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I know people who dread a stewardship sermon as much as they would a tax audit.

There are advantages to being a third-career pastor. One of the advantages of sitting in the pews rather than standing in the pulpit for most of my life is that I know what it feels like when the church comes looking for your wallet. I’ve been on the receiving end of Shakedown Sunday.

There are two approaches to giving that have been commonly used by churches over the years. The oldest is spiritual extortion. The church holds your soul hostage and tells you that you’ll never see it alive again until you pay up. The old version of this was indulgences. The modern version is:

• If members don’t begin taking the financial situation of the church seriously and increase their giving, this church won’t be here much longer. Do you want that on your conscience?

• You can’t be a part of this church unless you tithe.

Spiritual extortion works in the short run, because fear is a tremendous motivating factor. Fear makes people do things they wouldn’t normally dream of doing; like increasing their giving to church.

The problem with this approach is it has nothing to do with the Gospel. It says that Jesus did not save anybody from anything, that your checkbook can do something for you that Jesus could not do. That isn’t Christianity. A gift is not a gift if you have to beat it out of someone.

The second approach is the high roller sales promotion. Have you seen those vacation promotions for an upscale resort or real estate development? You are offered the garden of Eden, a world filled with luxuries and comfort. You are under no obligation to buy anything. All they ask is that you spend an hour with a sales representative who will give you an opportunity to invest in this dream property.

These people know all kinds of techniques to convince you that you would be a fool not to buy. They play on a hidden kernel of guilt arising from the fact that most of us don’t feel right taking something without giving anything in return.

That hour with the salesperson can be excruciating. But if you can endure it without buying what they’re selling, you get a free weekend of living in style.

That sums up most modern efforts at stewardship. The church offers a fabulous package -- forgiveness of sins, purpose, peace that passes all understanding, eternal life. It’s free! It’s all underwritten by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You are under no obligation to spend anything. All we ask is that you sit through an annual stewardship drive. A couple of Sundays or so of intense salesmanship.

There are all kinds of techniques to convince you that it is your own interest to invest in the church. We can play on a hidden kernel of guilt that arises from the fact that, deep down, we don’t feel right taking something without giving in return.

That time with the pastor or stewardship bunch can be excruciating. But if you can grit your teeth and hold tight to your checkbook, you get all those benefits that the church of God has to offer without having to pay much for it.

My vision of stewardship comes from our Christmas tradition of giving gifts. When children are young, it’s all about getting -- it’s all about the gifts you are going to get.

We teach our children that there’s a duty involved here. You get presents from others; and you give presents to others. That keeps everything fair. But the fact is that young children are more interested in what they get than what they give.

A wonderful thing happens, though, when children reach a certain age. I’m not sure when it happened in our family; but there came a time when what our children looked forward to the most on Christmas Eve was that moment when a brother or sister or parent opened their present. The gift they chose to give, that they paid for. Even when they had little money, they were determined to give the best present they could. What gave them the greatest joy was not what they got, but seeing the pleasure their gift brings to another.

When we experience that, we experience the pleasure God gets from giving.

Most churches have budget concerns that could be solved by pressuring, pleading, or shaming people into giving. But I wonder how much pleasure God can take in a congregation run on that basis.

What if the best reason for deciding on a surprisingly generous financial commitment was simply the anticipation of the twinkle of pleasure in God’s eyes as God unwraps that gift?

Come now, and enter into the joy of your master.

Nathan Aaseng serves as pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, WI. He has had more than 170 books published, sacred and secular, for readers from 8 to adult. His latest work is The Five Realms, an epic fantasy based on 1 Corinthians 1:27.

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