Eric Foley knows about money, but not in the way you might be thinking. The ministry of Eric Foley involves how Christians should think about and give away their money. It’s not about fund-raising. It’s about transformational giving. More importantly, it’s about essential Christian discipleship. Eric Foley provides a refreshing antidote to the health and wealth heresy, and a wonderful reprieve from the earn-hoard-save materialism of many in the church today.
Sharefaith spent some time discussing these concepts with Eric. If you are a pastor or ministry leader, what you read in this interview could revolutionize your ministry. If you are a Christian with a desire to grow in Christlikeness, the material here will provide insights into how Christians should view money, use money, and give it away.
Many of our readers may not know you. Tell us, briefly, who you are and what you do.
My name is Eric Foley. My wife, Hyun Sook, and I founded Seoul USA ten years ago. Seoul USA serves as a bridge between the Korean church (both North and South) and the church in the rest of the world. We bring the gifts of the Korean church to the church in the West and the gifts of the church in the West to the Korean church. We have a particular focus on mobilizing the church around the world to support the underground church of North Korea.
I am one-third of the ministry’s Executive Team, overseeing its .W division. W stands for Doers Of The Word. Through .W we consult churches and Christian NGOs on comprehensive discipleship as a robust biblical alternative to secular fundraising practices. We believe secular fundraising practices weaken the generosity of the church and its members and also keep them from reaching full maturity in Christ. This creates dependence on specialized Christian NGOs to fulfill the eternal mission God intends to be undertaken by average Joe Christians in average Joe churches. This is actually bad for Christian NGOs as well, since it completely obscures their invaluable role as a church renewal movement raised up to support the church to grow to full maturity in Christ in all of the causes Christian NGOs serve. Over the past twenty years we’ve consulted and trained roughly 1,500 churches and Christian NGOs in North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia.
“Transformational Giving” is a term that you use. Can you explain it? Who’s being transformed? How? Why?
Transformational Giving is a general term for the growing movement to teach Christians financial giving in the wider context of comprehensive Christian discipleship. Churches and Christian NGOs either talk way too much or way too little about financial giving. Some have the idea that increased financial giving comes as a result of better and more creative tools, techniques, and strategies designed to motivate people to give. But that actually doesn’t work. During the history of modern fundraising—roughly the last fifty years—the percentage that the average Christian donates to charity has remained unchanged. It sits right around 3%, whether the economy is good or bad. And even though churches and Christian NGOs have implemented tons of new tools, techniques, and strategies, the average Christian actually gave away a higher percentage of their income during the Great Depression than they do today. They forget that the one power God never delegates to human beings is the power to change the human heart. So God stands guard at the entrance to the human heart and refuses to grant deep and lasting access to the practitioners of these tools, techniques, and strategies. Because it’s not how he grows Christians to full maturity in Christ.
On the other hand, some churches and Christian NGOs assume that people will give more if we don’t talk about money. They consider it a kind of virtue to not talk about money. But this overlooks the reality that giving, like every other element of discipleship, is learned through explicit teaching and guided practice. God commands us to teach Christians how to do it well. Since many churches don’t talk about giving, it’s no surprise that in the United States, 5% of church attendees account for 60% of the giving, 50% of the attendees account for 1% of the giving, and 20% of attendees give nothing.
“Stewardship” is often presented as the answer, but it is pretty weak broth. It looks in the wrong end of the telescope and shrinks biblical discipleship down to the task of making good and generous investments of one’s time, talent, and financial gifts. But in Romans 12:1-2, the focus is not on the transformation of the steward’s resources. The focus is on the presentation of the Christian’s whole life as an offering. God is less concerned about our donations and more about who we are becoming as we make them. Stewardship is too small a category when what we’re talking about here is being transformed into the likeness of Christ!
So Transformational Giving contends that comprehensive discipleship is the biblical framework for talking about giving. It recognizes that the giving of Christians parallels their overall maturity in Christ. So if you want to grow giving in a particular area of a Christian’s life, you have to grow their overall maturity in Christ in that area. A Christian’s financial donation will be roughly the same size as their head, their heart, and their hands in relation to a particular cause.
Embarrassingly, secular fundraisers have known this for years. Beginning in 2001, a series of studies have shown that a person who is asked to become comprehensively involved in a cause will be 50% more likely to give financially to the cause than a person who is just asked to support the cause financially. And that’s common sense, really. We give to what we care about. Transformational Giving says, “Let’s work with the Holy Spirit to grow Christians to full maturity in Christ in the causes Christ cares about. Let’s grow them not only financially but holistically.”
We seem to be financially struggling church, as a whole. We hardly have enough money to replace our threadbare carpet, let alone give our money away. Do you have any advice?
I would say you don’t have a carpet challenge or a financial challenge. You have a discipleship challenge. I’ve not yet seen a church where comprehensive Christian discipleship was taught where giving was a problem. Unfortunately, much contemporary discipleship training can’t figure out how to integrate giving into the training process, so they break it out and teach it separately as “stewardship”. So they run into the same problems I mentioned earlier, and they end up struggling financially like other churches. So the key is to establish, embrace, and implement a comprehensive program of discipleship that grows Christians to fullness in Christ, where their giving is one part of a much wider pattern of personal involvement they have in the things that God cares about. Financial gifts are nothing more or less than token and pledge that the Christian will be “all in” with their time and their passion and their participation in a given cause.
You talk a lot about philanthropy. Is it really a biblical concept, or just something to help millionaires keep their taxes lower?
Absolutely! But not at all the way the word is popularly used today. I write extensively about this in my upcoming book, which should release in early 2011. I’ve been posting excerpts from the book on this subject on my blog, www.ericfoley.com. Here’s the ten-second version: The term “philanthropy” was created not to describe acts of kindness and charity from one human being to another. Instead, it was created in the 5th century B.C. to describe acts of kindness and charity from a god—Prometheus, actually—toward human beings. So the term was first used in Greek mythology, but was soon adopted by the early church—Paul uses it in Titus 3:4, for example—to denote God’s deep love toward humanity in Christ. In other words, philanthropy is not primarily something we give, it is something we receive. It is only after we receive God’s “friendship-love”—that’s what “philanthropy” literally means—that we can mirror it into the world, which we do as an offering back to God.
Should I give to a beggar who comes up to me on the street and just asks for money?
In Christian discipleship, we can only ever give ourselves. Money given in Jesus’ name is just the token and pledge that the Christian will withhold no good thing from the one to whom the money is given. So if you are giving money to the beggar to make him go away, you have actually robbed him. God expects us to give the beggar far more. Because that’s what he himself does with beggars like us. He gives himself. Having received him, then, our calling is to give ourselves back to him on the altar of the world. That’s our reasonable worship. So offer the beggar Christ’s friendship-love, of which your financial giving is gloriously but the smallest part.
Why should a Christian be motivated to give?
Well, let’s start with what shouldn’t motivate them to give. Self-fulfillment should not motivate them to give. We’re to take up our cross daily and empty ourselves into others the way he empties himself into us. So filling ourselves up through giving—because it makes us feel good or because we like to help people, for example—moves us in entirely the wrong direction. We’ll find ourselves not giving more than giving, because one only needs so much giving or helping in order to feel good enough. And the desire to change the world should not motivate Christians to give. Jesus has this maddening habit in the Scriptures of calling people to give everything to things that appear to make no earthly difference. “Suppose you have a hundred sheep and you lose one,” says Jesus. “Wouldn’t you abandon the ninety nine and go after the one?” And we want to say, “No! Of course not! You win some sheep and you lose some sheep! That’s the cost of the sheep business!” So churches and Christian NGOs are like that. They win some members and they lose some members with little grief at all.
So there’s only one biblical motivation to give, and that is because we become every more deeply aware that Christ is pouring his whole life into us, and we are filled to overflowing. We pour our/his life into others in order to mirror him into the world. This is our reasonable worship. What we do to others in his name we actually do to him as our worship of him.
Jesus told us to “sell all you have” and give it away. Is that wise? Realistic? Or maybe a bit too radical?
Wisdom personified, yeah. The rich young ruler thinks in terms of his receiving an inheritance—“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”–and Jesus responds in terms of his becoming the philanthropy of God dispensed to the world in Christ’s name. As Jesus notes, it is not a one-time act but rather a daily choice one makes. The rich young ruler rightly perceives that this is a threat to his system of personal security which says that he can only care for others once his own wellbeing is secured. But in Christ our wellbeing is never in question. He will always empty himself into us. And the more we become conscious of that deeply, the more we will respond by emptying ourselves into others. The security comes from Christ’s constant self-emptying into us, not from what we don’t empty into others. We can’t take up a cross and a little bit of self-fulfillment daily. We either have to decide that Christ is going to continue to empty himself into us daily or he’s not.
Many Christians may want to give, to be philanthropic, but they don’t know how to give, or who they should give money to. Can you help? What are some worthy gospel causes?
Happy to help. We need to develop a plan of comprehensive discipleship that grows us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, into the fullness of Christ. So we don’t build a plan around our interests or passions or around where we think we can make the biggest difference. Instead, throughout the Christian age churches have recognized that Christ pours himself into us through specific works of mercy—he gives us bread to eat; he opens his home to us; he proclaims the gospel to us; and so on. And our calling is to give to others what he has given to us. So different denominations and individuals over the years have identified lists of these works of mercy in which the Holy Spirit grows us to be like Christ. In my new book I identify ten areas. There’s nothing sacrosanct about that—there could be more areas, or less, or they could be sliced and diced differently—but the key recognition is that the Bible outlines specific works of mercy that become means of grace by which we come to know Christ more deeply and by which others can catch a glimpse of Christ in us. Because Christ is not a specialist—he’s a generalist—he doesn’t call us to pick one or two areas and concentrate our giving there. If we did, we’d miss out on coming to know aspects of his personality that you can only ever see if, for example, you are involved in forgiving and reconciling or ransoming the captives with him.
I put it like this: If you want to get to know my wife, don’t just attend a meeting with her. Don’t just watch a movie with her. Cook with her in her own kitchen. You’ll learn things about her that way that you would never know otherwise, because cooking is one of her passions. You don’t earn her favor if you cook with her. You cook with her because you want to learn her fully. Same with God. We don’t do these works of mercy to earn his favor. They’re means of grace that he performs on us every day. By becoming more aware of them, and by letting him train us to do these for others, we come to know him in ways we otherwise never would.
And this is about more than giving. The Bible doesn’t say, “Give to an organization that visits the widows and the prisoners.” Goats do that, too. He wants us to go visit the widows and the prisoners. The word “visit” means “look in on with one’s own eyes”. You can’t do that just by making a tax-deductible gift to an organization that looks in on people. It won’t change your own eyes at all. John Wesley said this is why people are largely uncharitable: Because their own eyes have not seen in person what God sees in person.
Tell us a little bit about your first book (I can provide a link to it, if that would help you out). Tell us about your upcoming book.
My first book, titled Coach Your Champions, is a “ministry fable” about an inner-city ministry and how it learned to identify real “major donors” by their overall involvement in the cause rather than the size of their bank account. And it shows how the ministry goes from trying to get churches and Christians to support them to them actually supporting churches and Christians to grow to fullness in Christ in their ministry’s cause. It’s a primer in Transformational Giving for churches and Christian NGOs. My second book, The Whole Life Offering: Christianity as Philanthropy, is written not only for church and Christian NGO leaders but also for average Joe Christians. It aspires to be a modest but woefully insufficient “discipleship companion manual” to the Scripture! I talk about Christ’s ministry as his “whole life offering” to God that he pours into us, and how we can, by the power of the Holy Spirit and a Scripture-centered plan, develop our own “whole life offering” as our reasonable worship of him. So it’s about moving beyond thinking about giving donations and into the biblical territory of giving ourselves as a donation to him as we are poured out like a drink offering on others’ faith, to use the apostle Paul’s words. I go over the works of mercy and review the Scripture related to each one, showing how to root our whole-life giving in practices of preparation that the church has historically called “works of piety”—searching the Scripture, prayer, self-denial, those kinds of things. It is written with the goal of equipping individual Christians, pastors, and ministries with a thoroughly Biblical perspective on philanthropy focusing on the receiving of God’s grace as the necessary pre-requisite to doing good unto others. Lord willing, it’s due for release in early 2011.
I’m a Christian, but I don’t have much money. Should I be giving?
Have you received from Christ? Only give what you have received from him.
I’ve heard that if I start giving my money to God, he’ll start blessing me with more. Is this true?
Well, you’ll be wasting his less, that’s for sure! The apostle Paul says part of God’s curriculum is learning to be content with a lot and learning to be content with a little. Money is neither the great good nor the focus. The focus is on Christ’s whole life offering to us, and on our whole life offering to others. The lilies of the field know that their father will give them the right mix of soil and sunshine and water. They don’t worry about stockpiling one more than the other. They just render their lily lives as their reasonable worship to him, and he always comes through in the end.
We always need to remember this: When one undertakes an activity in order to secure eternal reward or avoid eternal punishment, one is acting out of self-preservation. This is the very root that Christ intends to pluck up and discard. As he says in Luke 9:24, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (NIV).
What are some of the best resources you know of for giving advice, help, and instruction in giving?
Is it superfluous to say the Bible? We need to start there—and stay there, really, daily—in order to learn and learn again that we don’t have a need for new tools, techniques, and strategies. God doesn’t permit those to penetrate deeply or permanently in the human heart. Instead, we need to become more consciously and deeply aware of the philanthropy God pours into us daily. That gives us the joyful confidence to become philanthropists ourselves. We give comprehensively because giving is a means of grace by which we come to know him more fully and by which others can catch a glimpse of him through us. For now it’s a dim mirror. But the joy will be that when we see him, we’ll have no difficulty recognizing him from what we were permitted to see.
Be sure to visit Eric’s blog to read more helpful information on fund raising, Christian giving, discipleship, and donating.
Visit his ministry site, Seoul USA.