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God Lessons from the Great Recession

Several months ago my clergy support group discussed stewardship. We eventually got to the topic of stewardship sermons. When we did, a member of the group said, "When it comes to preaching about money, most preachers are wimps!" Unfortunately my colleague's comment is often true. When it comes to preaching on stewardship, clergypersons tend to be timid, tentative, and apologetic. However, the Bible is not timid about money at all. Since financial stewardship is a major biblical theme and since our churches need strong financial support to prosper, clergy need to become bolder about preaching on money.

Last fall our church engaged in a major emphasis on financial stewardship. During October all of our adult Sunday school classes studied Adam Hamilton's excellent little book, Enough. In support of that study, I preached a four-week sermon series on Christian finances called "God Lessons from the Great Recession." A brief synopsis of the series follows.

  1. Don't be a financial fool. The first sermon, based on Jesus' parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21, warned listeners not to make the acquisition of money and things their ultimate priority. To help make the point, I told my congregation about the classic movie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams. The movie tells the story of a rich and powerful old man called "Big Daddy." Tragically, in the end Big Daddy, like Jesus' rich fool, was absolutely bankrupt in things that really matter. The bottom line of the sermon was: don't let this happen to you.

  2. Follow God's financial plan. The second sermon laid out, in broad strokes, the following six biblical financial principles. A listening guide listing these principles and scripture references was provided.

    • Earn ethically (Hab. 2:6-9; Prov. 11:1).
    • Resist greed (Eccl. 5:10; 1 Tim. 6:9-10).
    • Spend modestly (1 Tim. 6:6-8; Heb. 13:5).
    • Avoid debt (Prov. 22:7; Rom. 13:8).
    • Save diligently (Prov. 21:20; Gen. 41:35-36).
    • Give Generously (Prov. 3:9; 1 Tim. 6:18).
  3. Cultivate a life of contentment. The third sermon grappled with the question, What brings true contentment? The text was Philippians 4:10-13, where Paul says, "I have learned to be content with whatever I have" (NRSV). I began the sermon by sharing important research from an excellent book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. According to the author, social scientists have discovered that once a person's basic needs have been met, additional money and possessions have virtually no impact on their contentment levels. So if money and things don't lead to contentment, what does? Although numerous factors contribute to our overall happiness, none is more important than gratitude. The remainder of the sermon laid out several strategies for enhancing gratitude, all based on the apostle Paul and the book of Philippians.

  4. Follow Dr. Green's final prescription. The title for this sermon came from the popular TV show ER, which ended a fifteen year run in 2009. In this television series Dr. Mark Green, one of the main characters, was about to die from a brain tumor. Before his death he shared his final words of advice to his daughter, his "final prescription" so to speak. He said to her, "Be generous. Be generous with your time. Be generous with your love. Be generous with your life. Be generous." This message, based on Proverbs 11:24-25 and Acts 20:35, was the only sermon in the series that focused directly on supporting the church financially. I shared my own testimony on tithing and encouraged members of the congregation not currently tithing (most of them!) to move in that direction. This small-group study and sermon series profoundly impacted our stewardship campaign. The campaign, carried out primarily through the mail, began immediately after the four-week emphasis. In spite of a terrible recession, more people pledged more money than ever before in the history of our church. In fact, pledges increased 13% from the year before. An increase of that amount would be remarkable any year, but given the horrible economy, it was almost miraculous. It proved to me that when church leaders creatively and boldly challenge their congregation to generously support God's work, the people of God will enthusiastically respond.

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