The Method Is The Message
A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
4th October 2013
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It was in the early 1970’s and I wore my clerical collar as I approached her front door. The next-door neighbour had asked me to visit. I did not know the widow but the neighbour told me “She is dying and wanting to talk about it, but is afraid to ask for help”.
When she opened the door she panicked. It was not the World War I panic of seeing the minister with the telegram. But it was still panic. Before I spoke she launched into an apology, talking over her shoulder as she scurried back into the house, leaving me on the doorstep. “It’s here somewhere. I’m so sorry you have had to come yourself. I had meant to get it to you. I have been keeping it up to date.” When she finally came back to the door she handed me a little package of envelopes. “I will fill the other ones and send them to you, I’m so sorry to keep you waiting”. I still hadn’t said a word.
The envelopes were from the controversial Wells Scheme that was introduced into churches in the 1950’s. During the 60’s it had been heavily critiqued and fallen out of use.. The basic method of the scheme was to visit every Anglican home and ask people for a commitment to give to the church. This money was collected by means of dated and numbered offertory envelopes. The wardens recorded the offertories and reported to people their progress in meeting their commitment to give. Those unable to attend church would have their envelopes collected from their home. Hence, the dying widow assumed I had come for her envelopes.
The Wells’ Scheme was undoubtedly successful in getting in touch with our nominal members, in activating our church members, especially parish councillors, to visit the community, and in initially raising large amounts of money. Offertories went up in an extraordinary fashion as people moved from the ‘odd coin in the plate’ mentality to seriously considering their financial commitment to church.
However, the scheme had fatal flaws. It approached nominal Anglicans as if they were born- again Christians, reinforcing them in their failure to gather with God’s people to listen to his word, and visiting them for the church’s benefit rather than theirs. By visiting homes to pick up envelopes it sent the message ‘we want your money more than we want you’. Evangelistically it burnt more bridges than it built, as people felt initially ‘put upon’ and then finally harassed to fulfil their commitments. By keeping records of peoples’ giving it became intrusive, and worse, coercive. The initial increase in giving was not sustained. Like so much of modern business administration, emanating from America’s MBA programs, it measured short term gains rather than long term failures. It ignored the more important and impossible to measure costs, like loss of good will and increased evangelistic hostility.
More significantly, this whole approach to giving seemed at variance to the principles of the New Testament, which was more concerned for the spiritual work of Christian growth in generosity than the amount of money people gave. Jesus commends the widow whose gift was small but ‘all she had to live on’ and also warned against the hypocrisy of giving in order to gain human approval (Luke 21:4, Matthew 6:1f). The apostle Paul was more concerned for the spiritual state of the giver, and the level of shared commitment to the cause of the gospel, than the money that was given (2 Corinthians 8-9; Philippians 4:17). Both John and Paul wrote of not seeking financial support from the people being evangelised (3 John 7, 1 Corinthians 9:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:7f).
It was something of a shock therefore, when this week I came across a 1955 advertisement for the Wells Scheme, and found it so Biblical in approach. Without quoting any Biblical text it gave a New Testament concern for teaching grace to believers rather than raising money. It claimed that the problem in church finances was in part the idolatrous worship of the dollar. But as the “world’s leading specialists in church fund-raising” it claimed that the worship of the dollar was only part of the problem. The other part was that “People just don’t know how to give or why they need to give.” The Wells Scheme aimed to teach people why they need to give. It was not about raising money, expanding the church budget or meeting the costs of a building project. It was about the individual Christian’s spiritual growth and motive for giving. The spiritual goal would remove any need for “high pressuring” people for money.
However, while it aimed to help the ‘individual soul…own spiritual growth’, the scheme undermined its own aim. The method was the message; and the method built upon peer pressure; bred reluctant compulsion and finally manipulated money from people by guilt.
This failure may have been the churches’ fault because we bought into the scheme with mixed motives. We were more concerned to raise money than to help people spiritually. That certainly was how it felt for our nominal members whose first visit for years, if not decades, was to sign them up to give money. This was not “revitalizing a church in its influence in the community” but killing its tenuous links with its own loose membership.
Reading this advertisement reminded me of two things. One was that the method we use, when we apply the scriptures’ teaching, must be consistent with and reinforce the content that we are teaching or we will fail to teach the scriptures – for the method is the message. Good theology badly delivered is bad evangelism and pastoral care and so is actually bad theology.
The other reminder was of that poor lady whom I visited so many years ago. Try as I might, even with return visits, I never got her to understand my concern for her. She only ever thought I was after her money. As best I could see, she died not knowing the message her money was paying me to bring her.