The tense relationship between religion and money must be as old as religion – or money – itself. We all remember the infamous air-conditioned dog house and gold-plated bathroom in Jim Bakker’s home. Then there was the ABC News story revealing that televangelist Robert Tilton had been simply plucking checks out of envelopes and throwing away the prayer requests.
Last year Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, started an inquiry into six high-profile televangelists. It’s yet to be determined if any are guilty of wrongdoing.
Years ago, when I worked at that big, rich church in Indianapolis, the squabbling over money – mostly between the school and parish – was as constant and amorphous as the warfare in the novel “1984.” I wish I had nickel for every person who’s told me that money, or the sordid business that surrounds it, was the last straw that convinced them to leave a church, or to walk away from religion all together.
Today, as if religion and money weren’t enough of a volatile mixture, the recession is escalating things to meltdown status.
Tithing is down, donations are down, and dioceses, conferences and associations nationwide are belt-tightening. People today are less willing – or able – to drop that dollar in the collection plate and, perhaps, more skeptical that it will be used wisely.
That’s why I was so encouraged by a story out of Alabama this week. Bay Community Church, a 2,000-member congregation on the Gulf Coast, has undertaken what it calls a “faith stimulus.” Get this, instead of money coming into the church, money is actually going out.
On a recent Sunday, members were surprised to see envelopes being passed out. Each envelope contained anywhere from $20 to $100 and instructions to spend it helping others. The envelopes totaled $50,000.
Member Tommy Daw told me the church seized on national attention over the government stimulus to try a different approach to philanthropy. He said the church estimated $50,000 as the average income for a person in Baldwin County, where Bay Church is located.
“Comparatively, the eastern shore probably hasn’t been hit as hard as some other areas of the country,” said Daw, adding that the church wanted to express gratitude for its own blessings and to “go out and bless others.”
The church’s website has stories about how members have spent their money. They range from buying up tickets to a fish-fry benefiting a sick boy to helping the elderly.
Relatively speaking, the money isn’t much, but the symbolic power of the gesture is tremendous. Daw and I also agreed that it’s nice to see a large, evangelical church exploding the notion that they’re always asking for money, sending money, instead, out into the community.
Daw said he got $20 in his envelope and his girlfriend got $40. Like many Bay members they plan to pool their funds and focus on one thing. They haven’t decided yet what that will be.
“Food for the hungry, gift boxes for soldiers, who knows,” said Daw. “The church isn’t rushing anybody, so we’ve got time. I know something will come along.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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