Church Math

Malachi 3:8-12

Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, “How have we robbed you?” In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.

By Chuck Griffin

I should begin with a big word of thanks to all of you who have supported a church financially in any way. Those of us who lead churches don’t say thanks enough to those of you who support Christ’s mission with your dollars.

So, thanks be to God for you; thanks, whether you gave a dollar or a thousand dollars or twenty thousand dollars. When you give, you are part of the solution the church offers to the world.

I wanted to start out with words of thanks because today’s verses, read without much context, sound like a mixture of threats and promises tied to whether you tithe and give other offerings. Don’t tithe, and you are robbing God and faced with a curse. Do tithe, and you will receive an overflowing blessing. And I know that preachers often imitate this text, making threats and promises where church giving is concerned.

I will note that Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament in our Christian Bible, so we should expect more legalistic formulas for relating to God. Jesus Christ, the ultimate expression of God’s forgiving grace, is not yet visibly in the picture.

I don’t, however, want to simply write off Malachi’s words about tithes and offerings as somehow irrelevant. In fact, this minor prophet makes a major connection between what he says about tithes and offerings and the reasons for Christ’s entry into the world.

Malachi’s straightforward question, “Will anyone rob God?” comes in the midst of other, more mysterious and far-reaching words. Just before he speaks of tithes and offerings, the prophet has been speaking of a coming messenger, to be followed by the arrival of the Lord. These words long have been associated with the ministry of John the Baptist—the Messiah’s herald—and the coming of Jesus Christ.

After Malachi speaks of tithes and offerings, he raises a new subject, how God will respond to the faithful. That leads ultimately to prophecies about “the great and terrible day of the Lord,” a time when the wicked and righteous are finally sorted, with the righteous entering a glorious new life. These images remind me of Jesus’ more detailed words in Matthew 25:31-46, where he makes clear that he will be the one to do the sorting.

All of that Messiah and End Days imagery, with talk of tithes and offerings sandwiched in between, causes me to reconsider my understanding of tithing. In fact, that big-picture perspective is what should convince us to tithe.

Certainly, tithing was part of the Mosaic law, the code the Jews tried to live by to remain in relationship with God. It’s important to note, however, that tithing predated the law.

Tithing also didn’t just go away after God’s grace more clearly entered the picture through Christ. Consider this: How did the early church, made up largely of Jews used to tithing, respond to the resurrected Jesus? Rather than shrinking their giving, they gave everything they had. (See Acts 2:43-47.)

If we could interview them, I think we would be hard pressed to find an early Christian who would describe tithing as anything more than a starting point in support of God’s redemptive work.

Scripturally, tithing for thousands of years has served as the baseline for how we participate in God’s effort to move us toward a time when evil is vanquished for good. In the world we live in now, a world where money is the primary driver behind how everything works, we still have to talk frankly about how money gets into church coffers. It gets there because people like you make commitments that the money will be there, and I think the tithe remains the appropriate beginning point for Christian giving.

Here’s a little church math to consider. As best I can tell, United Methodist households in churches I have served give about 4 percent of their income toward the work of their churches. That’s an average covering every active household, whether a household gave nothing or thousands of dollars.

If we could raise that average by one percentage point, incredible things would happen. A percentage point doesn’t sound like much, but if churches would move from an average of 4 percent per household to an average of 5 percent, our funds for ministry would jump by 25 percent.

I dive into this church math for one reason. I want you to see there is increasing power as we move toward tithing in a community, the kind of power that helps change the world.

With more finances available, we could tell more people about Jesus. We could feed more people and clothe more people in Jesus’ name.  We could do more for our children and youth and our homebound elderly. We could start ministries we have yet to imagine.

Maybe we would minister with more programs and facilities to serve the people we’re trying to reach. Maybe we would reach out to the community with more paid ministry staff to lead the way. However our churches might minister, lives would be changed, even more so than they are being changed now.

Here’s what I want you to walk away with today: You are not required under some sort of law to tithe, or to give at any level. As grateful recipients of God’s eternal grace, however, you are invited to participate in God’s restorative work, using the financial resources God has given you.

Lord, speak to our hearts directly about how we use our resources to benefit your kingdom. Amen.

On Task

Acts 15:36-41 (NLT)

After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there.


There’s no real way to determine who was right in the argument Paul and Barnabas had about taking John Mark along on a second journey. In searching for an answer, I could spend all day discussing topics like immaturity, loyalty, grace, forgiveness and unity, and I would never get to the important point.

The mission of the church comes first.

The disagreement these two apostles had was so sharp that their basic tasks of growing the church and encouraging continuing discipleship were imperiled. Remember, there were vast territories needing to hear about Christ and infant churches full of questions, but very few apostles to do the work.

Rather than letting the disagreement slow them further, they went their separate ways, Barnabas taking his cousin John Mark, and Paul choosing Silas to travel with him.

I have no doubt both men felt great pain as they separated. They had, after all, been through much together.

But again, the mission of the church comes first.

Why the Holy Spirit did not intervene in some way in a dream, a vision or a miracle, I cannot say. In some ways it is comforting to know that in the earliest days of the church, God sometimes left people to experience their emotions, think matters through and come up with difficult answers on their own. In terms of kingdom building, something about this process must be valuable.

It’s not hard to see how this passage relates to the current situation of the United Methodist Church and its internal argument over scriptural authority and application. We are at an impasse, sometimes a sharp one. And the mission of the church still has to come first.

Be encouraged, however. What we’ve heard from Acts today is not the end of the story. Christ somehow managed to bring Paul and John Mark together later in life.

Writing from prison in Rome nearly two decades later, Paul asked Timothy, “Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me in my ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11.) This brief request is clear evidence something changed as John Mark grew up and Paul grew old.

As painful as conflict can be, people genuinely dedicated to the mission of the church will find themselves restored in their relationships, in this life or the next. I feel certain this is true.

Lord, may we always remain dedicated to the Great Commission, the need to lead people to a belief in Jesus Christ and grow them as disciples. We give thanks for all who make this their first priority. Amen.

A Joy to Behold

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 96

Let’s close out the work week with a psalm, hoping its words will enhance our weekend worship. (The link above will take you to the full psalm.)

Followers of Christ have a basic, biblically inspired vision and mission for their lives and churches, and vision and mission interact in this psalm.

When we speak of “vision,” we’re talking about how we believe events in heaven and earth will play out one day. In short, we see a future where the world will conform to the happy truth that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

In the words of Romans 14:11, which is quoting Isaiah 49:18, ” ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess and give praise to God.’ “

The vision naturally inspires us as we go about our day-to-day mission. We let the Holy Spirit work through us so new disciples of Christ are made. Implicit in all of this is our need to grow as disciples so we can be more effective in our work.

Psalm 96 brings out one particular aspect of vision and mission. In living them out, there is great joy.

We worship a loving, glorious God, and he wants to put a new song in our hearts!

Lord, where our vision has grown dim and we have strayed from our mission, forgive us, please. Give us new light and understanding so we may better serve your kingdom. Amen.

Small Groups, Day 3

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Peter 2:2-3 (NLT): “Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.”


I’m going to say what you probably expect a pastor to say about core practices in a small group: We need to read our Bibles and pray for each other.

I hope I can also clearly communicate how prayer and Scripture take on new life in the context of a small group. If you find prayer difficult, or if you find sustained time in God’s word unrewarding, it may be that you’re not cut out for the life of the lone-wolf Christian. (Few are.) You need a pack.

A successful small group usually has a specific mission-within-a-mission, the overarching mission being to make and grow disciples of Jesus Christ. With that broader goal always in mind, a group might exist to focus on outreach to a particular segment of the community, or to bring people together who have the same set of skills or interests. A general exploration of the Bible and a mutual agreement to pray for each other would still be important for the education and spiritual bonding of the group, however. The Bible and prayer keep us on mission.

I can testify as to how much fun it is to explore the Bible in a small group, and how incredibly sustaining it is to know others are praying for you each day.

It’s also exciting to figure out as a group how to make that exploration. I’ve been in groups where we’ve tried various techniques. Once, a group used a book focused on the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. We would read a portion during the week and discuss our questions about what we had read at our weekly meeting. It was great!

So great, in fact, that we got another book by the same author. It stunk! About four weeks in, we gave up on it, but then we tried something different, something that might sound boring to the uninitiated. We started direct study of individual books of the Bible, buying journals that contained Scripture on one page and an empty ruled space on the opposite page.

When we came together each week, we shared what we had circled, underlined, questioned and commented on. Those ruled pages were sometimes surprisingly full. And we learned a lot together. Perhaps more than anything, we learned to take Scripture very seriously—we experienced God working through the Bible to shape our attitudes and actions.

By the way, I was the only clergy in that all-male group, and the lay people had a variety of education levels. Some had been Christians for decades, others for only a short time. It was a great mix, and everyone contributed. New Christians have a particular knack for asking the difficult questions.

Yes, “read your Bible” and “say your prayers” amount to very basic advice. But they are basic for a reason, and I’m convinced we best understand why in a small group.

Tomorrow, I want to focus on what is both frightening and rewarding about small groups: achieving mutual accountability.

Lord, open your holy word to us in new, dynamic ways, and when we pray together, may we be one with your Spirit. Amen.