Monday, March 05, 2007

'Take What You Need'

Last night I was talking to a friend and he told me about a church service he'd recently heard about. Just after a sermon about giving & receiving, the preacher had the offering buckets distributed throughout the congregation/audience and told everyone in attendance to 'take what you need'. When the buckets returned to the stage, there was still money in them. So, he proceeded to exhort them all the more to take the money, and if they didn't he would shread it at all (as he did with a few bills). The upshot of all this was to tell them about how the church's benevolence ministry is there to help people out when they've fallen on hard times.

Okay, so here's my question, is this a good lesson? I'll confess that I'm pretty ambivalent about it. On one level, sure, this is all well and good. They're sharing money with one another, etc. I get that. But my initial, and stronger, reaction is more negative. I'm just not entirely sure why. Part of the reason is that I know the Sunday services of this particular church are (or at least used to be -- no clue about how things are now) 'seeker-oriented', and thus not intended to be a full manifestation of their fellowship & teaching. If that is the still the case, this just seems really flashy to me, and possibly (though I'll hold off from assessing their intentions here) a little disingenuous.

Also, just what exactly did he mean by 'take what you need?' Now, my friend wasn't at this church, and he couldn't be sure what the minister's exact words were, but they had to be something like this. He wouldn't say, 'Take what you want', would he? And if he did, well, there'd be no ambivalence about this at all -- I'd be thoroughly against it, but still very keen on attending the next time I saw he was preaching on the subject. But 'take what you need'? I think I'm pretty representative of a lot people's financial burden's -- even with my catastrophic student loan debt, since the value of most people's houses are bound to go belly-up in a few decades and explode the assumption of their long-term investment value -- and my 'need' would surely go beyond what I would be expected to take out of a church offering bucket. I could dig in there until I pulled out enough for rent & utilities, or whatever amount would actually put K. & me in above zero each month, but if I did so, oh dear, the IHOP would be abuzz with snickers & gasps about 'that greedy guy who took over a grand!' (None of this even addresses that one's financial need might be brought about because somebody just bought a new boat that's really straining their budget, or that gas-guzzling SUV parked out in the church parking lot, or the superfluous education one sought for the sake of getting a job that'll let him have summer's off -- not out of a real lack.)

And the heavy-handedness of cutting up money? Is the point of this to situate the reception of a church's benevolence alongside the (evangelical) Christian message that one accepts ('receives' even) Jesus as savior not simply because he loved us first but because of the content of that love -- because he was broken, beaten & killed for our guilt as sinners? Is the reception of this grace and the reception of financial stability so close?

And yet, as I say, I'm open to the potentially positive aspects of this object lesson. I'm ambivalent, though obviously not the insidious brand of ambivalence that sees a 50/50 split between the good and the bad. What about you? I'm genuinely curious what many of you make of all this.