I have an issue with giving to my local church: my money no longer goes toward social services—or at least it is highly unlikely. I, however, very much want at least some of my money going toward these things.
Now, I am quite aware that carpets need replacing and that church lightbulbs break; however, the stats say that of the slightly under 3 percent of our income we give to our churches, much less than half of that gets past the building.
As a history geek, I often process things in terms of historical context. Historically speaking, giving money to a local church was tangibly related to social causes. In fact, the church played the largest role in social assistance, health care, and education. Hospitals, schools, efforts to alleviate the crushing conditions of the impoverished, and other social services were responsibilities the local parish assumed. It follows then that when the average congregant tossed her shekels into the church coffers, she was taking her collective part in helping her community. This social role the church played is true of both the Old and New Testament times.
So while I do believe in regular tithing, my problem is in how it is often dispersed in today’s church.
When I think about the lack of social services my church contributes to, my immediate impulse is to take my money elsewhere. To write checks to organizations and people who are more observably serving the physical and emotional needs within my community.
I know I’m not alone in this, either. I hear my friends and others say they have decided to provide direct support to the charity/cause/organization of their choosing because they don’t think their local church is supporting it enough.
For me personally, there is a grassroots charitable agricultural organization that promotes sustainable community gardening for low-income neighborhoods in my area. To me, their joint vision of community enrichment and environmental sustainability is in line with genuinely serving the needs of my community. Some of my acquaintances feel that greater support is needed for individuals who devote their lives to improving the situations of minority groups. One good friend regularly gives sizable donations to a radio station that strives to meet churched-out early-twenty-ish-year-olds with a message of hope, sans the churchy platitudes. We all see different needs, so it makes sense that we want to make a difference in the area we are most passionate about.
To me, it seems like the “go local” movement has kind of hit the church. Many people I know—good people—are not satisfied with the current job the church is doing in contributing to their communities. For example, giving money to the Salvation Army isn’t enough for them. They would rather have the money go directly to the lady who makes the bread for the local soup kitchen—even if they don’t get a tax receipt for it.
This is all cool and good. But as much as I am happy to provide direct support to individuals, projects, and causes, I worry if this type of giving is indulging our Western culture that promotes individualistic tendencies.
God, I think, sees us as totally unique individuals. And God even likes our individuality. It is said that in the afterlife he will bestow upon us our very own name that only God and us will know—this is individuality! So while I am all for individuality—and seemingly God is too—I am concerned that my focus on individual giving, which is an expression of individuality, is dangerous in that it might take away from the larger church as a body.
Can we become so individual that we stop being family? If a church community is like a family, where do I draw the line in being individualistic? I mean, I want to express my individuality, but yet I should keep in mind that the familial nature of the church is even more important.
I wonder whether my donating to local environmental and academic endeavors in lieu of giving to my church is a problematic spiritual model. Is my impulse to contribute to causes that are important to me, rather than contribute to my local church and support their vision, a form of indulging in individualism at the cost of my church community?
I do believe that Christians are to play an active role in financially contributing to their community. And many times it seems that while the church does provide to some of the groups that make for a better holistic community, some areas could still use more assistance. I don’t see that assistance being provided as much as I’d like to from North American churches. Yet I am also called to be community minded about my church body, which means giving at least some money to keep my local church sustainable. If the entire congregation in my church thought the way I do and gave their funds to charities of their individual liking, there would be no resources to keep the church running. No material goods for my church to contribute to the community at large. And that would be a loss, because there is value in contributing to and being a part of a spiritual community. Of thinking like a family and not letting our individual differences prevent genuine relationship.
It’s a general quandary. And I haven’t figured it out. Until I figure out what to do when the basket goes round, perhaps I’ll seek out other ways I can contribute necessary resources to my church—like time and energy, investments that hopefully contribute a depth to community cohesion.
 This coming from the Barna group.