I want to share some exciting, promising news. We have all heard, time and again, that the church is in crisis, that attendance is down across the board and that the Anglican “brand” is as good as done. This has been proclaimed in the media and supported by our own experience of hollowed out Sunday schools, lots of grey hair at church and parishes passing deficit budgets at vestry time.
The contrarian in me sees a slightly different picture in our diocese: rural congregations investing in expanded ministry in Fenelon Falls and Minden; a wealth of volunteer talent being honoured through the annual Order of the Diocese of Toronto; generous giving in some of the most challenged economic environments; and most excitingly, 25 per cent of our parishes are actually growing in their financial stewardship and in the numbers attending Sunday worship.
The growth cuts across a variety of categories – rural and urban communities, wealthy and not-so-wealthy neighbourhoods, and conservative and liberal congregations. We have a church in Markham where the average annual gift on the collection plate is nearly $4,000. That’s right, from each giver. We have a church along the lakeshore, in west-end Toronto, where the neighbourhood is beset by a host of challenges, yet each giver donates close to five per cent of their income to that church. A small church in mid-town Toronto boasts that 100 per cent of its givers use Pre-Authorized Remittance to support parish ministry. A rural congregation in Nottawasaga has grown its average gift to more than $2,000 per giver and has experienced five successive years of offertory increases. Growth is happening. Seeds planted in good soil are bearing fruit.
There is a common denominator that separates the growing churches from those that are just getting by: discipleship. In his book, Your Church Can Thrive, Canon Harold Percy identifies the central motif of our God-given mission: “that we are seeking to help people connect with God and become followers of Jesus.” That’s it; Christ must be the centre of our actions and engagement in church.
We cannot afford a church that is merely comfortable, where showing up on Sunday is a sufficient reflection of our Christian lives. The experience of healthy and growing churches suggests that something much deeper is required. Canon Percy nails it: “As disciples of Jesus, we are called to the lifelong adventure of learning to follow him closely and faithfully.” That our healthy churches experience an increase in giving is merely a by-product of living Christianity well.
Canon Percy identifies 10 powerful transitions that parishes must make to fully disciple their congregations. Some of the transitions are obvious: teach the Gospel, make reading scripture a daily practice, pray, forgive, attend worship on a weekly basis, and bear witness to one’s faith in daily living. Among the transitions is one related to financial stewardship. But he approaches the question of giving not in terms of giving to a need, but rather “how much do I need to give in order to be set free from the lies I have learned from outside our secular culture about the importance of money?”
If we are to grow in our relationship as disciples of Christ, we need to become extravagant givers. The story of the widow’s mite has a powerful lesson for us. The woman in her poverty gave all she had – two small coins – to the ministry of the church. She trusted God so much that she was able to lavishly give away what she had. Could we do the same? In our abundance, can we give extravagantly?
Amid the examples of generosity I noted above is an interesting observation. Even with giving at these levels, it pales when compared to our brothers and sisters in the evangelical church. Their giving levels are much closer to the standard set in the Old Testament to give 10 per cent of one’s income. If you ever wonder why those churches have the myriad of programs, ministries, small groups and Bible studies that they do, it is because they have the financial resources necessary to make investments that expand ministry.
Here are some sobering facts: the average gift per donor (including gifts on the offering plate or through Pre-Authorized Remittance) in 2015 in our parishes was $1,290 per year, or about $25 per week. This translates to roughly 1.4 per cent of gross family income of our parishioners. (This information is based on Statistics Canada data for households in the Diocese of Toronto). That’s it – 1.4 per cent. Overall, $32,190,000 was given to support the operations of our parishes in 2015. So consider this: what if we all tithed? If we did, the annual giving across our diocese would have been $228,297,872 that year. That is nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.
What could we do with a quarter of a billion dollars? What would our churches look like? Would we have unlimited ministry opportunities? Would we be lamenting the noise level caused by raucous kids during church services? Would our clergy be more concerned about doing ministry than worrying about balancing a budget?
We have the capacity to be extravagantly generous stewards. We can see how other churches have grown because their members believe passionately in a Gospel that liberates people from consumerism and the insatiable monotony of wanting more. We can see that when people truly believe in Jesus, believe in his Word, live it and make prayer a part of their daily lives, their disposition changes. We can be that church. We can choose to believe in a theology of abundance where our giving models that of the poor widow.
Here’s a challenge to Anglicans everywhere: Start with one per cent. If you are not in a pattern of regular giving, start today by giving one per cent of your gross family income to your parish and another one per cent to charity. Make it real, reliable and realistic by doing it through PAR. If you are a regular giver, up your annual gift by one per cent. If your gross family income is the diocesan average – $92,000 from all sources – give an extra $920 this year. Give from your net income if you think that is more practical. Even if your family income is lower, or you are on your own, you are encouraged to give one per cent more. Can you do it? Aspire to shift your giving to the standard set in Deuteronomy.
If we all gave one per cent more tomorrow, much would change. Everyday worries would become a thing of the past and most of our parishes would have more than they could ever ask for or imagine. With one per cent more, our church would experience our own version of Freedom 55 and so much would be different, so much would be possible. For most parishes, this would essentially lead to a doubling of their budgets. All this is possible by leaning on God and embracing discipleship. Let us become extravagant givers – not to meet a budget but because it reflects our own faithfulness.