I stumbled into Christian stewardship quite by accident. It was not on my list of interests or career choices, but following God is not like mapping out the shortest route on your GPS.
As a child I learned to tithe from my father. It was never a legalistic type of thing where you have to give a tenth or else God will be mad. It was just something we did.
I never gave it much thought until I found myself working as a stewardship professional.
There have been several significant changes to stewardship during my lifetime.
When I was a child, it was common to believe in tithing. However, during my teenage years, people began to teach that tithing is legalistic and it is much more consistent with Jesus to be generous without specific guidelines. Tithing fell out of favor with many.
However, this article is not about the tithe. The subject concerns another cosmic shift in stewardship teaching by the church, one that will have a devastating effect.
About halfway through my time of working in stewardship, there was a new interest in teaching money management.
Church leaders concluded that one of the reasons people did not give generously to the church was because the desperate condition of their finances made it impossible.
I saw the value of this approach and joined the parade by adding a financial management component to our material.
It got out of control, reaching the point that churches were only interested in teaching people how to handle their finances.
Christian programs consisted of little more than quoting a few Bible verses in between guidelines for spending, saving, investing and budgeting.
The logical next step was to focus on getting out of debt, trusting that people would be generous givers once they were out of debt.
Along came Dave Ramsey, who made headlines recently when former employees spoke about the negative work environment at his Nashville-based Lampo Group.
Perhaps his biggest strength is the ability to make money. He took the “get out of debt” mantra to new heights, found a way to make money from helping folks get out of debt, and took the church stewardship world by storm.
Churches quickly abandoned traditional stewardship teaching in favor of “Financial Peace.”
My experience with fund-raising is that the folks who are going to make a multimillion dollar campaign successful are not in debt—at least, not consumer debt.
Another thing I learned over the years is that getting out of debt does not make people generous givers.
The real problem is that Christians have anointed Ramsey as the stewardship sage and essentially redefined stewardship teaching as good money management or, more narrowly, as getting out of debt.
The result is that we have made Dave Ramsey wealthy and robbed the church of an important doctrine—stewardship.
It is probably accurate to say that the vast majority of churches that deliberately teach stewardship do it through a Dave Ramsey course.
Historically, biblical stewardship has led the church to take positions that are no longer considered to be Christian positions:
Stewardship education used to teach the value of taking care of the earth. Now, most evangelical Christians stand in opposition to environmental initiatives under the guise that they might harm the economy.
For centuries, the church taught the danger of having too much. Now, the emphasis seems to be on accumulating more and more because it is good for the economy.
Taking care of one another has always been a Christian focus. Now, many Christians complain about those who don’t or can’t take care of themselves and voice strong opposition to welfare and healthcare programs that give help to others.
Stewardship is not about wealth and accumulation. Church stewardship is not about large buildings and generous payrolls.
Christian stewardship is learning to live with an open hand, not hanging onto the things of the world, but releasing them to be used by God and others.
This has very little to do with developing successful consumers. It is not the task of the church to teach people how to operate successfully in the world, but rather how to live successfully in a kingdom that is not of this world.
I suspect church history will eventually record that the American church in the early 21st century was prosperous, building multimillion dollar facilities and having the resources to provide entertainment and recreational extravaganzas.
This is not surprising since the Pied Piper we are following is a national media celebrity living in a $6.5 million mansion on a hill outside Nashville.
We have come a long way from the example of our founder who declared that he had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) and did not even own a change of clothes.
Terry Austin is one of the pastors at Bread Fellowship Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He is also the principal partner of Austin Brothers Publishing. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Intermission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @wterrya.