At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, what began as a routine stewardship emphasis ended up making a radical difference for God's Kingdom.
In 2009, nearly four hundred students packed the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary's It's A New Day for Financial Freedom conference sponsored by the SBC Executive Committee (EC) in partnership with Crown Financial Ministries. Any attendees who expected to receive only dry accounting tips left the one-day event pleasantly surprised.
"A lot of students said it made a difference in their marriage. I had a couple of students say, 'We were looking at divorce, and we might be able to get through this thing now,'" said Scott Preissler, Southwestern's Bobby L. and Janice Eklund Chair of Stewardship. "So there were lots of testimonies. It was highly unexpected. We were just going to put on a stewardship day and didn't even know who would come."
Following up on the successful conference, Southwestern plans to partner with the EC and Crown for another event in 2010. This time even more students are expected to attend.
The conferences at Southwestern represent only two out of dozens that the EC's stewardship division hosts every year. At each event, participants study a comprehensive curriculum developed by Crown and learn how handling finances fits into the life of a disciple.
In addition to the live events, the stewardship division makes available to Southern Baptists a host of printed and video resources. For instance, a career resource deals with unemployment and practical steps to finding a new job. A short film series entitled God Provides includes six episodes on financial issues facing churches, families, and individuals, and a ten-week Life Group Study presents an overview of the Lord's entire plan for personal resource management.
Both the conferences and other materials are fruit of the EC's four-year collaborative partnership with Crown to resource SBC congregations for biblical stewardship.
The EC is "a great coordinating office," Preissler said. "There's no reason for everybody who is a local church or seminary to have to go to the ground stops. Most people don't know much about this [topic]. … They know everything there [at the EC]. So it's a great opportunity. You don't have to rediscover everything for your own life. They have great relationships and great information to provide."
Among the latest stewardship resources is a four-part sermon series by Ed Stetzer on God's plan for personal finances. Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources.
Free of charge, all SBC pastors are eligible to receive a DVD of Stetzer delivering the messages, sermon outlines, fill-in-the-blank listening guides, and PowerPoint presentations. They are encouraged to adapt the material into sermons for their own unique ministry settings.
To date the EC stewardship office has distributed more than four thousand copies of the material, which explains God's Ownership, Debt's Dangers, Greed's Antidote, and God's Purpose — Money and Work.
"Pastors need to open their Bibles and preach what it says about money," Stetzer said. "You don't have to be an expert in money to recognize God's authority on all money matters. You could take the words of Jesus alone and have enough material to preach for a year about money."
Sermons on money must not stop at advocating tithing, he said, noting that Scripture speaks to many additional aspects of handling finances.
"Most sermons in Baptist churches are either about tithing or raising money for capital projects," he said. "If you only teach on those two issues, you are missing much of the point. How people treat money is an indicator of maturity in every other area of their life. We've done very little to educate them in this important issue. It can be an amazing opportunity for pastors to start a conversation in their church."
Because of the widespread need for financial help in America, teaching on stewardship can draw non-believers into the church, according to Stetzer.
"Financial issues can be a bridge for you to communicate hope and serve your community," he said. "If you hang out a shingle at your church that says, 'Get out of debt here,' and genuinely help people, they will line up to learn how.
"It's the same reason churches hang out the shingle, 'English taught here.' New immigrants in every community find their way into these churches because they have a place that meets one of their greatest needs."
Indeed, money is among many people's top worries, he said.
"Pastors are realizing that money and money issues are on the heart and mind of almost every person sitting in their church," Stetzer said. "The realities of the great recession have reached every city, every town, and every community, and now it is an issue at church. It's what people are discussing. People are surrounded by voices from every direction, giving commentary about money and what we should do."
Refusing to preach on this issue will result in missing "an opportunity to make your church relevant and real to the people in your community," he said. "People are asking, and we need to point them to Scripture for answers."
The Principles at Work
At First Baptist Church in Longview, Washington, biblical stewardship principles brought repentance and revival to some families.
The church hosted an It's A New Day for Financial Freedom conference in February attended by about fifty church members. After the event, some confessed to Pastor Kevin White that their finances had been an area of sin.
For instance, one woman had been hiding debt from her husband. But after she revealed the problem, the couple decided to work through it together and strengthen their marriage in the process. Another couple, who appeared financially stable, confessed that their foundational philosophy of money management was entirely unbiblical.
"I loved the number of people that came to me and said, 'After this conference we went and spent some time with God confessing our sin.' That's a win-win situation," White said.
"We like to talk about the 'big sins.' … But if you've got financial sins and greed, you've got to repent of that too. And I was thrilled at the number of people who said, 'I was convicted.'"
The conference also resulted in evangelistic opportunities. First Baptist planned to start small groups studying biblical money-management principles, and several unchurched people expressed interest in attending.
According to White, It's A New Day resources are unlike any other stewardship materials published in the SBC, as good as or better than other Christian curriculums, and far cheaper than some popular alternatives.
"I felt like the SBC was offering me something that was extremely affordable — $20 per couple," he said of the conference. "And the speaker was fabulous."
Troy Varnum, director of missions for the Northwest Coast Baptist Association in Panama City, Florida, had a similar assessment of the EC's stewardship resources. He attended a one-day conference three years ago, and in addition to encouraging churches to implement the curriculum, he used it to improve his own life.
"It's just what my personality needed for some things that I didn't know I really needed to fix, or I knew but just put it off," Varnum said.
By practicing Crown's stewardship principles, he was able to remain financially stable even when it took him two years to sell his house in a community three hours away.
I am "moving closer to financial freedom, providing greater security for my family, and, best of all, pleasing my Lord with what I am doing with what He has entrusted to me," he said. "Now I want this same help and hope for the ministers in our association."
Fulfilling the Great Commission
When Chuck Bentley hears testimonies like these, they come as no surprise. As president of Crown Financial Ministries, he knows that assistance with money management is one of America's greatest spiritual needs.
Nearly 20 percent of the nation's adult population is either unemployed or under-employed, he said. Still others are "nervously employed," fearing that they could fall victim to corporate downsizing.
"Unemployment, or even the fear of unemployment, presents an identity crisis, especially for men," Bentley said. "The problem is daunting because we are seeing that the time to get reemployed now takes an average of six months.
"Fear is at the core of many financial issues today, and God's Word speaks to it. This is clearly an area where pastors can truly minister."
A full 44 percent of all families have had their incomes reduced — through pay cuts or reduction of hours or benefits, he said. Such changes have led to a reprioritization of values, including increased saving, a desire to simplify life, and a decreased emphasis on material possessions.
"Families are in pain, causing stress on marriages and family relationships, and this must be addressed," Bentley said. "The pain people feel due to financial hardship has been sobering, and as a result, there is openness to rethinking stewardship and many issues on the part of families and individuals."
When churches meet such openness with biblical counsel, they take an important step toward fulfilling the Great Commission, he said.
"We readily see the Great Commission as evangelism and baptisms," he said, "but we fail to see what the last part of the passage says: 'and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.'
"When a pastor teaches and preaches the biblical truth of being a faithful steward, he is actually fulfilling the Great Commission."
Unfortunately, stewardship is taken out of its biblical context on many occasions, he said.
"The real reason why God wants us to be faithful to Him is not just to teach us to give, but to help us obey everything the Bible says," Bentley said. "The greatest inhibitor to giving is fear. And when fear is overcome, generosity and giving rise. But fear is overcome through trust and obedience."
For additional information or to obtain any It's A New Day resources, contact Ashley Clayton, EC associate vice president for stewardship, at [email protected] or 615-782-8680. Resources are also available through state convention offices.