David P. King: Shaping a theology of money

Sarah Killingsworth, left, hugs Mary Ann Slinn, welcoming her to her home for a meal to discuss entrepreneurship. As part of community outreach, members of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis meet with neighbors for meals and conversation.
Photo by Kelly Wilkinson

Religious institutions need not live out of a scarcity mindset. Our religious communities are full of the necessary assets to cultivate a culture of generosity, writes David P. King, the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving.

Religion and money? Throw in politics, and you have everything your parents told you not to talk about.

Yet the topics shouldn’t be off-putting. In fact, a theology of money is central to our individual spiritual formation, the health of our institutions and the way we participate in God’s mission in the world.

But we need to change the conversation.

Most faith-and-finance conversations focus on needs -- the assumption that something is missing. In our families, congregations and institutions, we are searching for solutions to scarcity: how to curb our spending, meet the material needs in our communities or raise enough money to balance our budgets.

But what if that approach takes us in the wrong direction?

According to social policy expert John McKnight, “You don’t know what you need until you know what you have.” As a leading proponent of asset-based community development (ABCD), McKnight suggests flipping the script when trying to work for change in communities: start by discovering the assets, gifts and resources in a community, rather than focusing on what people lack.

Instead of bemoaning what is missing, take stock of what you have. That’s the recipe for change.

Every community, no matter how impoverished, has institutions and resources. The people who live there have gifts, talents and enthusiasms. If we start with these assets instead of needs, we see the community in a different way. Then we can join others to capitalize on these assets to work for community change.

What if we followed the same advice for when we address faith and finances?

Instead of determining what we need or lack, we might focus on what God has already entrusted to us. What comes to mind?

While we each must shape our own theology of money, at the core is our response of gratitude to God’s generosity. At stake is who God is: God is generous, gracious, loving and merciful.

In our first attempts, we might default to material assets: budgets, buildings, endowments. But if we take a second look, we can appreciate the nonmaterial assets.

Our vision and mission are also assets; they keep us fixed on our goals and keep us from wandering off course.

What about human capital (knowledge, skills, resources, commitment, values)? What about social capital (community networks, partnerships, traditions)? For many of our organizations, the stories of transformed individuals or communities are among our richest resources.

At Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, for example, traditional helping ministries were closed down and a “roving listener” was hired to go out into the neighborhood and see what people were doing there and then help connect them to the church.

An asset-based approach fits perfectly with a biblical concept of stewardship. It’s a helpful tool in analyzing an organization or community, but it is more than a technique. It can also be a way of seeing the world.

When we talk about the way we see the world around us, we are speaking theological language. This is essential to note when shaping a theology of money.

Too often when we talk about money, we ignore theological resources. For our personal finances, we turn to accountants or financial planners. In our religious institutions, we rely on professional fundraisers or capital campaign consultants.

There is much to learn and gain from all these professions, but we cannot forget that our relationship to money is an issue of religious practice and practical theology.

At Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, we offer practical tools of religious fundraising, but we first help faith leaders address issues of money theologically. Most are eager to make the shift with us, but it remains a foreign way of thinking. Many people of faith approach the topic of money with anxiety.

Religious leaders are uncomfortable and uncertain in discussing the subject, so the church often ignores and abdicates our theology of money to the culture around us. That is dangerous. Our relationship with money says much about who God is, what God provides us, and how God invites and enables us to respond.

While we each must shape our own theology of money, at the core is our response of gratitude to God’s generosity. At stake is who God is: God is generous, gracious, loving and merciful.

A Christian’s life of faith is rooted in and shaped by grateful response to God’s generosity. How we understand and live in relation to money and possessions is dependent on how we understand, live into and participate in the “abundant life” that God provides.

A theology of money, then, is not simply a fundraising technique, a stewardship sermon or a collection of doctrines. It is a way of seeing the world.

Our relationship with money serves as a witness to who God is and what God calls us to as faithful Christians. Responding to God’s generosity leads us to participate in God’s generosity toward others. And that generosity is best practiced in community.

If forced to rely only on our power, we will inevitably fall short. But if we see ourselves as a part of something bigger (local communities of faith as well as God’s overarching work in the world), then we can have confidence in the abundance God promises.

This does not mean relying on the power of positive thinking. As Duke Divinity School research professor and practical theologian Craig Dykstra has said, “life abundant” is not the same as an abundant lifestyle.

If our theology of money is the way we see the world, it is also the way we live in this world. This way of living is a spiritual practice, and it is a practice we have to cultivate over time.

For too long, religious institutions have viewed money as a means to an end -- raising resources for our mission. For too long, religious leaders have avoided addressing the fact that how we spend our money is directly related to how we live our life of faith.

Religious institutions need not live out of a scarcity mindset. Our religious communities are full of the necessary assets to cultivate a culture of generosity.

It is the practices, the stories, the relationships, the mission and our eschatological hope that make generosity possible. If we nurture these assets, not simply as tools for fundraising success, but rather as the foundations for a theology of money, then the church has all the assets it needs.

Lake Institute on Faith & Giving

This essay was produced in partnership with the Lake Institute On Faith & Giving.

Lake Institute on Faith & Giving

This essay was produced in partnership with the Lake Institute On Faith & Giving.