Statistics show that only 20 percent of regular church attendees regularly give financial support. Why are the other 80 percent getting lost? There are lots of possible answers to that question, so we’re giving them time and consideration in this 4-part series. In Part 1, we considered the barrier of simplicity, and in Part 2 we discussed a deeper connection to the story of giving. Part 3 addressed the potential for a lack of trust. And today, we’re wrapping up the series by tackling our final barrier to church giving: fear of finances.
The Purpose of Fear
In case you haven’t seen Pixar’s Inside Out yet, fear is a pretty important part of the human psyche. Without spoiling the story, fear does have a purpose: to keep us safe from harm. Fear warns when our fingertips get close to the edge of a knife, makes us jump back from the attacking shrubbery, pulls us back from the sound of an oncoming car. Fear triggers fight-or-flight responses in answer to threats. It’s not hard to see why fear is especially tricky when it comes to financial stability, which is so closely connected to our basic needs for food, shelter, and Netflix. And as much as people like to be generous, when the fear of not having enough of anything comes into play, that tends to shut down generosity pretty quickly.
Count on it that fear—in one context or another—is a primary reason why 80 percent of your church doesn’t give regularly.
A Salary of $17,500
My first job after college took me to the expensive Bay Area of California on a salary of $17,500, where renting a condo with three roommates meant a rent bill that was 60 percent of my income. Let’s put it this way: I’m familiar with financial fear.
After 3 years in California, working for a Christian school and then at a church, I was just barely scraping by financially. It was in this moment of ‘barely enough’ that everything happened at once: my roommates decided to move, my car broke down, and my job looked more unstable than usual. I met with the executive pastor, who cheerfully and bluntly told me that my intuition was correct—the full-time job and raise I had hoped for were out of the question.
He Had Effectively Blown Up the Last Floodgate
“If that’s what you need, it might be time for you to think about moving on,” he suggested briskly when I expressed my hopes regarding the job. I’m sure he was unaware that he had effectively blown up the last floodgate keeping me and my few belongings dry. I turned in my month’s notice, drove to my house in a daze, sat on the stairs, and had a panic attack. I managed to call my parents, who very nearly called emergency services. I was desperately afraid, and it wasn’t just being anxious about changes in life. Facing the fact that I could not support myself financially in the most basic ways terrified me. Fight or flight took over.
I decided to move home to Washington state. In less than a month, I effectively closed down my fledgling independent-adult life. I sold my car to the mechanic for $500. I moved out. My mom flew down and we packed my things in a rented minivan and drove the 900 miles back to Washington.
Even after the dust settled, in Pixar terms, Fear was in the driver’s seat for a while. Church was scary, finances were scary (I hadn’t gone deep in debt, but close enough to make me nervous), looking for a job was terrifying, and even forging new friendships seemed like an impossible challenge.
A few things happened in my life when fear was in control:
1. I couldn’t differentiate between risk and threat
I know fear is driving when I find myself taking over control of my security to a greater degree than usual–financially, relationally, or spiritually. Certain risky activities, those defined as demanding trust and letting go of control, get confused with true threats. Things like giving money away, trusting church leaders, and investing in new relationships require vulnerability and trust in order to work well. But being vulnerable is a huge risk, and when you’re in fight-or-flight, risk looks too much like threat to be worth it.
In the aftermath of moving back home after 3+ years, it probably wasn’t unusual that I needed time to adjust. But in retrospect, I can see that fear had taken hold in my heart, and it certainly took a long while to start trusting people again. Odds are that some of your 80 percent are here. What they are going to need is a safe space to learn to trust again, opportunities to talk through the damage, and chances to take baby steps to vulnerability and bravery again.
2. The truth was scary, so I hid
This is the oldest scary story in the Bible. Adam, after eating the fruit and understanding his own vulnerabilities for the first time, answers God from the bushes of the garden of Eden: “I was afraid, and so I hid from you.”
After I failed so spectacularly, as I saw it, finances were one area I really didn’t want to think about, so I stopped dealing with money in reasonable ways. Though I was working again, I vacillated between spending too much (and being afraid) and being cheap (and being afraid). I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not the only one who has walked this path. Many churches have offered financial freedom courses to help their members better understand these fears, and these are a great resource. Luckily, I had a sister who worked at a bank. She took the time to go through basic budgeting with me, and I found that the more I understood my finances, the less fear could take control. The thing is, I know there are people who never get this far, who hide out—and end up living life—on the fringes of fear around money, whose tithes come in regularly until their car needs repairing or the kids’ college tuition bills arrive. Though not all of your 80 percent fall into this category, what could happen if just a few of them were empowered to kick fear out of the driver’s seat with some simple financial management tools. Millennials are at particular risk of falling into this category, with only 24% having basic financial literacy which will very easily affect their courage to give openly and sacrificially.
3. I forgot that it wasn’t all about me
Like Pete Docter’s beautiful story in Inside Out shows, fear is more than a little self-centered. Fear’s job is to laser-focus on self-sufficiency. Bill Hader, as the voice of the character Fear in the movie, says happily at the end of a day, “We did not die today! I call that an unqualified success!”
But while Fear is focused on not dying today, the rest of us has little opportunity to do more than survive. There’s a huge difference between surviving and thriving.The ironic part is that truly living and thriving does need to involve a little bit of dying (Luke 9:23). It involves the “risk” of trusting God, of understanding that true security rests in God’s control, not mine. This is how we die to the fear, rather than succumb to it.
The ironic part is that truly living and thriving does need to involve a little bit of dying [Luke 9:23]. It involves the “risk” of trusting God, of understanding that true security rests in God’s control, not mine. This is how we die to the fear, rather than succumb to it.
Is Fear Your Master?
If you’ve ever heard a sermon on finances, it’s a good bet that the beautiful parable of the talents in Matthew 25 helped to illustrate the issue of how Christians are to think about our time, skills, and money. You know the story: the Master went away on a long journey, leaving ten talents with one servant, five talents with another, and one talent with a third. Two servants make good on the investment, wisely and faithfully expanding the money in the master’s absence. The third, driven by fear, hides what he has in the ground, vowing to lose nothing. This, of course, does not end well; the third servant is scolded for being fearful, and his talent is given to the first servant.
It’s not exactly a happy ending. The servant didn’t lose the talent on accident, he didn’t steal it, he didn’t technically do anything wrong with it. But by letting fear drive, he canceled the opportunity for the talent to grow and make a difference for his leader. He gave his allegiance to Fear, instead of his master.
We often think money is an ownership problem. What I found to be true in my own life is that it was more of an authority problem.
Don’t Forget Your Young Volunteers
A little plug here for the young staff members who often work at churches and ministries: these young’uns work hard (not always effectively, but definitely hard) for the church because they love their leaders and they love Jesus. They ask for little other than a small paycheck and a free lunch now and then. Many work side jobs, share rooms, or live with their parents because they are working for a church or nonprofit. I showed up at 5:30AM on Sunday mornings to open a coffee shop, and I stayed until the youth service ended at 10:00PM on Sunday night, and only half of that day was paid. I was there because I loved being there.
But they may be among the 80 percent. In fact, it’s pretty likely. What better group to teach financial freedom to? They already love you. They already want to be there. You may not be able to pay them more, but empowering them to keep fear out of the driver’s seat could be a great gift.