Learning to tithe is essential for healthy homes as well as healthy churches

DALLAS (BP)--As the leader of a new marriage-enrichment ministry, J.B. Collingsworth knows how crucial money matters are to couples' unions.

The former associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., will visit 25 cities this year to conduct marriage seminars and conferences, most of them at Southern Baptist churches.

Everywhere the parachurch leader travels, he sees marriages threatened by out-of-control spending, particularly with couples whose house and car payments are too high for their income.

"One of the leading causes to divorce is money problems," said Collingsworth, founder of Marriage and Family Matters. "Eight of 10 times there's a money problem in a marriage. We have many people who don't know biblical principles getting strapped with debt."

Long before he left the Florida church's staff last fall, Collingsworth was attuned to the need for biblically based education in fiscal management.

After going through Crown Financial Ministry's small-group study, in 1995 he spearheaded a move to implement a regular series of Crown classes at First Baptist.

Since then, more than 900 couples have completed the material. Classes are offered three times a year.

Sessions are held on Sunday and Wednesday night at the church, and others meet in homes during the week, according to Marty Wassman of the adult development department.

Requiring regular homework and Scripture memorization, Collingsworth called the study a great tool for churches.

"It teaches you to give by tithing," Collingsworth said. "I saw people who had never tithed before begin to tithe. I saw people in debt pay off debt."

Among the biblical principles he learned in the Crown study was to never co-sign for a loan and to never take on debt for anything that decreases in value.

Most Christians don't know the Bible contains more than 2,000 verses on money and stewardship, compared to only a few hundred on prayer, Collingsworth said.

The concepts taught in the course made a noticeable impact on students, judging by the letters and messages that came to the church office.

People wrote such things as, "We've been cheating God," "We've paid off credit cards," and, that since they had started tithing "now we have more money at the end of the month," said the former staff member.

"It's hard to explain the impact until you see what happens when people are taught the truth," Collingsworth said. "I know so many people from Orlando who have gone through it and it has been a huge blessing to them."

The educational thrust has also enriched First Baptist in Orlando, which in the past three years has seen record growth in contributions, Collingsworth said.

Media minister Steve Smith said budget gifts have increased 19 percent over the past three years, and a total of 54 percent since the Crown studies began.

"We definitely are breaking the trend," Smith said. "Contrary to what's happening (in many churches), as of June 15 we were at 103 percent of budget (for 2003.)"

Smith credited the strong giving to the grassroots educational effort. Other than a five-week sermon series earlier this year about giving, Smith said pastor Jim Henry hasn't done any aggressive promotion for tithing or for the Crown series.

Since the church hasn't surveyed participants, it is difficult to say how much of the healthy giving pattern can be attributed to the small-group studies, Smith said.

"But looking at it from a spiritual and practical standpoint, there's no doubt it has had an impact," Smith said.

First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., is another Southern Baptist congregation that has seen strong growth since it started sponsoring Crown Ministry studies in the mid-1990s.

Its budget has nearly doubled over the past six years and the church plans to move into a new 7,500-seat sanctuary in the fall of 2004. Despite the $65 million cost, the church isn't sponsoring a capital fund drive, but instead is paying for construction from weekly contributions.

Eddie Hobbs, director of stewardship for the suburban Atlanta church, said nearly 600 people completed the Crown course this past year.

In addition, the Woodstock church offers a follow-up, 12-week educational program and personal financial counseling.

"Crown is awesome," Hobbs said. "You can't beat the written material. But it takes more. We encourage people to complete one-on-one counseling, and try to get them to be obedient in giving. We show them how to balance their budget and live within their means."

Titled "Financial Fitness and Freedom," the 12-week lecture series was written by Hobbs, a former banking executive who joined the staff in 1998. It includes a student workbook that is available at the church's Web site (www.fbcw.org, click on "stewardship.")

The course begins with a discussion of discovering God's plan for giving and looks at God's plan for life and money, including tithing.

Among other topics covered are faithful financial management, contentment versus materialism, God's economy as opposed to the world's, and how to build a financial house.

The course has proved so popular that more than 130 churches have asked for Woodstock's help in starting a stewardship ministry, Hobbs said.

But equally exciting are the people who complete the studies and tithe after first telling Hobbs they couldn't afford the practice.

"From the world's perspective, that's true," Hobbs said. "From God's perspective, it's not an option. You cannot take away the tithe. We have hundreds of folks who thought they couldn't tithe. Then they go through our course and find out God is on the other side. They find out they can live on less than they thought they could."

Another indicator of the church's health is participation in missions, with more than 700 members expected to visit 33 nations this year. Donations to missions will surpass $3 million for 2003, and the church expects net growth of 1,250 members.

Despite this record, the stewardship director estimates only 15 to 20 percent of 13,000 members tithe to the church.

While that is at least five times the average identified in the recent Barna survey, in Hobbs' eyes there is vast room for improvement.

"Imagine if all of our people were obedient," Hobbs said. "What could God do with a group of people like that? We're not satisfied with being average. Our goal is to raise people up and let them see what a lifestyle looks like with God in control."


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