Tuesday, March 31, 2015

William Payne: Tithe Preaching Churches in Latin America

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.

During a recent sabbatical, I conducted 50 interviews with Protestants,[1] Roman Catholics, and unchurched people in Costa Rica. Each conversation included discussions about the tithe. Additionally, I preached in many Costa Rican churches in which the pastors required that the people pay the tithe in order to remain in good standing. In this blog, I will share my tentative thoughts on this practice.

First, tithing or giving ten percent of one’s gross income is a means by which many local churches provide monetary support for pastors who do not draw a salary or receive financial support from outside sources. All Christians should give generously to the collective ministry of the local church. Additionally, the scriptures allow a gospel preacher to receive substantive support for the ministry that he or she provides. Even though Jesus did not get a salary, he was supported by gifts that others gave to his ministry (cf. Lk 8:3). Matthew 10:5-12 says the laborer deserves food and shelter. On numerous occasions the Apostle Paul argued that he had a right to be paid for the ministry he provided even if he chose not to receive it (cf. I Cor 9:14, I Tim 5:18, II Cor 11:7-11 and Phil 4:15). Early Methodism also required that the circuit riders be paid. At times, this became a great burden that hindered the expansion of the MEC into new areas. Many of those early itinerants suffered great privation because they did not receive their salary. None became rich or well-off from their labors.[2]

Second, most of the churches that preach tithing connect the practice to some form of prosperity gospel. Often one will preach that the tithe is a seed that one plants in the kingdom of God. When sowed with faith, sacrifice, and obedience, giving the tithe will yield positive material, physical, and spiritual blessings in this life. Additionally, many pastors argue that the Bible requires a Christian to pay the tithe and give an offering. The tithe goes to the pastor and the offering funds the mission of the church.

Third, in other writings I have argued that the prosperity gospel preached by those who come from the margins of society has been shaped and formed by their context of poverty and oppression.[3] It is a contextualized theology that the poor discern from scripture. Many of the poor are attracted to it, eagerly participate in it, and can be manipulated by it. Because of my social location, I do not feel that I have sufficient standing to dismiss this theology or tell the poor that their theology is incorrect.

Fourth, the tithe has inspired many people to plant churches and do extraordinary evangelism. Throughout Latin America, “tithe seeking pastors” have started countless churches in places where new churches needed to be planted. Additionally, in many larger churches that have a strong cadre of leaders, one of the assistant pastors often will leave to start a new church. In an ecclesial system that does not pay people to plant churches, the tithe allows a church planting pastor with as few as ten families to survive without denominational support.

Fifth, tithe preaching has a long history in western Christianity. It is still preached in many ethnic and independent churches in the United States. Additionally, in the current Western context of material opulence and low demand Christianity, preaching may serve more of an educational, ethical, and “after death” purpose than it does when the poor preach it in the context of material and physical want. Even though the preaching of the tithe may seem oppressively legalistic to middle class majority Christians for a variety of culturally formed reasons, the mainline churches of the West should be slow to judge.

Sixth, without a doubt, the tithe has damaged the credibility of the Protestant church in Latin America. In Costa Rica some have complained that poor immigrants who lack sufficient training and pastoral skills have planted new churches simply because they want to get the tithe. Many of the unchurched people with whom I spoke told me that they were disgusted by the tithe and they thought that Protestant pastors who preached the tithe abused their flocks in order to get rich. They offered many anecdotal stories to support their prejudice about the “Gospel industry.” Roman Catholics tended to be the most critical. They emphasized that their church took an offering and did not ask for the tithe. Those who feel repulsed by the constant preaching on the tithe will not affiliate with a tithe preaching church.

Seventh, many who have been reached by the Protestant churches have gone inactive because of tithe preaching. Often, pastors tell their members that those who do not pay the full tithe are stealing from God and that one should not buy other things like cellular phones if they do not pay the full tithe. One poor woman told me that a rich pastor told her husband that he had to pay the tithe in order to avoid misfortune and the wrath of God. This caused her family to suffer emotional pain. Even though the husband paid the tithe, his wife begrudged the church. Another man told me that he wanted to get back in church but could not do it until his finances improved. One national leader told me that half of the people who claim to be born again do not attend church on a regular basis because of the tithe. As long as the church demands the tithe, it is unlikely that these people will reaffiliate.

Eighth, the tithe preaching church in Latin America needs to have an honest conversation with itself about this issue. From my perspective, the stress should switch from a legalistic emphasis on tithing to a biblical emphasis on stewardship. From the perspective of the New Testament, the church building is not the Temple, the pastor is not the Levite, and giving ten percent to support the pastor is not a commandment. To the contrary, God demands the entire person, not a mere ten percent of the person’s income. Additionally, a pastor who is more concerned with getting a person’s tithe than in ministering to the flock should not be in pastoral leadership.

I will conclude with an anecdote. For two weeks I ministered with a new church start that is led by a gifted pastor who has a full-time professional job. All the members of the ministerial team have jobs outside the church and none get paid from the offering. For that reason, all the money that is given in the offering is given back to the community or is used for internal ministry. As one would expect, this church appeals to lapsed Protestants and other types of unchurched people. I sense that this type of a church will grow with populations that will not attend a traditional tithe preaching church. Not every pastor is called to be bi-vocational. Still, more bi-vocational churches like the one I just mentioned are needed in Latin America.


[1] Throughout the Spanish speaking portions of Latin America, Protestants are referred to as evangelical or Christians. The Latino use of evangelical does not correspond to the American usage of the term.
[2] See “The Poverty of the Itinerants and Issues Associated with It” in American Methodism: Past & Future Growth (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2013), 125-130.
[3] See “Discerning an Integral Latino Pentecostal Theology of Liberation” Ashland Theological Journal (Fall 2013): 87-106.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Lent Quiz: When is Easter? Thoughts on being a distinctive Christian minority

The folks over at umc.org have been doing a Lent Quiz series of questions related to the symbols and traditions of Lent and Easter.  Today, we at UM & Global have the ultimate Lent Quiz question:

Lent Quiz: When is Easter?
A. April 5
B. April 12
C. It depends on who you're asking.
D. Whenever it is, it can't come soon enough.

How many of you looked at a calendar and answered A?  The correct answer is actually C.  Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Church of the East) have different methods for calculating Easter (for complicated historical and astronomical reasons I won't go into).  Easter is April 5 in the West, but it's April 12 in the East.

I was reminded of this fact recently when a friend mentioned his plans to go to an upcoming festival after Easter services as a celebration.  He invited me to join him, and I said I'd consider it.  I checked when the festival was, and it was on April 12.  I'd been expecting it to be on the 5th.  My friend is Eastern Orthodox.  It was Easter Sunday for him, but not for me.

In the United States, this difference sets the Eastern Orthodox and other Eastern Christian traditions apart from the majority, but for the most part, it doesn't cause much more in problems than occasional confusion over scheduling social events with non-Orthodox friends.

In Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it's the Methodists that stand out for their celebration of Easter, not the Orthodox.  David Field wrote an excellent piece about Methodist distinctiveness in Europe earlier this week.  Ritual observation was not part of the distinctiveness he talked about, but in parts of Europe, that is part of what makes Methodism stand out.

Yet people don't choose to go to a church because of when it celebrates Easter.  This is not an attractional distinctive, and at times it may even make Methodism seem unusual in a bad way.

The challenge for Methodism in Eastern Europe (and in other areas of the world) is how to be distinctive in a positive way, a way that adds to the proclamation of the gospel in that context.  That's not an easy task, in Eastern Europe, in the US, or elsewhere, but it is a task we are called to take up.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

David Field: Methodist Identity and Ecumenical Commitment - Reflections from a European Context

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. David N. Field.  Dr. Field is the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.

European Methodists face particular opportunities and challenges; they are minority churches, often small minorities, within contexts dominated by other confessional traditions. The interaction between Methodist Churches and these traditions varies from country to country but the asymmetric relationship raises fundamental issues about Methodist identity and mission. These are intensified in the broader society where Methodism is not only not known but placed in the amorphous category “free churches,” which are perceived be to be fundamentalist and sect like.

In this context Methodists must ask: What does it mean to be a Methodist? Why is it important to be a Methodist? Does Methodism have particular mission in the contemporary world? The answer to these questions can contribute to international discussions about Methodist identity.

A further challenging dimension of this context is the pervasive secularization that is characteristic of the majority European countries. Church membership is rapidly declining, the influence of Christianity on culture and society is rapidly shrinking, and for increasing numbers of people Christianity is irrelevant to their daily life. It can no longer be presupposed that people have a working knowledge of the Christian faith and what is known is often regarded as an irrelevant relic of only historical interest. People live contentedly without God and have no sense of this being a loss. The danger of this situation is that churches fall into the trap of preoccupation with self-preservation rather than taking up the challenge of articulating the gospel in word and life in a way that addresses secularized people.   

Methodism’s minority status pressurizes Methodists to justify their existence in relation to major churches, yet in the face of pervasive secularism such concerns seem irrelevant to the larger task of articulating the relevance of Christianity. Is an emphasis on fostering a Methodist identity a waste of time and resources that could be better spent on ecumenical co-operation in mission? Does the particular identity of the Methodist tradition have any continuing relevance? Is an emphasis on Methodist identity an exercise in self-preservation that is bound to fail in the long run?

These questions demand responses not the least from those who are preparing people for the ordination. A creative response to this challenge needs to re-frame the question of the Methodist identity from a different perspective. The starting point is not our differences from, nor our commonalities with, other churches. The starting point must be the challenge of mission in the context of pervasive secularization. Hence the question becomes: “What are the particular gifts that Methodists bring form our heritage that contribute to equipping all Christians to articulate the gospel in this context?” The question of identity thus becomes a significant contribution to ecumenical commitment and mission.

Historically a central dimension of Methodist self-understanding has been the calling to practice and proclaim “holiness”. However, in a pervasively secular context “holiness” not only lacks resonance but appears bizarre, esoteric and alienating. In the ecumenical context locating holiness as “our” distinguishing characteristic appears arrogant. Yet paradoxically, I propose that it is precisely a recovery and reconceptualization of holiness as central to Methodist identity that offers a potential way forward. This is not the mere reiteration of historical theological affirmations about sanctification as doctrinal distinctive; rather, it is a critical retrieval of the concept from the Wesleyan heritage in order to creatively reconceive and rearticulate it for the present.

Borrowing ideas from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is it possible to develop a “non-religious” interpretation of holiness for a “world come of age” that is a pervasively secular society? For Bonhoeffer, a central aspect of a “non religious” interpretation of theological concepts is that the gospel embodied in praxis has priority over theological formulation. This resonates with the emphasis in Wesley’s writing on Methodist identity that the distinguishing mark of Methodism is not a doctrine, not even a doctrine of holiness, but transformed character and lifestyle.

In Wesley’s understanding persons are transformed by encountering the love of God in Christ that liberates and empowers them to love God and their fellow humans. This transformation affects both inner attitudes and motivations and outward behavior. There is a dynamic relationship between outward behavior and inner attitudes – inner transformation leads to outward transformation and active engagement on behalf of others leads to inner transformation. This dynamic relationship suggests that holiness can be conceptualized as love embodied in praxis.

Wesley often described the outward dimension by the triad of justice, mercy and truth. This triad was particularly interpreted in terms of the relationships with those he described as “the outcasts of men”. Hence in a “non-religious” interpretation, outward holiness is the embodied practice of justice, compassion and integrity on behalf of and in solidarity with the marginalized, the victims and the vulnerable. This embodied practice arises out of and leads to inner transformation by the Spirit of God.

It is this which should be the key identity marker of Methodism. Our particular theological formulations only have significance to the extent that they undergird and interpret this embodied practice. They have no value independent of this.

The understanding of holiness as love embodied in praxis also opens a new approach to ecumenical (and inner Methodist) relationships. In Wesley’s thought, holiness is only possible in the context of interpersonal interaction; as embodied love it only exists as it is concretely expressed in the diversity, conflicts, and complexity of human relationships. It is through this expression that inner attitudes are transformed.

Analogously Methodist churches only embody holiness in dynamic relationships with other churches, not because we agree with each other or we share common practices, but because we disagree from each other and have contradictory practices. It is only as we live with each other and engage in mission together in our diversity and disagreements that we embody love for each other. Holiness as Methodism’s gift to ecumenical relationships is not primarily a theological affirmation but the embodied praxis of love. In this way we manifest our particular identity.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

UM & Global announces new format

I am excited to announce a new format for UM & Global.  This new format involves several elements:

1. Visual redesign - As regular readers will have recognized by now, we've updated the look and feel of the blog.  We've added a distinctive logo, changed the color scheme accordingly, and moved to a three-column format.

2. Regular contributors - For most of the blog's history, we've featured a series of guest posts on the UMC's mission theology, Grace Upon Grace, and occasionally on other topics.  We're transitioning to a format that will include regular contributions by a list of select authors.  This list will increasingly include writers from outside the US as we try to provide a more globally representative selection of UMC views.  You can find the list of regular contributors on the right-hand side of the blog.  This list will continue to expand as new contributors are added.

3. Main topic categories - To help readers better navigate the content of UM & Global, we've identified six main topics covered by the blog - mission, global ecclesiology, global social issues, culture and diversity, international partnerships, and ecumenical and inter-religious relationships.  These topics reflect both the historic content of the blog and our foci for future posts.  You can find links to blogs on these topics on the right-hand side of the blog.

4. Global UMC news tweets - To better integrate the blog and the associated Twitter account, @globalumc, which has also been visually redesigned to better match the blog, tweets and re-tweets from that account with links to stories relevant to the global UMC now appear in the left-hand side of the blog.  This will supplement the online paper United Methodist Globe that compiles tweets from the @globalumc Twitter account and other accounts.

It's our hope at UM & Global that these changes will continue to make UM & Global an important source for news and views that help foster conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Recommended reading: Mary Ellen Kris on ministry from the margins

Mary Ellen Kris, a consultant for the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) on the Ministry with the Poor Area of Focus, has written a great reflection on the connection between the UMC's focus on the Ministry with the Poor and the call for mission from the margins found in the WCC's Together towards Life document.  It's entitled "Ministry With the Poor at Its Best: Ministry from the Margins," and you can find it online here.  For more posts related to Together towards Life, click on the tag at the bottom of this post.