By Brian Mavis
What would happen if a church gave back to her small groups half of what the groups tithed and asked them to invest the money in ministry? I had pondered this for a few years. I wondered whether the people in the small groups would be motivated to give more, and what they would choose to do with the money.
When I joined the staff at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado, I shared some of these thoughts and questions with the leaders and elders, and I was floored when they said, “Let’s find out.”
Before I share the results, I need to explain why I wanted to try this and the few guidelines we came up with.
One of the main reasons for this experiment was my belief that most small groups don’t live up to their full potential. To paraphrase what Mufasa said to Simba (in The Lion King), the small groups “are more than what they’ve become.” What the groups must become is not only a part of the church, but the church itself.
Groups are meant to be three-dimensional—focused inward, upward, and outward—but they’ve only been two-dimensional. They are good at reaching in (caring for each other) and reaching up (growing closer to God), but they are not good at reaching out (serving the least and the lost). They aren’t externally focused.
A second reason for this experiment was for people to see just who they were helping with their tithes. I believed that if people could see who they were helping, it would inspire them to give more generously and more joyfully.
Third, people seem to grow more in Christ when combining serving with giving. I felt that if people, who already were giving, also had the responsibility of finding and meeting needs, it would open their eyes to see what God sees.
The church wanted to keep this simple and to give the groups as much freedom as possible, but we also wanted to stay out of trouble, so we came up with seven basic rules:
1. Start small. We decided to start with just two groups.
2. The money couldn’t be used for the benefit of anyone in the group (e.g., no small group trips to Hawaii).
3. The group needed to decide together who to help and how. We emphasized that the groups should discover the needs through their own relationships. The needs would be brought to the group, and the group would decide on action steps together.
4. The groups needed to inform several church leaders about who they wanted to help, how they would help, and how much money was needed. This provided accountability to protect the church and the groups.
5. The church had veto power. If the church thought the request for funds for a particular need was not appropriate, it could say no. (We have not had to exercise this veto power yet.)
6. The check would be written to the need, not to a person. In other words, if the person being helped had a need that included a hospital bill, the money would be written to the hospital, and not to the individual.
7. The group reported the results. Periodically the group would tell a few of the staff leaders the outcomes of their giving and serving.
When I approached the two groups with this idea, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would they like it or would they hesitate to do it? There was a bit of both, but the primary response, by far, was enthusiasm.
A few months into the experiment I asked several participants what they really thought when they heard the idea. One person voiced the sentiments of many: “It was a great idea to be able to have a chance to see our tithes in action and to be part of that decision.”
Another said, “Our group was always looking for service work, and when we found it, all required expenses were out of pocket. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to look for more involved and extensive projects than we could fund on our own.”
Several issues did come up. Some people in the small groups attended churches other than LifeBridge, but they liked the concept so much they switched part of their giving (if not all) to us. (In at least one case, a church was asked to forward half the person’s tithe to our small group. The church declined.)
Another concern provided an interesting contrast among generations. Some in the older group struggled with the idea of receiving 50 percent of their giving because it might disclose how much people were giving. On the other hand, the younger group wanted the church to consider giving 100 percent back to the group.
The Effect on the Groups
After participating in this for awhile, did the groups play the “who gave how much” game or did they strike to receive 100 percent of their offerings? Neither. But a challenging issue did come up that the groups didn’t anticipate—figuring out who to help and how to help them.
That was fine with the church; the leaders wanted group members to struggle with this. And it has been fine with the groups too. Members see it as making their groups stronger. As one person said, “It causes us to discuss and even disagree, but we’ve bonded together even more.”
As time has passed, the groups have gotten better at finding and discussing the needs. “It has been a great challenge for us to work together to figure out how to use the money. I think it has bonded us together in some ways. It took us awhile to get into the rhythm/pattern of figuring out how to give out money, but lately we have more ideas than we can deal with . . . and we are ready to give . . . it’s a great feeling!”
Participants began to see needs all around them, and working to fill those needs and serve others has brought them closer together.
“I think this is a glimpse into what it was like to be a part of the first church,” one group member said. “It’s wonderful to be able to go to my group with needs that I see and figure out how we can help as a group.”
The Effect on Individuals
Some group members have increased their giving. For others, the amount has remained the same, but everyone’s thoughts about giving have changed.
Some people were already strong givers, and this experiment has only reinforced their commitment. “I feel more comfortable giving now, not as embarrassed or intimidated by it,” said one.
“My giving to the Lord,” said another, “has always been a big part of my relationship with him, and this reminded of that.”
Regardless of previous giving habits, the trial exposed everyone’s eyes to needs and how their giving can help. One group member put it this way: “It has made us really think about what we are giving and why, instead of just putting a check in a plate.”
The experiment also has expanded patterns of service. The father of one of the younger participants told me he called his son one night to see if he and his wife wanted to go out to eat. The son said they couldn’t because they were baby-sitting medically fragile twins (and were happy to do it).
His father said, “I know my son. He wouldn’t have been motivated to serve this way without his group being challenged and resourced to give and serve.”
The Effect on People Served by the Groups
The two groups have helped many hurting people with burdens too heavy to carry on their own. The twin boys mentioned above needed around-the-clock care. One group helped their family financially and took turns watching the twins a couple of times a week to give the parents some much needed rest.
“It was very humbling going over there and seeing what a hard situation they were in. I know they would not trade their twins for anything, but I could tell how big of a strain it was on them. They were so thankful, and it was really nice to see what a difference our time and money can do in people’s lives.”
One of the groups funded a Make-A-Wish-type trip for a single mom with a severely disabled daughter. The woman who brought the need to the group said, “It felt good to be able to help someone in a significant way like that . . . something I couldn’t have done alone but was able to do in a group.”
Two different families who were going through the trials of cancer and chemotherapy were served by the groups. Bills were paid and meals were prepared throughout the chemo treatments. One group member said, “The rich stories of how it touched our hearts to serve was overwhelming.” A friend of one of these families saw what was happening and she wrote the church a thank-you letter saying her friend never would have made it without the group’s help.
Another mom, whose husband is in prison, was working day and night to pay her bills. One group helped pay off some of her debts and is currently coming up with a few ways to help the woman’s 17-year-old daughter prepare for college.
There are many more stories, but suffice it to say that without these groups (and this experiment), these people may not have experienced the grace of God through the lives of Christians.
Brian Mavis is externally focused director at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado.