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Celebration of gifts is a celebration of God’s love
January 5, 2007
Winnipeg, Man. – As a youth, Al Rempel remembers watching his father write out a cheque for the church on Sunday morning. He saw the amount, did the math, and asked if his Dad did this every Sunday.
“My Dad said, ‘Yeah’ and I said, “Are you crazy?” recalls Rempel. “My Dad wasn’t exceptional, but it was an awakening to realize that many, many people follow this kind of example, and it’s really shaped how I understand faith and faithfulness, particularly in the area of stewardship.”
Today Rempel leads the Resource Development and Congregational Partnerships functions for Mennonite Church Canada. While his father’s example was a starting point for shaping his thoughts about stewardship, he also credits international travel, 14 years of pastoral ministry, and personal gratification in matching peoples’ passions: Those who passionately want to serve God with a gift of money, and those whose passionate service to God is in need of a gift of money.
The grandson of a circuit preacher in Southern Manitoba, Rempel has been shaped by his own travels. “As a college kid I went to India for a couple of months. That was a formative experience for me in getting a picture of the world that I’d never ever had before.” Since then, Rempel has seen Christians and the church at work in challenging circumstances in 13 countries around the world – a cumulative experience that continues to shape how he views stewardship in a world where 26% of the world’s Mennonites in North America hold an estimated 88% of the global Mennonite wealth (Mennonite World Conference figures).
As a pastor, Rempel says interaction with parishioners was key to shaping his own understanding, as well as learning from others’ perceptions of the world and God’s role in it. Today, it is his understanding of the missional church – how all aspects of ministry and witnessing to Christ need to be knit together into a seamless whole – that excites and empowers him in his work.
“I really believe that God is already here, God is in every context.” On a recent visit to a seminary in China, he observed how God is touching lives of people who are making significant sacrifices to become church leaders. “They were celebrating the love of God in ways that were unique to them… God is there, the church is active. How do we see that? How do we align with it?”
These experiences are transforming how he reads scripture. A visit to civil war ravaged Colombia during one Advent season inspired Rempel to think in concrete terms about what it means for the Prince of Peace to come. “It changes your understanding of hope. In North America we have high expectations that our hopes will be met. The Bible is the story of a people who hope for that which is hard to see and difficult to imagine within their circumstances. This is what the people of Colombia are facing.”
Though the avid curler and golfer is often called a fundraiser, he says, “I make jokes about that.” He understands his work differently: It is a ministry of connecting opportunities with people. While it is important to use professional best practices in the field, Rempel says those practices do not necessarily lead one to best practices in Christian stewardship.
He cites a recent International Learning Tour participant who felt called to respond to a certain need. “We brought them [donor and recipient] together in a way that caused celebration in their hearts. The passion and excitement come when you get a chance to connect people with what God is calling them to do.”
Rempel’s goal is help people get beyond the emphasis on ‘getting the dollars.’ “I’m not interested in people’s money. I’m interested in their heart... we need to get past the money and connect our sense of faithfulness with what’s going on in other places,” says Rempel, shifting the conversation to his leadership role with Congregational Partnerships and his passion for cultivating in people a lifelong sense of gratitude in response to God’s gifts.
He lists several examples: In Botswana, mission workers have trouble attracting students to Saturday Bible seminars because weekends are filled with funerals due to the AIDS crisis. The Chinese church says their greatest need is to train Chinese church leaders in a country and culture that is changing overnight. The Aboriginal community and church in Canada continues to be marginalized.
You can’t just throw money at a program and hope something sticks. Says Rempel, “We need to get past the money and into the relationship.” Similarly with nurturing faith formation and the missional church movement at the congregational level. “How do we get past ourselves so we can connect with others and learn more about who we are – a true gift exchange? How do we understand ourselves as being sent by God? We need to experience our call, experience our faith, and not just talk about it.”
The church is getting better at talking about stewardship, though there is still room for improvement. The trend has been to address annual shortfalls with sermons on stewardship. Rempel is observing small but positive shifts equating lifelong stewardship with discipleship.
“We’re beginning to understand that stewardship is about faithfulness,” he notes, citing Martin Luther’s observation about three levels of personal transformation: the heart, the mind, and the purse.
Rempel delightedly points out how the discipline of giving is embodied in Mennonite Church Canada’s recently adopted Identity and Purpose Statement “… we commit ourselves and our resources to calling, equipping, and sending the church…” (excerpt).
“In there I see a huge stewardship statement,” enthuses Rempel.
Rempel is encouraged by the leadership in some congregations, noting one group that processes their budget through a grid that seeks to balance ministry investment that considers both short and long term impact at home and globally.
What Rempel would like to see change is the language church and worship leaders use – an often overlooked opportunity. Visiting another congregation recently, Rempel heard the worship leader say, “We will now take the offering.” Rather, we should could view the offering as “… an opportunity to receive the gifts people are bringing.”
Rempel suggests using Stewardship Sunday (January 21) to make a permanent shift in the language typically used at offering time – to make the offering a more integral part of the worship experience for all SundayssSunday’s to come. The best gift Stewardship Sunday might give is to help worshippers think about and shape their generosity as one component of worship each and every Sunday – and to encourage wider sharing by congregations who are already innovatively making the offering time a real worship experience.
“Create something so special that people get the sense they are really making an offering to God and making a difference” he says. “Really celebrate the gifts given, both monetary and otherwise, and also help people to receive God’s gifts.”
Mennonite Church Canada Identity and Purpose Statement
God calls, equips and sends the church