It is a question every pastor faces on a regular basis. It is a question every conference speaker faces in panel discussions or Q&A sessions: How much of my money do I give to the church? How much should I give to the church?
My answer is short: Enough that it matters. Let me explain what I mean by that.
In Corinthians 16:2 Paul instructs the church to take a weekly collection in which each person is to give “as he may prosper.” This tells us that there will be different levels of giving. Some will give more and some will give less. God has prospered us differently–he has given us all different levels of income and wealth and with it different amounts to give back to him.
(Aside: For various reasons I do not believe that we are instructed or obligated to give the tithe, the flat 10% that was a minimal expectation in the Old Testament. Those who demand tithing today usually fail to understand the Old Testament context where the tithe was a tax as much as a donation; it was a means of providing for the civil and religious structures in that society. Since we are no longer a theocracy, the tithe is no longer operational. It may be a helpful bit of information to include in a discussion but it’s not the place to begin.)
When I say we are to give enough that it matters, I mean that we should give enough that it makes a difference to our lives, to our lifestyles. Erwin Lutzer says it well: “Those who give much without sacrifice are reckoned as having given little.” We are meant to give enough that there are things we cannot do and cannot have because of our dedication to the Lord’s work. Let me be clear that I do not mean that we should do without food or we should do without paying our bills. The sacrifice is to be ours and not the bank’s or the landlord’s. Giving “as he may prosper” is not calling us to give beyond the ways the Lord has prospered us. There are theological traditions that insist that going into debt in order to “plant a seed” will ensure God’s provision in return. God may choose to do that, but wisdom dictates that we ensure that we are able to pay our bills and feed our children. We are to be generous, but we are to be wise as well.
For some people, giving away 10% may mean they are giving enough that it matters. Maybe they cannot have quite the vacation they would otherwise have; maybe they are buying a used car instead of a new one; maybe they are saving for an extra couple of years before fixing up the kitchen or putting the down payment on that home. For other people this may come when they are giving 2% of their income. For others it may come when they are giving 75%. My encouragement is to keep raising the amount you give until you feel it, until it matters.
Giving that does not impact our lives at all is not sacrificial and, therefore, not enough. C.S. Lewis expresses this in a helpful way: “If our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”
How much am I to give? Enough that it matters. Enough that I am sacrificing some comforts and some experiences I would otherwise enjoy. What the Lord teaches those who give this way is that the joy of giving, both now and eternally, far outweighs what we could have had instead. We don’t give because God needs our money; we give to show our gratitude and our dependence, and in return he returns joy. So many Christians can attest that there is a powerful, humbling kind of delight in tallying up the giving for a previous year and thanking the Lord for allowing so much to be given away. That car or kitchen or house pales in comparison to the joy of making so small a sacrifice to the One who sacrificed all for us.