If word-abuse was a crime, many pastors/ministers would be in jail over how they have abused one of our most important, biblical terms – the word stewardship. If you were to poll your congregation and ask them what the word stewardship means, I suspect that if your church is like most, the overwhelming majority of them would tell you it has something to do with money and giving. Part right and part wrong. And as my grandmother would tell me, “If something is partially wrong, it is all wrong.”
I spent eight years of my life in Bible college and seminary and majored in theology. I can tell you that in all those years, I never took one class or even had one lecture on the theology of stewardship. So, everything I share with you I have learned since those days long past. Since very few institutions of higher learning include this topic in their curriculum, the overwhelming majority of pastors/ministers have either no stewardship theology or worse yet, a bad stewardship theology. Consequently, it is really no surprise that our churches are at best theologically adrift in this area of stewardship and at worst being falsely taught.
Let me give you a few examples of how the word stewardship is being abused in many churches. Church bulletins and newsletters often have a stewardship report. Of course, it always includes the amount of the offerings. Churches have fund-raisers/capital campaigns, but often refer to them as stewardship campaigns. A stewardship campaign sounds much more spiritual, don’t you think? We use the term “good stewards” to refer to people who are “good givers.” We teach that tithing will make a person a good steward. Many larger churches now have stewardship pastors who are really financial pastors. I could go on, but I think you see my point.
Many churches use the word stewardship as if it is a synonym for giving. But let me suggest that stewardship is not a synonym for giving. It is actually an antonym (opposite meaning). Let me explain. Giving has to do with what we deploy. Stewardship has to do with what we retain. Stewardship is not about what we put in the offering when we go to church; it is about what we do with what is left in our check book after we have done our giving. Stewardship is about what we are keeping.
So, what exactly does the word stewardship mean? Let me explain stewardship as if it were a three legged stool and all three legs are essential for the stewardship stool to properly stand.
Leg #1: The first “leg” of this stool is the fact that God owns everything because He created everything. For example, King David tells us in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.” I think that about covers everything we will ever get our hands on in this life.
Leg #2: The second “leg” of this stool is the fact that not only did God create us, but He also redeemed us from slavery to the prince of this world through the death of His son, Jesus Christ. Paul tells us in Titus 2:13b-14, “Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” We now belong to Him again. So, God actually owns us twice: Once because He made us and twice because He bought us back.
Leg #3: The final “leg,” the one that enables the stool to stand, is the fact that we own nothing: We have been called by God to be stewards, to carry out His wishes for His property.
So, Stewardship accurately defined is: (v) “to plan, to manage, to administer;” (n) “a manager.” The concept of stewardship repositions us from being the owner to being merely a manager of a very small portion of the Owner’s vast material holdings. For many believers this idea is a revolutionary concept.
One Sunday I was preaching at a church that had just completed taking their entire congregation through our thirteen-week life stewardship, small-group study. Prior to the start of the service a distinguished, older gentleman came up to me, shook my hand and said, “Jay, the one thing in your study that has had the single greatest impact on me was this idea that God owns everything, including me.” He went on to say, “I have been in the church all my life, but somehow this truth had escaped me entirely.” He confessed, “I thought I was the one getting up each day and going to work and I was the one making the money. It was mine. But when I came to understand that God owns me and everything I have, it has changed everything in my life!”
I hear this kind of comment routinely from believers once they are finally presented with the true, biblical, stewardship message. The truth be known, it likely wasn’t that this gentleman missed the stewardship teaching in his church, it is more likely that his church had never preached or taught on it before. This radical, biblical concept of life stewardship is easy enough to understand intellectually, if and when we finally do hear it. It is, I will confess, exceedingly difficult to consistently apply and live out practically speaking.
This “we are only the managers and not the owners” mindset forces us to ask one, critical question. And it demands that we ask it on a daily basis. The life-transforming question is this, “Lord, what do You want me to do with all that You have entrusted to me?”
It is no longer “How do I want to spend my day?” “It is now, God, how do you want me to spend Your day?”
It is no longer, “How do I want to spend my money?” It is now, “God, how do you want me to spend Your money?”
It is no longer, “How much of my money do I want to give to the Lord?” It is now, “God, how much of Your money should I be keeping for myself?”
It is no longer, “How do I want to care for and feed my body?” It is now, “God, how do You want me to care for and feed Your body?”
It is no longer, “How do I want to raise my children?” It is now, “God, how do You want me to raise Your children?”
It is no longer, “What kind of house and car do I want to have?” It is now, “God, what kind of house and car do You want me to have?”
Do you see how this owner/manager issue impacts every single area of our lives?
Let me offer you a personal challenge. For the next 30 days as soon as you wake up in the morning, even before you put your feet on the floor, ask God this one question, “God, what do You want me to do today with all You have entrusted to me?” I am quite confident that if you start asking this one, prayerful question on a daily basis, it will change everything in your life just as it has in mine.
Can you see how if this life stewardship message were to be powerfully, effectively and boldly communicated to your congregation on a consistent basis, it has the potential to radically change the culture of your entire church? Can you imagine what your church would look like if everyone from the youngest children to your most senior members were to begin living each day of their lives asking this one, life-changing, stewardship question and were humbly and earnestly seeking to carry out the wishes of their Owner on a daily basis?
What would happen to their marriages, to their families, to their finances, to the number of volunteers, to their physical health, to the amount of their giving and to the impact and outreach of the church? This one word STEWARDSHIP has the power to change everything!
But let me be quite clear here. This stewardship message will never impact your people and the culture of the church if it doesn’t start with you. You must first personally embrace and adopt a stewardship lifestyle. In other words, you need to first practice it before you preach it. The impact of this life stewardship message all rises and falls with you.
Many people over the years have suggested that I abandon using the term stewardship because it is so badly used and carries such negative baggage in churches and among Christians. But there are some things in life worth fighting for. And for me, the word stewardship is so profoundly important that it is worth trying to rescue from the mire of misuse, abuse and negativity – restoring it to its proper place of honor and respect with the other great theological concepts we so fiercely defend. It is a word that has the power to transform believers, to transform churches and yes, to even transform pastors.
Every sermon you preach and every lesson you teach should be grounded in and built upon this foundational truth that God is the Owner and we are His stewards. Remember, God has graciously entrusted the care and feeding of His church to you. Let me exhort you, steward it well!
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E. G. “Jay” Link is the President of Stewardship Ministries, a teaching, training, mentoring and content ministry working with churches and nonprofit leaders to equip them with the biblical knowledge and training resources needed to serve all ages and all economic levels of believers to effectively live their lives as good and faithful stewards of all that God has entrusted to them. He is the author of three books, “Spiritual Thoughts on Material Things: Thirty Days of Food for Thought,” “To Whom Much is Given: Navigating the Ten Life Dilemmas Affluent Christians Face” and “Family Wealth Counseling: Getting to the Heart of the Matter.”