Giving boom at Houston’s First rooted in discipleship

HOUSTON—The pastor wondered what could be accomplished if the church increased its offerings to benefit missions. But for Houston’s First Baptist Church, the method wasn’t to be found in one more campaign or big push. It was more foundational than that.

“We aimed for the heart, not the wallet. As people were discipled we captured the heart,” said Gregg Matte, pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church.

In 2010 Matte believed God was giving the church a vision for missions. But initiating a new giving campaign on the heels of a successful capital campaign seemed imprudent. Besides, the vision was not about meeting a monetary goal, giving it away, and moving on. What if, Matte posited, First Baptist members simply gave more, recognizing their offerings supported existing ministries and kick-started new ones?

Matte and the church staff recognized one expression of faithful discipleship was charitable giving in its many forms. That would be their guide in praying for and planning the launch of an endeavor called Mission 1:8. The concept is the fusion of mission emphases with Christ’s admonition in Acts 1:8 to be global witnesses. Matte said it is not a “campaign” because, though there is a beginning to the emphasis, there is no end. Thoughtful giving should be a part of the Christian life and, therefore, does not stop, he said.

And the results have been astounding. Underestimating God’s provision by half, pledges for giving increased not by the anticipated 30 percent but almost twice that amount—$15 million became $27 million. The additional pledges to the existing $45 million general operating budget far exceeded forecasted projections, leaving ministry leaders searching for even more ways to give to existing ministries and start new ones.

“It’s a wonderful problem to have. What we’re really celebrating is God moving in the hearts of our people,” said Steven Murray, communications director at Houston’s First.

Preparing the ground for the cultivation of stewardship included the creation of a sermon series and Sunday School material in which members were introduced (some for the first time) to the gospel-centered ministries supported by First Baptist. Matte wanted his congregation to have a sense of connection to that work, understanding that money put in an offering plate really does feed widows and orphans, minister to prisoners and proclaim the gospel.

Those ministries do a profound work, and Matte said the church should be grateful for the opportunity to serve with God in those areas. But, he asked the church, how much more could be done if everyone simply gave more?

“Our ministry as a church is a response to Him—a worshipful expression of our love and gratitude,” Matte wrote in the Mission 1:8 educational material.

To help coordinate the giving plan, First Baptist hired the consulting firm Generis, which recommended keeping the mission offerings part of the general operating fund. This would keep the focus on the fact that giving was about meeting the day-to-day function and ministry of the church and not a one-time fund that would someday be dissolved.

Matte challenged the members to think about their giving patterns or lack thereof. Using a ladder as an illustration, he urged members to step up their giving by one rung. For some it would mean being first-time givers. Others would become occasional givers; then intentional givers; tithers; and, finally, extravagant givers.

Following the sermon series and Sunday School lessons last February, pledge cards were turned in the first of March. As if the pledges far exceeding their expectations weren’t enough, Murray said they were “blown away” by the first-time givers.

Of the 7,000 cards turned in, 2,031 indicated the giver status. Of those the majority, 671, were first-time givers. Extravagant givers, at 619, came in second. Giving—not pledges—between March and September increased by 75 percent over the same period in 2012. And First Baptist has already started writing checks to their missions beneficiaries.

“It’s just so fun to bless the socks off these people,” Murray said.

Regardless of church size, David Self, the church’s executive pastor, said any church can encourage its members to be faithful disciples. Like so many Southern Baptist churches, the rolls of First Baptist (26,000 people) do not reflect actual attendance on its four campuses (it averages around 5,100). Offerings could vary accordingly. But, Matte added, the benefits of intentional discipleship training could result in a burgeoning of faithful living, not just giving.

For example, an unintended consequence has been an uptick in the number of people wanting to serve in missions. First Baptist coordinates 30-40 mission trips a year, and more people are stepping up to go.

Prior to the launch of Mission 1:8 in February, Matte began having doubts. Times were hard and the church was not immune to the economic downturn of 2008. Church staff was laid off in 2009. And in 2010 the church had just completed a capital campaign that paid off all debt. In 2011 church staff began preparing for a fall 2012 roll out of Mission 1:8.

But Matte questioned the timing of God’s call to ask the congregation to give more—again.

“In the midst of it I wasn’t sure if we should do this,” Matte said.

During a sabbatical in San Francisco—one of First Baptist’s mission cities—Matte prayed about the venture. From his vantage point in a room at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Matte could see the city’s skyline as he prayed over it. But as is often the case, the fog rolled in, obscuring his view.

That fog gave him a theological insight on faith. San Francisco still sat before him. He just couldn’t see it. Matte realized the same was true for Mission 1:8. Matte said he felt God saying, “This is where I have you. You just have to trust that it’s there.”
“God used that to symbolize the purpose of Mission 1:8,” Matte said.

Joni B. Hannigan contributed extensively to this report

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