. We, this church, are rubbish at talking about giving.

We’re bad at it for two reasons. First, we have the wrong paradigms. Second, we use the wrong words. Both are illustrated if we consider the common practice of sending thank you letters to church members. The (otherwise generally excellent) website offers several prime examples. One reads:

I am writing to express my grateful thanks for your continued generous support for the mission and ministry here at St. Someone’s through your regular giving. Our records show that you gave (include amount) to St Someone’s during the past year.

Once again thank you for your generosity and for your continued support and encouragement, all of which is greatly appreciated.

In this letter, what is the writer’s understanding of Christianity? First, there appears to be a division between the church and the givers. Or, perhaps, between the church leaders and the givers. The pronouns are all “I” / “we” vs “you”. How does this square with Jesus’ great prayer that we may be “one” as he and the Father are one (John 17:11)? Or with the practice of the early church who “were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44)? Or with St Paul’s description of the church as “one body” (Romans 12)?

The church is an “us”, it is first person. Who, in the letter above, is the “you”, the second person pronoun? Such a letter to an independent well-wisher of the church makes sense. But to write in this way to a member places them outside the “us” – I do not think it is too extreme to call this a form of excommunication!

So there’s a Christian paradigm here which is at stake, the paradigm of mutuality. Mutuality is a particularly important paradigm in an individualistic world in which isolation and loneliness are so prevalent. Mutuality is desperately important to the church which cannot help but be infected by the individualism of our age. And our simple thank you letter becomes one more torpedo exploding into the good ship mutuality, holing her below the water line.

The language problem is more insidious. The writer of the letter above may be fully committed to the paradigm of mutuality. But how to express this? We’re pretty much forced by the structure of English to use I / you language. One trick I have found is to embed personal pronouns within a larger “us” clause. One might say something like “I am writing to you as a fellow member of our church”. This takes great care because we’re not used to using the language this way. But it is deeply important that we take this care – otherwise our words will smuggle across all kinds of false paradigms against all our best intentions.

A particular instance of “you” language is in the phrase “thank you”. To thank someone is indelibly an I vs you action. An easy way to avoid this language is to use words like “acknowledge”, “celebrate” or “encourage”. These words allow the use of “I” because of the role “I” takes. This stems from the “body of Christ” metaphor. For example it is absolutely right for the treasurer to “acknowledge” the fact of a financial transaction: that’s their job, just as the mouth’s job is to speak. It is equally right for a leader to “celebrate” or “encourage”.

But there is a deeper point to be found here. There is nothing wrong with thanking as long as we thank for something that is appropriate. “I thank God that you are part of our community” is lovely and fitting. “I thank you for being part of us” also works, I think. Or just “I am so glad to share with you in this church”.

Another false paradigm in the letter is that Christian givers are “supporters” of the church. Certainly, Christians may be supporters of all kinds of organisations, but not of the church. Christians are members of the church. Members throw themselves into the common life of church, they are involved. Members are the church 24/7 wherever they are, whatever they are doing.

We borrow the words “support” and “supporter” from the charity sector2I know the Charity Commission views churches as charities and we accept that definition for tax and other financial purposes. But we must be careful not to let the Charity Commission’s definitions, which are constructed for political purposes, determine our identity., in which there is a transaction to be made. A supporter gives benevolently. The charity receives and, in turn, gives benevolently. Somewhere along the line, there is a recipient. The blessing flows as a one-way transaction, from supporter/benefactor to the recipient.

The church is not like this. The word that characterises the church is “sharing”. Together, we contribute and partake of all the goodness God has given us and we share that goodness with anyone else in our orbit. There is no transaction here and no directionality – sharing is chaotic and goes in every which way, in and out in a complex dance.

The other danger of the charity paradigm is the “worthy cause”. Charities are worthy causes (hopefully). Church is not. Christianity is not. Discipleship is not. The Christian life is a root and branch transformation of every aspect of the Christian’s existence into a new creation that is worthy of a place in the Kingdom of God. The church is caught up in the revolution to end all revolutions, the great meta-narrative which culminates in the consummation of all the ages. Church, at its best, is a terrifying, dangerous, holy, glorious, healing, reconciling, life-changing, life-giving reflection of this revolution.

How can our language be improved here? In this case it’s easy. We must ban the words “support” and “supporter”. Far better words are “share”, “contribute” / “contribution” and “participate” / “participation”.

A far trickier word is “give”. Even I, in this article, cannot escape using the word. It is far too embedded in our Christian language. But think about the paradigm here: whose money (or talents) is it that I am “giving”? Is it not all God’s anyway, for the benefit of all people? Right back at the beginning, in the garden of Eden, God simply says to the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden,” (Genesis 2:16), not, “You may eat of these and someone else may eat of those and anyone wanting to eat of someone else’s tree must pay for it.” I believe this pattern is apparent throughout the dealings of God and man, not least in the Jubilee laws in Leviticus 25, the feeding of the 5000 and 4000 in the gospels and the life of the early church in Acts 2 and Acts 4.

But sin enters in and we each take possession of parts of God’s abundant creation to the exclusion of everyone else. Being a Christian entails repenting of this sin and the relinquishing of all things we would prefer to hold on to, even our very lives: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). So we give our all to God. This, really, is the one moment of giving in the Christian life. Everything beyond that is merely detail. I don’t give to my church, I allocate part of God’s abundance which he has placed in my care to common church funds.

I try to avoid using the words “give” and “giving”. But where I find I have to use them, I try to mitigate their use by adding explanatory clauses which bias the reading in the right direction. Or, as in the case here, adding a fuller explanation. The occasional sermon on the subject also helps.

So much for the letter. We have other problematic paradigms and language uses beyond this example. I’ll leave it as a exercise to the reader to consider how giving might be seen as paying for a service, or paying club fees. Or, in a similar vein, the problems with the idea that Christians are “volunteers” within the church.

Let me end with a picture of Christian giving. To me, it is like a bring and share meal. People bring along all sorts of different things. Everyone partakes freely, regardless of whether they brought anything along at all. There is an abundance of food, and no one goes short. The table is open to all, regardless of whether they are part of the group whose meal it is.

This is different from, for example, a meal at a fancy restaurant, or meals on wheels, or a private family meal, or a soup kitchen meal, or many other types of meal.

When speaking of Christian giving, might it not be good to ask, “What kind of meal do these words describe”? And if the answer is not “bring and share”, more work is needed.

1 The word “giving” in this context can be ambiguous. I am using it in this article to refer specifically the contributions made by church members to the common funds of the church.
2 I know the Charity Commission views churches as charities and we accept that definition for tax and other financial purposes. But we must be careful not to let the Charity Commission’s definitions, which are constructed for political purposes, determine our identity.

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