Giving as God commands

Paul commends the Christian brethren in Macedonia who, though themselves suffering economic want after three subsequent wars reduced the Macedonians to petitioning Tiberius for a reduction of taxes, nevertheless managed to raise a considerable offering for the church in Jerusalem. The Macedonians had faced famine conditions following widespread crop failures in Judea.

It is no secret that the North American Division saw a dip in giving following the financial downturn of September 2008. Due to the resilience of the American economy, the US has since experienced recovery. But the church in the developing world may not be faring as well. That may be about to change, thanks in part to a Mexican-born author whose research, if implemented, could lead to an even better financial situation in the NAD.

Dr. Lemuel Olán Jimenez received his DMin from the Adventist University in Montemorelos, Mexico, in 2014. Using behavioral science, he focused on the juncture between the church member and the offering plate. What happens in the church member’s mind when putting freewill offerings in the offering plate? How does a member arrive at an offering amount?

In deciding on a dissertation thesis following the September 2008, financial crisis, Olán was very mindful of the effects the financial crisis was having on local churches in Mexico. As a conference stewardship department head and a pastor in a mixed urban-rural district, he knew just how badly the churches were being affected.

Though his research focused on the churches in three Mexican Conferences, the study design is valid across ethnic and demographic groups. The applied results have been very promising, and could potentially turn into one of the biggest stories coming out of the Inter-American Division in 2015.

Beginning in 2012, Pastor Olán’s research was published in a small 21-chapter booklet with about five pages per chapter. Giving as God Commands is a behavioral diagnostic disguised as an inviting booklet, written in everyday language. At the close of every chapter the reader is met with two or three simple self-assessment questions.

Using Biblical evidence, Olán argues that family poverty is inversely related to the amount of one’s giving. The more we give, the less need we experience. And so far, Mexican church members agree.

Recently, the Baja California Conference in the North Mexican Union printed 4,500 copies for use conference-wide. An interesting result followed. Though the booklet aims at raising freewill offerings, conference tithes went from a 2 percent annual growth to 7.5 percent. This may not seem like much, but it represents a few million pesos for the Baja California Conference, an area of sparse membership that struggles to meet evangelism needs.

The Mexican Interoceanic Union, the South Pacific Conference (the states of Morelos and Guerrero), printed 5,000 books and implemented the strategy. Within months, an 18 percent budget deficit turned into a 10 percent budget surplus--a whopping 30 percent increase.

According to Olán, the conferences in Mexico have been implementing the diagnostic plan as an all-voluntary program. Pastors describe the book to their churches as a Conference initiative. Church members receive the books, and a Sabbath School leader tallies how many have reported reading the book. The members then receive certification certificates showing they have read the book.

The unusual success of the program in raising tithe and offering giving has so far meant that the conferences now have to return less money to the churches in their territories.

The Western Conference of Chiapas just printed a run of 10,000 books, and the program is under way. Now the Dominican Union has decided to implement the program Union-wide.

So what is the main argument of the booklet? According to Olán, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, like the Protestant forebearers that came before it, is still suffering from the failure of the Protestant churches to base voluntary giving on a strictly Biblical foundation. He argues convincingly that the only way to do this is to go back to the Bible. Incidentally, Ellen White tells us that ancient Israel returned a tithe and offering combination equal to one quarter of their yearly income.

The contributions required of the Hebrews for religious and charitable purposes amounted to fully one-fourth of their income. So heavy a tax upon the resources of the people might be expected to reduce them to poverty; but, on the contrary, the faithful observance of these regulations was one of the conditions of their prosperity. (Patriarchs and Prophets 527)

Olán argues that the period up to the founding of the U.S. as a political entity was the period for the Protestant church to have weaned itself from a dependent mindset of giving. Instead, most of Protestantism never fully grasped the concept of the separation of church and state and continued to depend on civil coffers for its financial support. With the formulation of the separation of church and state in the First Amendment in 1791, Protestantism was forcibly cut off from government financial support. But the Protestant churches never adopted a solid Biblical basis for freewill offerings.

And so a secular concept of voluntary giving permeated U.S. churches, resulting in freewill offerings based on personal whim rather than on solid Biblical principles.

This may be an unwelcome message to some. But according to Olán, church members in the conferences using the program have nothing but good to say about their changed approach to giving and the blessings they believe God has brought them. It may be just the message many in the NAD need to hear.

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