“We’ve always done it that way” –– a phrase to celebrate

What if this didn’t have to be a bad phrase?

We’re in the last month of the year. People are paying closer attention to their bank and credit card accounts. Some are lamenting rampant consumerism in America. Others are already making plans for how they’ll handle their money well in 2018. In light of that, each week for the rest of the year, I’ll be sharing an article on generosity for your consideration. If you’ve followed this blog for several years, you may recognize some of these. They were helpful for me to review again. I hope they will be for you, too.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? By the end of the year, research says there will be an 8% chance you’ve kept it.

Eight percent!

Why so low?

Because objects in motion stay in motion. Objects at rest stay at rest. To change their course or get them going, you need external force. And the bigger something is, the more force it requires. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever tried to push a car.

The same is true of your resolutions. They require change, a new force, willpower. And that means working against nature, working against what you’ve become accustomed to.

They say one of the best times to change a habit is when you move. Why? Because you’re already undergoing major, unavoidable change. While everything is in motion, you can get that new habit in motion, as well. It’s a natural new start. And it’s easier to start that way, than to try to change later.

That’s an important general truth––it’s easier to start that way. Changing later is hard.

“Because we’ve always done it that way” is a common phrase in corporate culture and church culture. It’s usually derided as a bad answer. But it’s also human nature. When we start doing things from the beginning, we’re likely to continue doing them.

How to use “we’ve always done it that way” for good

While we usually sneer at “we’ve always done it that way” as an uncritical, unreflective response, it can be just the opposite. Whenever you start something new (job, friendship, marriage, etc.), you have a great opportunity. Ask yourself this question:

Ten years from now, what do we want to look at and say, “We’ve always done it that way”?

Let’s take generosity as an extended example. I’m going to start with a thought about churches and then say something about families and individuals.


Several years ago, I was with the leader of a new church start in another state. They were about two years old at the time. He talked about how they were still trying to get established and hoped to start giving to missions and our denomination’s ministry fund (called apportionments) soon. They weren’t yet giving anything externally. Actually, they were receiving external funds.

That’s not unusual. They were two years old and still trying to get their feet under them.

About five years later, that new church start was still going. They had grown and hired multiple staff. I saw their pastor and asked how they were doing. Not well, it turned out. They had just learned they were losing their external funding, and they weren’t sure how they could survive without it. They were still giving nothing to missions or the denominational fund and still relying on external support.

How does that happen? They had grown and looked to be thriving! But from the beginning they had required every penny for themselves––plus some outside funding. And when their resources grew, their internal need grew equally. So that great ideal of starting to give some away remained just an ideal.

For new church starts, a wild and unusual suggestion: Ask yourselves how you want to be giving ten years from now, and then start giving like that on day one. Because if you choose to use everything internally until there’s “enough to spare,” you’re likely to find yourselves ten years later with still nothing to spare. And if you choose to give generously from day one, in year ten you’ll be able to say, “we’ve just always done it that way.”

First UMC’s model

I’m going to take a moment and celebrate the church and community I have the privilege to be a part of. I don’t intend it to brag––they’ve done this long before I arrived and apart from any of my leadership. I intend it to share a model I’ve learned from and hope others will follow.

First UMC has always been a generous church, and a few years ago, the leadership decided to automate it––no questions asked about whether to be generous. In lean years and good years alike. The church puts 12% of every dollar given immediately into a fund for missions and puts another 13% immediately toward our denominational fund (the full amount requested for that fund) ––which goes to support important missions locally and around the globe. That’s 25% out the door to support missions external to us. It’s automatic, immediate, no questions asked. In a difficult financial year, we don’t make ends meet by cutting our external giving. Not an option for consideration.

Since my community at First UMC (called Offerings) started, our leaders have never wavered on this. 25% goes out the door from the very first day. They want extravagant generosity to be part of our identity, and they don’t want that to start later. If you think you’ll start later, you may never get around to it. Our leaders want to say, “We’ve always done it that way.”

To be certain, this involves sacrifice. If we kept that extra $35,000, I can tell you quickly how we would use it. If we had an extra $70,000, I can tell you how we’d use it. But isn’t that always the case? There’s always something more. Always something more we would like or could use or even think we need. And that’s why if you don’t start giving generously from the beginning, it’s likely you never will. Changing that pattern doesn’t get easier when you get bigger. Remember trying to push that car from stand-still?


The same goes for individuals. So you’re just getting started at your first job, just barely scraping by? You couldn’t possibly be generous now. That’s for when you have more.

As your resources grow, so will your appetite. If you don’t set a pattern for generosity now, on that just-out-of-college budget, you’ll be shocked that you have just as little to spare on a nice 6-figure salary later. Even more, if you find that right now you need 110% just to get by (i.e. what you’re making isn’t quite enough to sustain, so you take on a bit of debt…), you’re likely to need 110% to get by, even when you’re making 6 figures. Even 7- and 8-figure earners aren’t immune. Sports Illustrated wrote here that 78% of NFL players were under financial stress within two years of retirement. Within 5 years of retirement, 60% of NBA players were broke.

Whether you’re just starting out, or just got a new job or raise… take advantage of anything new and ask whether you can start a new pattern now.

A big challenge for any of you who want extravagant generosity to be part of your identity… It’s 2017. What if you resolved to give away 17% of your income this year? And made it 18% next year? You see where this is going… If that’s impossible for you, then set your own numbers. If you go out for meals or Starbucks, have more than one TV / movie / music subscription, or stand in line for the newest iGadgets (as just a few examples), you should be able to aim for 10% minimum … or think about scaling back some of those other things. [This comes from my own convicting experience. See, “I wish I could give more.”]

Years from now, someone may ask how you––as a church, or a family, or an individual––can be so generous. And I hope you might be able to say, “I don’t know. We’ve just always done it that way.”

2 thoughts on ““We’ve always done it that way” –– a phrase to celebrate

  1. This is hands-down the best article I’ve read in weeks. Thank you! On a personal note, my wife has been an indispensable blessing to me in this regard. I have a disposition which tends to revert to a rote, mechanical “generosity,” and she has certainly helped me come up out of myself in this aspect. Ah, the gift of marriage.

    Your criticism of New Start churches is right on the money (no pun intended). Most view the Church parasitically: individually and local church wise. The dominant conception (and this is the dominant political conception of society in general) is that the Church exists for the local congregation which exists for the individual person. There is something very modern and capitalistic in this construal. It reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous statement that society does not exist; only individuals exist. If the Church is truly the Body of Christ, the very real Body of Christ, then these political imaginings deconstruct entirely. The Body gives life to her members, and the members constitute the Body (and are not external to it). Such reciprocity is embodied perfectly in the Trinity in the Father who completely empties his divinity in begetting the Son (or in the procession of the Spirit), who returns the entirety of the gift back to the Father in his return. Or, even in the Eucharist: The congregation brings forth their offering of produce, confessing that “all things come from Thee O’ Lord, and from Thy own have we given unto Thee” (though this has, for practical reasons, turned into a pure monetary offering now), only to have God receive this gift, sanctify it by turning the elements/gift into the Body and Blood of the Son, and then give it back to the congregation, who receives it by consuming it (and being transformed in the process). The cyclical nature of the “gift”/offering does not end here, for the congregation leaves the Mass and goes into all the world, sanctifying it in their return (sanctification/theosis) back to the Father.

    The fact that we’ve reduced this dramatic and reciprocal gift exchange unilaterally is tragic. We’re held captive by modern political and economic capitalistic categories. Either the bottom gives to the benefit of those above (in a rather lopsided institutionalism), or (and this, by far, the more popular conception), the top is seen as responsible for the “equal” distribution of wealth to “all” without any notion of social obligation or return of the gift by those who receive (that is, the those who receive are not expected to voluntarily give back; they only take). If the first is oppressive (conservative capitalism), the latter (liberal capitalism) is just plain narcissistic. Both reduce the reciprocal nature of the Church to a unilateral gift exchange, and this is to deny the sacramental reality of our unity. . . Neither is what it means to be the church.

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