“Is it okay to give to other missions instead of my local church?”

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’m sharing an article on money and 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.

This post is a response to a reader question:

Hi Teddy,

I have a question about giving. My family has always appreciated the discipline of generosity. So we wanted to give generously––beginning with a tithe as minimum––but we DIDN’T give it back into our local church. We felt no conscience about this, but when my senior pastor found out, he was very displeased about it.

As I think about becoming a senior pastor in the future, I’m less concerned that my staff tithe to the church and more concerned that they are generous in other kingdom ways that expand beyond a mere tithe.

As of now, I could direct most of my giving somewhere besides the church without having a conscience issue SO LONG AS my family is being generous TO THE BODY as a whole.

Maybe that’s the question – where is the line between the local body and the larger body of Christ? Why does one seem to demand priority in our giving?

What a great question! Thanks for asking. I certainly relate to this. We give to several missions outside our local church. It would be hard not to. There are a lot of great missions / missionaries we believe in, and it’s fun to be a part of what they’re doing. We don’t necessarily separate out “tithing” to the church and “giving” to other places, so I’ll just talk in terms of giving. And let me commend you for considering “tithe” (10%) your minimum and then giving more. The vast majority of American households have the capacity and should be giving more than 10%.

In my case, I would have a conscience issue if we weren’t giving––and giving substantially––to our church. I obviously see up-close how the money available affects what our church can do. We depend on people’s generosity to continue the mission. If I believe in our mission, I need to be supporting it with our finances. If I don’t believe in our mission, I need to be working on a short-term “reform or exit” plan.[note]A note: If I find myself constantly exiting places because of my disagreements with them, it’s probably time to ask if the problem is me––if my standards are too high, or if my initial selection criteria is poor. Beware the person who leaves angry and often.[/note]

That wasn’t always my position. For a couple of years, I didn’t give to our church. I had told our Sr. Pastor at the time that I didn’t believe in how we were spending money and couldn’t contribute to it. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed by that. If I couldn’t believe enough in the church to give it our money, I should have left. (I’m not suggesting I should have actually left in that situation. Rather, I think I should have been giving, despite my disagreements. They weren’t big enough to warrant leaving, so they shouldn’t have been big enough to warrant withholding my money.) Moreover, that position made it difficult for me to lead and to call for others to buy-in. I wasn’t bought-in myself. I didn’t realize the difference that made in my leadership until later.

Jesus’ words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” have proven more true than I expected (see the linked article on generosity for more on that). Once I started giving, even sacrificially giving, to our church, I began to love the church a lot more. I began to lose my cynicism and feel much more like a full member of the team.

“Buying in” doesn’t prevent me from raising questions and challenging certain things. But now I’m doing it as a fully-committed member. For any of us who fashion ourselves “reformers” of any sort, we need to do it as committed members. That kind of commitment doesn’t have to require lock-step agreement. But it requires being in. So long as I was criticizing our use of other people’s money while not contributing myself, I was just standing on the outside throwing stones.

In short, my love and commitment for our church and our mission have followed my money more than they preceded it. If I waited until I was in full agreement with how we spent money, I probably never would have given. (For what it’s worth––I’m very proud of how our church uses money now. Along with the important work we’re doing locally, we send 25% out the door for missions bigger than our own. And we’re in the minority of UMC churches that pay our full apportionments, no matter how tight the budget. How can we ask our members to be faithful with their giving––even in tough times––if we aren’t being faithful to our commitments to the larger body?)

I’m able to ask for other people’s full investment––prayers, presence, gifts, service, witness––because I’m willing to stand at the head of the line, as someone who’s all-in. With that experience, it’s hard for me to imagine leading again if I weren’t all-in myself. That’s not so much advice as personal testimony.

I don’t know if that answers any questions about lines between “local body” and “larger body” giving. I don’t know if I would ever tell anyone else that their local church demands priority. I wouldn’t point to any biblical regulations to say that your church should receive your first-priority giving. But I might point to your personal situation. The mission I’m most directly a part of is First Church’s. So by virtue of participation, First Church’s mission is our top priority. For us, that means it needs to be our top priority for giving, too.

Thanks for giving me a chance to reflect on that. I hope it might be helpful to your situation.


4 thoughts on ““Is it okay to give to other missions instead of my local church?”

  1. I really like your response here, Teddy, particularly how you hold “Mission” and “Church” together . . . without idealizing either one nor separating one from the other. This question has come up often, and this might be the most well thought, accessible, concise, and articulate response I’ve read. Thank you.

    Along these lines, I wonder if part of the problem is that it was so easy to perceive the “Mission of God” as something other, higher, and more important than the actual Body of Christ . . . maybe as something that the Church is supposed to serve, build, or ‘do’. At least it was/is for me. Hans Urs von Balthasar never tired, however, of saying that the Missio Dei is the person of Christ Himself, not something else that Christ came to serve, build, or ‘do’. The Church isn’t a means to some other (ideological or “missional”) end. It is the means to its own end. The Body of Christ is the means to become more fully the Body of Christ, or, as St. Augustine would say, the Church is the City of God on pilgrimage to the City of God. I think Balthasar is on to something here.

    As an idealist, I’m just as guilty as the next person for thinking that the Church needs to “do” this or that. There may be much truth to all of this; the church is, in addition to being the Bride of Christ, also a Whore (as St. Augustine was also wont to say). It’s helped me tremendously, however, to think of the “goal” of creation as not something other than Christ or his Body (the Church) but rather, its full incorporation into Christ Himself. In other words, the Church does indeed ‘work’ for the salvation of the world, but this is nothing other than creation’s subsumption within the Church Herself as She is bound to Christ, participating within his Triune/Divine Nature as She ascends back to the Father (in Christ and through the Spirit).

    Oh well, I’ve gotten off topic . . . yet again.

    Blessings this Christmas Season.


    1. Thanks for a great comment, Caleb. The points you raise about the church as Body of Christ aren’t the angle I was taking with this question and response, but you get much closer to the core here, while I was still on the periphery. With that, I’ll attempt to make a few more comments here, more just to reflect in my own words on your comment than to contradict or even expand.

      The church is inherently different than any other mission / organization. It is, in its essence, the Body of Christ. That defines both the invisible church (the church universal) and the visible (i.e. local) church.

      That difference in essence makes our “mission” different in a few ways. First, it’s given and innate, not chosen. And second, as you’ve said it, our “mission”/task is to be the Body of Christ.

      I’d say that the church does need to “do” things, and that the “doing” is a part of our task. That’s why I’m still comfortable at least using the word mission, as we discuss these things. But that’s not an extrinsic, chosen sort of goal-setting and doing. It’s a doing that stems from being. Our essence as the Body of Christ requires a certain sort of doing/mission/task. And we can succeed (by God’s grace) or fail at that––the same way that if you refuse to roll out of bed each day (or do it only to play video games, for instance), you’re failing to be as you were created to be. I think you and I might agree in principle on that, even if we’re speaking of it differently here.

      1. Yes, I think we are both in agreement though our emphases may be slightly different. One of the things I liked about your post (which I hinted above), is that you never separate “church” and “mission” (as if mission was somehow “external,” as you put it), yet you never conflate them either (as if the Church was already fully realized and not on “pilgrimage” – something that a good many postliberal Catholics – and my own comment – have a tendency to do).

        It is because the church is on pilgrimage (in the process of deification) which is why “doing” is important, kind of like how we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. You make this point very clearly/persuasively in your own comment. I think my initial observation/comment was a reaction against how “missional” is used 99% of the time. As I mentioned, it is usually some kind of ideological construct (or some, particular notion of social justice) which is idealized. In these schemes, the church becomes nothing more than another nonprofit which is working for the realization of a certain utopian vision often referred to as the Kingdom of God.

        This is unrelated, but I’m starting to wonder if this might be the most devastating theology the church is currently wrestling with. Many “postmodern” evangelicals, missional gurus, emergent/emerging (is this still a thing?) proponents, etc. have simply left the church altogether. Some have even started actively discouraging people from attending church. Of course, the cultural phenomenon is at the surface level, but there is much-much-much theological work which has been undertaken for some time (and I know you are already aware of this!) which merely undercuts Church and disbands any notion of salvation being dependent upon Christ’s human nature (that is, the Body of Christ). I am growing more and more convinced that this is evangelical theology gone awry, and it is infecting every ecclesial tradition. It is only recently started to work its way into praxis and being felt as a (Christian) cultural phenomenon.

        Your post is less polemical than my comment and therefore, a good deal more balanced. 🙂 As I mentioned, I think it’s the best response I’ve read in quite some time. Thanks again for sharing.

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