Self-congratulation vs. boasting in the Lord

October and November are anxious months for pastors, because they’re generally when we run our annual stewardship campaign in which we find all sorts of indirect ways to tell our parishioners why they should give their church money. Is it because the Bible says so (ten percent, a-hem!!)? Is it because the church will shut down tomorrow if you don’t pull out your checkbooks? Or do we try the more subtle approach of saying stewardship isn’t just about money; it’s about time and talents (but if you’re too busy to help out, we’ll certainly accept your checks — wink, wink)?

Every pastor struggles with how to transcend or at least dignify the demeaning and so easily offensive but necessary task of asking people for money. We have to do it, but it’s so awkward!

Our congregation this year has been doing a stewardship sermon series on extravagant generosity in which we talk about generosity as part of the practice of Christian discipleship rather than just framing the question in terms of fundraising for a good cause. This conversation has involved the personal reflection of our worship attendees on “heart cards” in which they answer questions about our church like where they’ve seen God, who has had an impact on their lives, what their vision is for our church, etc. Members of the church have also shared personal testimonies, which have been quite moving. I have actually learned about ministries that I knew little about before, such as our monthly homeless breakfast program.

In reflecting on this whole process, I have wondered how what we have to say gets heard by our congregation. I hope that what they have heard is that God is moving in exciting ways in our church and beckoning us to consider how He wants us to grow in new ways. It might seem like the pastoral version of political correctness, but I think it’s very important to give God credit for whatever good is happening in our church rather than saying, “We sure are a great church! Now don’t you want to write us a big check?” (which I really hope is not what parishioners have heard me to say). The difference between what might be called “boasting in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31) and self-congratulation might seem semantical, but I think the first attitude is grounded in humble, joyful servanthood while the second way of talking exudes an insecure, defensive neurosis.

The fruits of our ministry should not be talking points in the argument for our own greatness; they are gifts of God that are meant to entice us into deeper discipleship. We should certainly encourage one another within our community. The challenge is figuring out how to do this without getting mired in a collective self-satisfaction that undermines our ability to self-critique with integrity. It’s wonderful that God has inspired us to be a missional and welcoming congregation in certain ways, so how can we be more so in other ways? Our growth as a community requires a healthy dissatisfaction with where we already are. This is best attained when we recognize that whatever achievements have happened in our midst are God’s achievements. If this is what God can do through us now, what would He do if we were more faithful?

There is no need for us to make a case for our own greatness because we belong to a great God who “chooses the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, and those who are despised and nothing to nullify the things that are, so that none would boast before Him” (1 Cor 1:27-29). The beautiful uniqueness of the Christian community is that we’re a place where it’s safe to be honest about our sin and weakness. We are all foolish and weak, but God uses us anyway! The fact that He uses us is not something we should be thanked for, but something for which we should be thankful.

So if you’re being asked by your pastor to prayerfully consider how you can support your church financially in 2012, please be gracious and sympathetic to the awkwardness your pastor might feel. Don’t think of what you’re being asked to do as merely “supporting a good cause.” Only God is good; what you have to decide is whether you want to “enter into the joy” of sharing His dream and becoming a vessel of His goodness (Mt 25:21). And the best thing is that no matter how far we progress in our spiritual pilgrimage, our journey is infinite so God will always invite us to drink more deeply. God’s eternal living water will continue to nourish us as long as we resist being satisfied with ourselves and stay forever thirsty (Psalm 42).

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