Mine or Ours?

Here, Matt Wilson shares his thinking behind his new four-part course to help church members reflect on their relationship with money, and generate practical ways to transform this relationship and contribute to the community at the same time.

Some years ago, an irresponsible house mate left me with a substantial debt. The bill, which had a deadline looming, was stressing me out as I couldn’t afford to pay it. One evening the phone rang. It was someone I knew only tenuously. They were calling to tell me that God had prompted them to give me a gift, of £500. It blew me away as with this money I could pay off the debt in full, with a few pennies to spare. The experience of receiving such generosity was really moving. A large part of that emotion was the knowledge that this gift had originated from a place of prayer. It was amazing to feel the sense of reassurance that God saw me, cared about me, provided for me, and saved me. Sometime later, with the debt cleared, I reflected on what that gift had achieved. It had made a deep and lasting impression on me, changed me. My vision of the kind of person I wanted to become was permanently affected. Locating others in situations of need and finding ways to bless them in the way that I had been blessed had leapt right up my list of personal priorities.

The story above is, I hope, aspirational, in the sense that it might stir up a spirit of generosity and encourage a looser hold upon money, a willingness to release it to another, as an expression of God’s grace. Yet we often struggle to let money go. We fight against possessiveness, a tendency we know all too well is not unique to ourselves but rather a universal trait of fallen humanity. Anyone who has watched children at play in a nursery will have seen the tug of war that can happen when two toddlers become fixated upon the same toy: “Mine!” they cry at the tops of their voices. As responsible parents we try our best to guide our kids through this stage as quickly as possible with repeated encouragements to share. How well though do we, as adults, actually model sharing behaviour in a world in which possession is nine tenths of the law? Justin Welby sums up the quandary:

My autonomy, my control over what I want and what I do, [my] desire to ration my love rather than to let it flow out abundantly (because deep down I always feel it might run out) has to be surrendered to the God of abundance and grace. [Dethroning Mammon, 2016]

Such are the questions I was seeking to explore and to some extent answer in my recent William Leech research fellowship. Through years of working around Britain with churches of many traditions I know how rare it is to find examples of healthy financial discipleship. My hope was that I might generate some helpful material for use in church communities, for leaders and laity alike. I knew this would involve two distinct but inter-related elements, a robust theological resource, drawing on the work of scholars far more able than myself, to tell the story of God’s economics as revealed in the scriptures. I also wanted to respond to direct requests being made by church leaders for a practical resource that would help members of their congregations to reflect on their relationship with money, and to find new and creative ways to transform this relationship, in community.

There was one phrase spoken by Jesus that I found myself returning to again and again during the project: “Freely you have received, freely give”. (Matt 10:8) I call this the “pay-it-forward principle”. You see, in the ancient world, at the time of Jesus, when one person gave a gift to another it established a form of social contract. The receiver of the gift was left in the awkward position of feeling obligated to make a gift in return. This effect isn’t as pronounced in our own time and culture, although it has by no means faded away entirely. We still see evidence of it in the way we exchange gifts at Christmas, or even in the way that a group of friends take it in turns to buy a round of drinks. Within our Christian life this sense of obligation surfaces in a nagging sense that we need to somehow ‘repay’ God for the incredible gifts that he lavishes on us. Of course, we can’t, and neither does he expect us to.

As Christians we use a special word to describe the undeserved gifts we receive from God’s hand: Grace. However, as we study the New Testament closely, we find that whilst grace is free and cannot be earned, it does not leave us undisturbed. Quite the opposite. God’s grace arrives in our lives like a pebble dropped into a pond – creating ripples outward. I believe that in the phrase “Freely you have received, freely give” Jesus is flipping us around 180 degrees: a pay-it-back obligation becomes a pay-it-forward opportunity. God’s grace initiates a chain reaction, flowing through us to others, in all sorts of acts of love, kindness, solidarity and generosity.

One of my heroes, Tony Campolo, was kind enough to help me launch my new work. In opening he said, “In the church whenever we talk about money we seem to end up having a conversation about tithing. Yet, there is so much more to it than that.” He’s absolutely right, and it’s the “so much more to it” part of the conversation that I want my work to facilitate.

I have two options for you if you’d like to join this conversation. You can jump in at the deep end and read the full publication Mine or Ours? or you can get together with some friends and work through the Mine or Ours? small group discussion material – you never know, you may find yourselves holding a Generosity Dinner or even starting a Common Fund to benefit the community.

Wherever you choose to begin, I hope and pray that you find the new resources illuminating and helpful.

© Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Managing Director of GoodLabs, a consultancy that helps charitable and commercial organisations enhance their social impact and amplify their social value. He has previously served as as a senior charity executive with Eden Network, Safe Families for Children and TLG. Matt is a fellow of The RSA and a William Leech Research Fellow based at St John’s College, Durham University.