Like most young men, I grew up hoping to be rich. Not filthy rich. Not private-jet rich. Just rich enough to do what I wanted when I wanted, without worrying about how much it cost. You know, average rich.
My initial strategy for attaining rich was to be a rock star. So I taught myself to play the guitar and piano, rounded up a few high school friends, and started a band. And while the rock star thing obviously didn’t work out, I did learn a thing or two about what it means to be rich.
When I was in fifth grade, we lived in a small town in Florida where my dad was the pastor of the First Baptist Church. The parsonage was located in a typical small-town, middle-class neighborhood. Not upper middle class. Just middle class. One afternoon, my dad asked me to ride with him to take our housekeeper home. Normally she drove. But on this particular afternoon her car was in the shop, so we drove her home.
Turns out, I had never been to that particular part of our town. The houses were small, the yards were mostly dirt, and there was junk everywhere. I still remember feeling uncomfortable. When we got home, our house looked large by comparison. Our yard looked manicured by comparison. Even our car felt fine in comparison to what I’d seen in her neighborhood.
Another time, my friend Bruce came over to play. I can still remember Bruce standing in our kitchen, looking around and saying, “Andy, your house is so big. Are you rich?”
I was so uncomfortable. Rich? We weren’t rich. And our house wasn’t big. But when we took Bruce home that evening, I understood. By comparison, our house was big. By comparison, we were rich.
And therein lies the problem, doesn’t it?
You can be rich and not know it. You can be rich and not feel it. You can be rich and not act like it. In fact, most rich people aren’t all that good at being rich. Even (and maybe especially) within the church.
This is not a new message for me. This journey began with a message series I preached in 2007 entitled “How to Be Rich.” Two things prompted the series. First, our culture’s incessant messaging about how to get rich when, in fact, most of us got rich a long time ago and nobody told us. Second, Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding how rich Christians are to behave.
After studying 1 Timothy 6:17-18, I realized that a lot of rich Christians are not very good at being rich. Then it dawned on me why that was true. Nobody taught them how! So for four weekends I navigated our congregation through the terms and conditions of Paul’s instructions to rich people.
The series resulted in a lot of healthy conversations. So I followed up the next year with a message on the same topic combined with a month-long generosity campaign aimed at our local communities. I told our congregants that we were going to practice being rich so we would be good at it should we ever be so fortunate.
The generosity campaign included a hefty donation goal that was due by the end of the week. Most of it came in the first day. In addition to financial gifts, we asked everybody to donate two or three hours over the course of the month to the charities receiving the funds we collected. And by the way, none of these charities asked us for money. That’s what makes a Be Rich campaign so much fun.
Behind the scenes, a team of staff and volunteers went into our local communities to find charities that were making a measurable difference but needed a little wind in their sails. So imagine their surprise when a handful of our staff showed up at their doors a few weeks later with checks. In most cases, big checks. Checks they were not expecting. And imagine a few weeks later when we opened our services with a video of the staff and volunteers at these world-class charities receiving their surprise donations. Not a dry eye in the place. Suddenly and simultaneously, everybody in the house experienced the truth of Jesus’ words that it is, in fact, more blessed to give than to receive.
In the fall of 2012, I challenged our churches to give $1.5 million toward our Be Rich giving initiative. They gave $5.2 million. In a week. And we in turn gave 100 percent of it away. No shipping and handling costs. No overhead or operating expenses.
We gave it all away.
In addition, our congregants provided 34,000 volunteer hours to local charities that are volunteer dependent. And if that wasn’t enough, we collected 20,332 shoe boxes for Samaritan’s Purse—the largest collection they’ve ever received from a local church. Pretty good for “rich rehearsal.”
Am I bragging? Heck, yeah. I’m so proud of our churches that I get misty-eyed just thinking about the difference they made and continue to make.
Now I realize you and your church are already doing amazing things in your community and around the world. You have your own stories you could tell. I don’t want to replace or improve anything you are currently doing. I just want to encourage more conversations and reflections about what to do with what we have. On this point Jesus could not have been clearer. It’s not what you have that matters. It’s what you do with what you have that will count for you or against you in the kingdom of heaven.
Generosity and compassion were the hallmark of the first-century church. It captured the attention of the pagan world, and I’m convinced that unconditional generosity continues to be our best entry point for showing people the unconditional love of Christ. As church leaders, we can motivate our people to act in ways that re-anchor the church to those undeniable, mind-boggling, culture-shifting demonstrations of compassion and generosity.