It has been my experience in 20 years of helping churches grow disciples and fund ministry that the offering talk when supported by a story of life change, is one of the most effective tools in growing a culture of generosity in your church.
In his book, A Better Offering: 5 Unmistakable Habits of Generous Churches, Horizons Senior Vice President, Donald Smith, invites church leaders to embrace storytelling during the offering time. He cites several reasons, but one of the most powerful is following the example Jesus set in his ministry on this earth. Don goes on to say, “We, the church, have lost the art of storytelling and, in doing so, may have forgotten that the One we claim to follow didn’t speak to people without telling a story.”
“Whenever your community gathers for worship, telling actual stories of life-changing impact through your ministry just makes sense.” Don’s points are summarized in the blog Five Reasons Why to Include Stories in Your Offering Talk.
If your church is not using a storytelling offering talk each week during on-campus, online, and on-demand worship, I also recommend reading the blog Three Steps to a Better Offering.
Storytelling offering talks are a powerful tool in growing disciples and generosity, but there are a number of pitfalls you will want to avoid. The following are eight of the most commonly identified by Horizons during our Next Level Generosity Discovery Assessments and coaching engagements.
1. Less than full support from the lead pastor.
Any successful initiative in an organization requires the support of senior leadership to sustain it over time. This is especially true for offering talk storytelling because it is typically the lead pastor who shares the majority of the life-changing stories. The absence of an abundance of life-changing stories during the offering time is almost always rooted in a lack of investment in this strategy by the lead pastor.
2. Not including offering storytelling as a critical agenda item in worship planning and in staff/volunteer meetings.
Churches with effective storytelling offering strategies almost always include it as an important item in worship planning and regularly solicit stories of life-change in staff and volunteer meetings.
3. A failure to illustrate a clear connection between the changed life and personal financial generosity.
Without careful focus, the stories shared can become a series of nice people doing nice things for others. It’s important for God’s people to do nice things, but the purpose of the offering talk storytelling is to clearly link financial giving as essential to life-changing ministry/mission impact and our spiritual growth. While there is nothing wrong with also communicating the impact of being generous with time and talents, without a consistent connection to personal financial generosity as the primary discipleship point of the talk, an unintended consequence emerges. Research from the Barna Group is clear that what our churches are hearing is an emphasis on being generous with our time, or our giftedness, or our financial resources. This has led to a troubling trend: Christians increasingly choosing the areas of generosity easiest for them and ignoring the others.
4. Lack of engagement from the broader church staff and/or ministry leaders.
Buy-in and the commitment to finding and sharing stories of impact from key ministry staff and ministry leaders are also critical. When stories are written by one or two people, the focus becomes increasingly limited and repetitive. The work of God happens in many ways and through many different kinds of people, ministries, and missions. The stories must reflect the diversity of the voices of those who are in the trenches providing ministry, as well as those who are impacted by them.
5. Focusing on one pocket of giving to the detriment of other ways of giving.
There are four potential pockets of giving for your church: annual, capital, special (a.k.a. designated), and planned (a.k.a. legacy). Annual giving is foundational in that it funds the ongoing ministry and mission of the church. A helpful practice can be to focus on three offering talks each month on the impact of annual giving, leaving the opportunity to focus on the impact of capital, special, or planned giving once per month.
6. Failing to tell the story of a single life that was changed.
The most effective storytelling focuses on the story of a single individual whose life was impacted by a ministry funded by your church. Only after you have effectively “put a face on your story” should you move to share how (many, much, often) information is usually represented numerically. Facts and figures are important, but they speak to a person’s mind and the most effective motivation for behavior change is centered in the emotions of our hearts. We must first capture the attention of our listeners’ hearts before layering in supporting data points.
7. Trying to say too much in a short amount of time.
There are times when a video or an occasional story will take longer than two minutes. Doing so should be the exception. Consistently taking more than three minutes to share the story, point out the ways you have to give, and make a specific call to action can be counterproductive. Consider how long it takes to read one of Jesus’s parables. Effective storytelling will result in the people eagerly anticipating next week’s story in order to celebrate yet another thing that God is doing among them through their collective generosity.
Less is more. Celebrate a changed life, make the connection to personal financial generosity, thank those whose gifts made your story possible, share the ways people can give, and invite God’s people to multiply one life changed into many more.
8. Inspiring people to give without calling them to action.
Once people are inspired by the story, see the connection to giving, and understand the ways they can give, leave them with a call to action that squarely places the responsibility to act in their court. Avoid any form of manipulation, shame, or guilt. Rather share that God is doing great things through your church, and in response here is one action you would like them to prayerfully consider.
Use different calls to action each week. For example, one week, you might ask to calculate the percentage of income each household is giving through the church and to prayerfully consider increasing it by one or more percent. The next week, you might invite persons to ask God to show them what steps they should take in their lives so they can be more financially generous. The following week, ask each person who calls your church home to consider signing up for recurring giving, so their financial support is present, even when they cannot be.
Always have a call to action that asks for a very specific and measurable response.