The movie “Pay It Forward” a few years ago told the story of a young boy whose school project was to “pay it forward” – to encourage people to do good deeds for others, and then to see how those good deeds were forwarded on to others. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it seems to be a principle of the Kingdom of God, as stated by Jesus, that it is better to give than to receive. Our giving is then often (no guarantees) rewarded by our receiving both the joy of giving and other blessings which come back to us.
I believe a similar principle is involved in the life of our congregations. I see so many United Methodist churches which are reaching out to others, providing free meeting space to community groups, engaging in direct mission projects, literally giving their money, and going forward in faith. All of this can be quite counter-intuitive in tough economic times. These churches sense that God calls us to stretch, grow, and give when times are tough, and I see those churches being “rewarded” with a good spirit and a new energy. Recently one county-seat, downtown church shared with me their excellent financial report for 2009 and their growing budget pledges for 2010. When I asked how that happened, their lay leadership said to me: “It all started when we began our community meal on Sunday nights to feed hungry people in our town. That seemed to inspire all of us to see the needs, to give, and to be blessed by that giving. A new spirit of generosity has come into our church, and even our budget is doing better.” Wow! What a great testimony. I see it repeated in many of our congregations – they are “growing it forward.”
Unfortunately I have also seen that the reverse is true. When congregations get scared by our tough economy, when they cut back on their budgets and their giving, and when they try to save themselves – then often the result is further decline and less giving to their ministries. As one other lay leader commented to me about this sad state of affairs in his church, “We learned that excellence is not achieved by cut-backs.” Again, Jesus himself spoke to that truth when he said, “Those who try to save their lives, will lose them.”
We are called by Jesus and the whole movement of the Kingdom of God to “grow it forward.” That may even include acting like a bigger and better church than we already are – in order to grow forward and to become that church we envision. It might include individuals setting personal mission goals (if you want a book resource for that, let me suggest The Path by Laurie Beth Jones). It could include forgiving someone who has not really “earned” our forgiveness, and discovering how we are freed by letting go our animosity toward that person. It certainly includes taking seriously “risk-taking mission and service” and “extravagant generosity” – two of the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations that we will be emphasizing at Annual Conference.
Yes, the words of Jesus and the principles of the Kingdom of God are clear: do you want to grow in your faith and your ministry? Then grow it forward!