(Photo: Traceway Baptist Church)
Simply passing the collection plate during Sunday services in order to help meet the budget was not good enough for the leaders of a small church in Mississippi.
So two years ago, the pastor and leaders of Traceway Baptist Church in Clinton began to pray about how to better serve their community. After two months of praying and fasting, they decided they needed to take all of their congregation's tithes and offerings and give it to those in need for an entire year.
"At the end of 2009 our leadership was praying and trying to figure out how we could better represent Jesus Christ in our community," Pastor John Richardson told The Christian Post. "Essentially, our prayer was 'God, what can we do so that when people look at us they will see you?'
"The more we prayed the more we felt like God was saying, 'If you want to show me to the communities, then become generous because I am generous,'" Richardson explained. "The way that we interpreted that was that we were to give away all our tithes and offerings for an entire year."
Just 50 people, many of them transient in nature, regularly attend the six-year-old Traceway Baptist Church. Yet, from April 2010 to April 2011, the church was able to give away $60,000 to people in the community that were hurting in many ways, said Richardson, who has written a book on the story and subject of generosity called Giving Away the Collection Plate (June 2012).
"Everything that was given to our church in the offering plates was given away to abused mothers that got out of bad situations basically with the clothes on their backs, or people that were trying to break free from addiction, or people that had lost jobs or facing foreclosures, or had extreme medical bills, or anything like that," he said.
When asked how the church was able to operate without income from tithe, Richardson said, "It was an interesting process."
Another church came to the leaders at Traceway Baptist as they were still determining how they were going to manage what they felt God had told them to do, and said they would be honored if Traceway Baptist moved into the church's other facility that is not being used. It was offered free of rent and utility fees.
"We also cut back anywhere we could in our budget," Richardson said. "We asked others outside our church community for a one-time donation to the church. It didn't come all at once, but remarkably, over the course of a year, God provided for each of those budgeted needs."
He explained that once the generosity plan of the church began, it "came full circle" and was exhibited by those who had been helped financially by the church. The church learned of a man in the community who had an incredibly tough year that included his wife leaving him, financial hardships, and "one thing after another."
After his older-model minivan broke down while he was driving, resulting in a burned engine while at the side of the road, the church "started kind of walking with him [during his spiritual journey] and eventually was able to purchase a pickup for him in really good shape," Richardson said.
Later, the man, who now was an active member of the church, came to Richardson's office and told him the story of witnessing to a homeless man outside a fast food restaurant.
"Josh felt led by God to approach the homeless person. He's kind of an introverted guy, but he got up and he talked to that guy for a minute, brought him inside, took him to a table," he said.
"He offered him not only a meal, but his dignity as well. It's just that kind of thing. We were generous because God was generous with us and others just followed suit. It was really amazing to see how people started growing in their faith because they were practicing generosity and growing in their imitation of God."
Richardson said he had several important takeaways from the church project.
"When you really start to live generously, and especially if you feel this is something that God has asked you to do, it just opens your eyes to how incredibly generous God is to us," he said. "Generosity is not just a nice thing to do. It's probably the answer to the biggest spiritual hurdle that we have today in becoming disciples. When you are generous that's an antidote to greed.
"So, generosity helps you imitate the ways of God and become more like Him. It's a huge piece of the discipleship process that I think most churches are missing out on right now."
Richardson's new book is aimed at helping churches and Christians to think more about being as generous as possible, he said. "It's about getting them to a place where they start looking at their own budgets, their own personal finances and just say, 'Am I really living like this belongs to God or am I living like this belongs to me.'"
The Mississippi pastor is also one of the ministry leaders of GenerousChurch, a group equipping leaders to "release generosity" in their churches through leadership development, campaigns, and culture change.