Friday, August 24, 2018

Review: God vs. Money: Winning Strategies in the Combat Zone by J. Clif Christopher

I recently received a copy of J. Clif Christopher's God vs. Money to review. 

Earlier this year I read another of Christopher's books, Not Your Parents' Offering Plate, because it was recommended in another book I was reading with my church's leadership team. I found myself furiously scribbling in the margins my disagreement with Christopher. Not in everything, of course - he has some practical ideas for stewardship and the ministry of finances in the life of a congregation. But as a whole, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. I worked in the alumni records office during my college years, and although I loved my supervisor and the staff there, I was off put by the way the school targeted potential givers, something with which I had no prior experience. I saw the file folders (everything was paper!) tracking the children of alums for years and years, so that the school was ready and waiting to target potential legacy students, and the corresponding potential for new donor money, for example. This is no unique practice to my alma mater. Things like this are standard for development work. I get that. I later worked in the development office of a theatre company, and things weren't much different. And I still believe in and support both my alma mater and the theatre at which I worked. They are good organizations. What I read in Offering Plate was a recommendation that churches operate in more or less the same way as a non-profit development office would. The nagging question that stayed with me is: should the church really be no different? He also declared about ten different things "clergy malpractice," which is certainly strong language, and everytime this phrase popped up, I cringed. I still had several of my parishioners read Offering Plate. They had generally the same mixed feelings I did. Anyway...

I admit, then, that I come into God vs. Money with some baggage. Some challenges: 

  • The entire book uses an extended war metaphor. Getting people to choose God over money is like a war that we must win, Christopher argues. In the Introduction, he notes that some might be uncomfortable with the imagery. "For those of you who get squeamish about war language, I can understand, but I do not apologize. I truly believe that we must take the attack upon our Christian values by a greedy, self-serving society very seriously .... We must treat it like a war." (xii) Personally, I am not just "squeamish" about war language. I find it extremely problematic. Certainly, the scriptures are laced with military conquests and violence. But is that the aim? Is war the fulfillment of God's vision for the world? I think Jesus witnesses to an alternate path, and I don't think the imagery Christopher uses was in anyway necessary to get his point across. Examples: "Attack! Attack! Attack! Preach it!" (36) "You cannot win if you bring a knife to a gunfight." (37) 
  • All the God-language is male.
  • I didn't find the content of this book to be significantly different than Offering Plate. I felt like it overlapped a lot, and so little content seemed "new." 
  • Like many books on stewardship, I found little that addresses poverty and how stewardship connects with folks experiencing poverty in a meaningful way. What does giving and generosity mean for people who live in poverty? 
Some positives: 
  • Christopher consistently talks about high-expectation discipleship, and acknowledges that this might result in a "smaller army." (41) Too often, I find books on church leadership imagine that high level discipleship somehow magically will also result in droves of people wanting to sign up for this deeper commitment. I think high-expectation discipleship is a good thing that we can help folks grow into, and I think we also must acknowledge it isn't an easy message to share. 
  • Christopher emphasizes the importance of personal testimony in the life of the church. Although his focus in on pre-offering placement to encourage meaningful giving, I think the benefits of such a practice are much broader. 
  • He stresses the importance of really knowing what we're about, what we would do with more financial resources, and being able to clearly articulate our vision for the church simply and compellingly. 
  • His chapter titled "A Battle Plan" has a lot of concrete suggestions, from an emphasis on personal thank yous to seasonal tithing challenges. 
Questions: 
  • Christopher says that "the vast majority of strong Protestant church in America do not have annual fund campaigns." (48) This surprised me. I don't see a reference supporting his statement, and I want to know more about it. 
  • Christopher emphasizes that clergy need to develop unique relationships with people of significant financial resources. He says that pastors develop unique relationships with all sorts of people, so we shouldn't be upset by this idea. And sure, that's true. But then shouldn't we also have unique relationships with people of middling or low financial resources? And if that's true, how is this different than simply saying clergy should have unique relationships with all their parishioners based on their gifts/personalities/needs? 

So - I didn't love this book. It might be just the right thing for some folks, but for me, there wasn't enough good material to outweigh some of the problematic parts. 
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