Being a pastor's family, I don't know if I should admit this, but Matt and I disagree over whether one's tithe (the traditional 10% of gross income one "gives back to God" through religious or other charitable organizations) should all go to the church, with other, smaller donations to other charities on top of that, or whether the tithe should be distributed to a variety of missional causes, including the church.
Matt feels strongly about tithing specifically to the church, but being the gracious, egalitarian husband that he is, he suggested that since I feel differently, we each give our tithe as we see fit. So long as 10% of his income goes back to the church, I can distribute 10% or more of my income to a variety of ministries that meet real human needs around the world. We started this new system in August (basically, when I bought my new 09-10 planner, because before that, I wasn't keeping very good track at all of when we gave what to whom), and after organizing our giving this way for a half-year now, I have to say, I LOVE IT!
Viewing my giving almost like a debit account ("ok, I have X amount left to give in the next year") rather than like a bill to pay ("ok, we have to write this month's check for X amount") makes it flexible and fun. When I hear about a sudden, urgent need (like a church's clothing ministry being robbed) or Stuff Christians Like building kindergartens for orphans in Vietnam, I can respond immediately, generously, and joyfully.
There is certainly something to be said for the discipline of writing a monthly check to your local congregation (and we do that as well), but I love being able to give spontaneously and more generously than I would if I were already giving 10% of my income to the church. One of the main scriptures that drives my giving (in addition to "whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me" Matt. 25:40) is "Give to all who ask of you" Matt. 5:42. I don't really give to ALL who ask of me (in fact, I avoid answering the phone when I think it is a telemarketer), but I do like to respond to a wide variety of needs.
I don't know how you organize your giving, but if you're looking for a great cause to sponsor in 2010 (or a place to make a last-minute tax-deductable donation in 2009) here are a few of my favorites:
The Sudan Project. The civil war, genocide, and subsequent lack of food and clean water in the Darfur region of Sudan is considered by the U.N. to be the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today. Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Ohio started The Sudan Project in 2004, raising money with its Christmas Miracle Offering. Every Christmas, Ginghamsburg’s pastor Mike Slaughter asks people to spend less on Christmas for their own families, and give an amount equal to one's family spending to the church’s ministries in Darfur (schools, water yards, sustainable agriculture, etc.) I have given to The Sudan Project for a while now, but this was the first Christmas we did the "equal amount" thing, and I'm so glad we did.
Sponsoring a child through Compassion or Worldvision. We just started doing this recently, and we got our first letter and drawings from our child (a boy in Tanzania) last week. It's cool how these organizations make the needs and the results "real" by fostering a long-term connection between you and your child. Our sponsorship funds his schooling and medical care, and we can maintain this relationship with him as he grows up.
Your local homeless shelter. Ours is the Nashville Rescue Mission. Homebody that I am, I simply cannot imagine not having a place to retreat and recharge, much less basic protection from the elements and a place to store food, clothing, and other belongings. Homelessness is a big issue for me, and the benefit of supporting your local shelter is that you can participate more fully in its ministries by serving there in person. When we lived in Nashville, we frequently served dinner at NRM, and I miss that.
I often feel that I'm using my job, my commute, and my child as excuses not to get out and physically serve others more often. I work full time, spend two hours a day in the car, and want to spend every spare moment with Kate! Some people say that young adults can give their time, more financially-established middle-aged adults can give their money, and older adults with limited mobility and funds can give their prayers. I hope we'll always try to give all three to those in need, but during this time-strapped stage of our lives--physically able though we are--we can still give of our money, and I am glad to have found a way to do so with great freedom and joy.