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Book Review of “The Generous Church: A Guide for Pastors”

The Generous Church by Tom Berlin (book cover)The Generous Church: A Guide for Pastors
by Tom Berlin
Abingdon Press, 2016
Available from Cokesbury

What difference does generosity make in the church? Why is generosity so vital for congregations? Author Tom Berlin, the pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, calls the church to focus on its distinctive mission—to bring to fruition the desire to “make a difference in the world, in the name of Christ” (page 9).

Berlin is convinced that when we share the gospel “so that others will receive salvation, then giving that once felt like a hardship becomes a joy” (8). Being part of a generous church is energizing, since “something important is always at stake” (24). People then realize that their presence, dedication, and participation matter in other people’s lives.

But what if you feel that your congregation is already generous? Berlin cautions us against making that assumption. Visitors might not experience your church as friendly, loving, or compassionate to people outside their circle (17-18).

Would a guest in worship find your congregation self-absorbed? Berlin lifts up a key point in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 speech, “Citizenship in a Republic.” Roosevelt disapproved of those who did nothing for the common good, claiming that they would act “if only the conditions of life were not exactly as they actually are” (20).

Does that sentiment sound familiar? Berlin warns the church not to “loiter in wishful thinking rather than stepping out in the adventure of sacrificial doing” (10). Christ calls us to work together, reaching out to bring the news of salvation and tangible assistance to our neighbors in need.

A generous church doesn’t solely focus on nurturing its members. Instead, it directs its spiritual sustenance to go out in mission. Berlin shares a formative experience from his high school youth group. Gatherings concluded with people in a circle facing one another, arms crossed in front, holding hands as they said a benediction. At “Amen,” they turned to face outward, as a visible, physical reminder to go share God’s love with the world (26-27). Imagine the impact on your congregation if Sunday school classes, committee meetings, youth groups, and church council meetings were to adopt this discipline of “facing” the other outside our walls.

What prevents a church from becoming more generous? “The Reluctance” is a phrase that Berlin uses to describe a shadowy doubter lurking in the back of many pastors’ minds that seeks to dissuade them from talking about money (30). Reluctance encroaches on our efforts to be faithful, tempting us to dwell on negative views grounded in fear. Berlin describes understandable reasons why many pastors may struggle with speaking about money, such as inexperience, lack of training, pastoral concerns, and financial misperceptions (30-32). Yet pastors may avail themselves of current stewardship resources to overcome these challenges. (Just explore our stewardship resources!)

Pastors who shy away from talking about money may show a lack of leadership that presents a spiritual problem. By avoiding talking about finances, a pastor “risks leaving the congregation uninformed of a biblical perspective and missing an important opportunity to reflect on their lives” (35). We need to remember that Christ’s Lordship embraces every aspect of our lives. “If people learn to be thoughtful about money, then over time they may begin,” Berlin writes, “to seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in a host of decisions, financial and otherwise” (37). Because the Lord is faithful, we can entrust our present and future to God’s care, responding to God’s grace with generosity.

Berlin holds a realistic view of the struggle to do the right thing and be generous, while feeling obligated to help one’s family first. A meaningful approach to preaching and teaching may seek to help people “set and maintain a balance between supporting themselves and helping others” (41). Boldly, Berlin advises that preachers “must have more passion and clarity in our messages than advertisers have in theirs [because we] … have the opportunity to offer people a better way of life that is free of debt, buyer’s remorse, and squandered wealth” (42). This theme reflects current insights in his stewardship program Defying Gravity: Break Free from the Culture of More.

Among the topics included in this helpful book are the benefits of strategic planning in two- to three-year increments as effective for engaging people in the church’s life and mission (44-47). Berlin offers sound advice on such practices as stewardship throughout the year, servant leadership, and effective ways to communicate ministry outcomes with the congregation and wider community. If generosity is the church’s “brand,” the church must live up to this high calling (13-16). A case study of the Volkswagen Corporation is presented as an example of corporate failure to stay true to the stated values of its brand (11-19). A set of questions is provided to assist pastors in listening prayerfully when talking with people about their giving (74-75). Although Berlin doesn’t single out practices to encourage generosity in children and youth, he considers them full participants in the church’s culture, ministry, and mission.

The concluding image of the book is a generous church gathered at a meeting where a new ministry initiative is being discussed. The congregants consider the venture a worthy goal and decide in faith to provide the money needed to make it become a reality. May all churches be guided by the Spirit to take on the noble goal of greater generosity!

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