The 10 percent solution

Fred Clark calls churchgoers to consume responsibly and consider supporting Sunday Stewardship more generously.

“Stewardship Sunday” in many churches is the day we talk about our giving. In the church where I grew up this meant filling out our “faith promise” pledges for our annual giving. A giant, gradually reddening thermometer-graph tracked our pledges against the proposed church budget for the year.

In an atmosphere somewhere between a revival meeting and a PBS fundraising drive, church members wrote and re-wrote their pledges as the temperature slowly warmed, securing the budget for utilities, Sunday school materials and foreign missions support for the next fiscal year. “The Lord loveth a cheerful giver,” the pastor exhorted, and we cheerfully celebrated when the red line reached the top of the graph.

Our church took tithing seriously. We were sincere (if selective) about taking the Bible literally, which meant giving (or at least pledging) a biblical 10 percent. That put us well above the national average - American churchgoers typically give less than three percent of their income to charity.

You’ve heard all this before, of course, in the standard “stewardship” sermons of the fiscal/liturgical calendar. From here the sermon usually heads in one of two predictable directions.

The first, a Stewardship Sunday perennial, condemns the stinginess of the church, calling us to live up to the biblical ideal of the tithe. This sermon reminds us of God’s command to “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so” (Deut. 15:10). Three percent is nothing to brag about, it rightly reminds us, we need to give more.

What does our giving support?

The second variation focuses not only on how much (or how little) we give, but on what our giving supports. We give three percent to “charity,” but that includes everything from art galleries to alma maters to local churches. How much of this money goes to ministry? How much goes to those in need?

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that one year these ritual sermons were effective. Suppose churchgoers began giving not just three percent, or even 10 percent, but 30 percent - and it went to support the worthiest missions and ministries, serving those who need it most. It would be the best-ever Stewardship Sunday - cause for rejoicing among church treasurers and the angels in heaven.

But what about the other 70 percent?

Most of us can and should give more than we do now.

Yet this would still mean spending far more than we give. What does it mean to be stewards of all our money - not just the money we give, but the money we spend and save? The annual sermons are right: three percent stewardship won’t do. But neither would 30 percent. True “stewardship” requires more than being cheerful givers - it also requires us to be stewardly spenders.

Talk of spending recalls another traditional yearly sermon - the yuletide condemnation of “consumerism.” This sermon, too, gets it mostly right, railing against consumerism-as-religion and the orgy of shopping and selling that overwhelms our holy day. [Here insert platitudes about “the reason for the season” and “putting ‘Christ’ back in ‘Christmas’.”] If we act as though our highest or only function is to consume, we end up exploiting others while making ourselves shallow, miserable, and overwhelmed with debt. We are, indeed, more than consumers.

We are more than consumers, but we are consumers.

Responsible consumption

Merely railing against consumerism or consumption can’t change that or provide us any positive options. Blanket condemnations of consumerism offer us only a vague sense of guilt. And since we’re North Americans, we are tempted to distract ourselves from that guilt and discomfort by, say, hitting the mall to buy a new outfit or gadget.

We consume. We must. The question, therefore, is how to do so responsibly. Or, as Wendell Berry puts it, “carefully”:

“There are, then, two laws that we had better take to be absolute. The first is that as we cannot exempt ourselves from living in this world, then if we wish to live, we cannot exempt ourselves from using the world. … If we cannot exempt ourselves from use, then we must deal with the issues raised by use. And so the second law is that… we cannot exempt use from care.”

Taking responsibility as stewards means taking care - care for how and where the products we buy are made, grown and assembled; and care for the people who provide the services we purchase (even the invisible ones).

* Fred Clark is the Managing Editor of Prism magazine. He lives in Media, Pennsylvania. Reprinted courtesy of Prism magazine.

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