Republished with permission from Leader magazine, a publication of MennoMedia.
Michael Danner is associate executive director for Church Vitality in Mennonite Church USA, supporting area conferences, congregations and pastors in their ministries. Prior to this role, Michael served as conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference. He also has 20 years of experience as a local church pastor, serving 17 of those years as pastor of Metamora (Illinois) Mennonite Church. Michael has served in the areas of Christian education, youth ministry, worship and preaching/teaching. His passion is helping local congregations thrive through speaking, writing, training and coaching. Michael has a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology degree from Northern Seminary, Lombard, Illinois, a master’s degree in Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, and a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Illinois in Urbana. He currently attends Belmont Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana.
We all have a complex relationship with money. Complex because it is influenced by the stories about money we grew up with, the cultural messages of what it means to have (or not have) money, our personal experiences and decisions about money, existential realities (we use money to obtain food, clothing, shelter, etc.), and of course, our faith.
Fear, guilt, shame, envy
Our complex relationship with money leads to complex emotions about money. In her article “The Psychology of Money: What You Need to Know to Have a (Relatively) Fearless Financial Life,” Prudy Gourgeuchon writes, “The most important emotions in relation to money are fear, guilt, shame and envy” (Forbes, February 25, 2019). People experience the fear of not having enough money, shame for past decisions about money, envy of others who have more money, guilt for having more money than others or not enough, fear of provoking envy in others, guilt that they aren’t giving enough, and so on. Therefore, many people — perhaps most people — do not like talking about money.
The first step when preaching about money, stewardship, giving, and the Bible is acknowledging the waters we are wading into. No matter what you say from the pulpit, people will hear it and receive it through the lens of their complex relationship with and emotions concerning money.
Does this mean it is best to avoid preaching about money? By no means.
Money, and the effects of the economic systems we participate in, is a tangible expression of our commitment to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.
This is true throughout the Bible. We cannot separate how we earn money and what we do with money from the kind of world that is created by those very acts. Therefore, we must talk about it—especially among believers. Faith and money are connected.
A poor rich man
One example of the connection between faith and money is found in Mark 10:17–22 (also Mathew 19:16–22). In this encounter, a rich man asks Jesus a faith question—what must he do to inherit eternal life? The man is enthused by Jesus’ answer. He has done everything Jesus says he must do. The conversation continues, and Jesus lays out an uncomfortable next step. Jesus tells the man he must sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. “He was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (v. 22). We are left with the impression that the man was unwilling to divest himself of wealth, invest that wealth in the poor (storing up treasures in heaven; Matthew 6:20), and follow Jesus. Jesus did not allow the man to separate what he did with his many possessions from his relationship to his neighbors and, ultimately, his relationship with God through Jesus. We can’t either.
Preaching about money
How can we start a conversation about money and the Bible through preaching?
Prepare people for the conversation. The rich man asked a question but was unprepared for the answer. When you dive into what the Bible says about money, you will encounter ideas that are uncomfortable and challenge your current understandings and behaviors. What the Bible says about money is both liberating and hard. Communicate in a way that starts a conversation and makes it safe for others to enter that conversation. We already have enough fear, guilt, and shame going around.
Take the time to have the whole conversation. This means having more than one message a year on giving. The Bible has a lot to say about money. Take the time to explore it in depth. One way to do this is to commit to engaging the economic implications of every text you preach. For example, how often have you heard a sermon about the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) that did not mention the economic cost of his kindness? That parable says that loving your neighbor costs time and money, which has implications for the economic choices of Jesus’ followers. Often, this aspect of the story is left unexplored. If the only thing you preach about money is “give to the local church” once a year, the congregation will miss out on valuable conversations with the Bible about money.
Melt some golden calves. Preaching on what the Bible says about money will lead to a collision with ideas and practices that go unquestioned by many. In the United States, we have idolized the free-market system and capitalism, making it difficult to point out the underside of those systems without getting pushback. In I, Candidate for Governor, Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” When people benefit from the current system, it is very hard to critique it, no matter what the Bible says.
Bringing the biblical text into conversation with economic systems is not easy. An emphasis on each sermon being the “first word” or “another word” and not the “last or final word”—in other words, a conversation starter rather than “what everyone must believe”—will go a long way.
Put what you learn into practice as a community. It is tempting to preach about money, giving, stewardship, economics, and the Bible and leave it at that. We sometimes fall victim to the Western notion that knowing or believing the right things is the goal. It is not. The goal is right living with self, God, and neighbor. Preaching about money must move from abstraction to concrete practice. I’ve been told, “Sure, jubilee is a great idea, but I still have debt and my mortgage company does not practice jubilee.” Some distance exists between biblical ideals and contemporary practice, but that distance can be bridged through creative experiments. Some congregations pool their resources and give to those in their midst who have need. Others work together to get rid of crippling debt. Creative possibilities are endless when a congregation embraces God’s economy.
A fruitful conversation
We all have a complex relationship with money and a variety of emotions that come with it. The teaching in the Bible can speak into that in a powerful way. Preaching is a great way to start the conversation between the Bible and people about money. With some intention, preachers can make sure the conversation is fruitful and fuels the creativity of God’s people.
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Five biblical themes to explore
Shalom and the flourishing of all things (Genesis 1–2)
The sin of exploitation (Amos 5)
Bigger barns? (Luke 12:13–21)
Saint Augustine commented that the farmer “was planning to fill his soul with excessive and unnecessary feasting and was proudly disregarding all those empty bellies of the poor. He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns” (cited in Arthur Just Jr. and Thomas Oden, eds., Luke, p. 208).
Everything Jesus said (Matthew 5–7)
No needy among them (Acts 2)
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel (Zondervan, 2009).
Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity, 6th ed. (Thomas Nelson, 2015).