At SMI, we’re marking our 32nd anniversary! As we have done in each July issue since 1990, we are focusing this month on generosity — this time highlighting the work of a ministry called Generous Giving.

We pray that learning about the organization’s unique founding, and its unique approach to opening up conversations about generosity, will encourage you.

If you had known Todd Harper as a young boy, you never would have guessed that he would one day become a passionate advocate for generosity. He loved money, worked tirelessly to make money, and enjoyed spending money.

When he was just nine years old, he had a large paper route. Soon enough, he had a large lawn-mowing business — so large, in fact, that he was making over $1,000 per week during the growing seasons in the Chicago area where he grew up. In the winter, he ran a snow-plowing business. By age 18, he had become a licensed stockbroker.

He used the money he made to buy cars, ski gear, stereo equipment, and clothes. And he wasn’t interested in second-hand merchandise. His preference for new, quality items earned him the nickname “top-of-the-line-Todd.”

Harper was raised in a Christian home and when he was in high school he remembers his mom giving him the book, Mover of Men and Mountains, the autobiography of R.G. LeTourneau, the hugely successful inventor of earthmoving equipment. LeTourneau was also a strong Christian and a generous giver. “That was her way of subtly trying to redirect my ambition toward a more godly ambition.”

The book made an impression. “For the first time in my young life,” Harper says, “I came face-to-face with an idea that was completely foreign to me: the creation of wealth for the benefit of others.”

But it didn’t alter his focus. Intent on becoming a millionaire by age 30, Harper bought a new Chevy Camaro Z28 and headed to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, to study entrepreneurship and economics. “I already knew how to make money,” he says. “Baylor would help me learn how to make lots more.”

Determining his steps

While Harper was eager to make money, he was also rooted in the habits of his faith. So, while at Baylor, he quickly found a local church and began taking part in its Sunday School class for college students, taught by then-Baylor economics professor Jamie Lash. In one of the first classes Harper attended, Lash had the Sunday School students complete this exercise: “Write down on a piece of paper what you hope will be the best plan for your life. Who you’ll marry, where you’ll live, what kind of work you’ll do. Let yourself dream big and create the perfect plan for your life.”

When they finished writing, Harper recalls professor Lash saying, “Now, if you could see God’s plan for your life written down on a separate sheet of paper, you’d tear up your silly little plan in a heartbeat.”

With that idea in mind, Harper soon attended a weekend retreat hosted by the campus ministry, Cru. At one point on Saturday afternoon, participants were encouraged to find a quiet place and spend an hour with the Lord. That led to an encounter Harper describes as “the most real conversation with God” he had ever had.

“I sensed God asking me, ‘Do you believe I am who I say I am? Do you believe I am the Creator of the world and therefore the Creator of you, and if so, do you believe I know what’s best for you? Or do you need to hold only your own plans for your life?’ As I lay there in a grassy meadow in Midlothian, Texas, I told God I would do whatever he wanted me to do…. I had no idea what that meant in terms of career plans. All I knew was that I had just surrendered everything to him, including — and maybe especially — my plan to become a millionaire.”

An unexpected plot turn

While still in school, Harper married Collynn, a young woman who felt a call to ministry. Before finishing school, the couple spent a year serving with Cru as missionaries in Romania. Still, Harper is the first to admit that while he had one foot planted on the mission field, his other foot was still firmly planted on the path toward wealth. “To be honest, I wanted to be a rich missionary.”

At this point in his journey, a friend Harper had met on that Cru retreat in Midlothian, Texas, David Wills (who would go on to become president of the National Christian Foundation), sent him Randy Alcorn’s book, Money, Possessions & Eternity. Harper says, “[It] smacked me upside the head.”

“Here I was investing in stocks because I wanted to be rich. But in his winsome, inviting way, Randy helped me see that I was still holding on to my plan. It seemed like a good plan, just not the best plan. I thought of giving to the kingdom as an obligation, but he showed me how giving was something we get to do, not have to do. Through his exposition of Scripture, Randy showed me a radical version of generosity that is done for the good of others, and ultimately for my own good. It shifted my investment horizon from 30 years to 30 million years.”

Returning to the United States with a passion for helping others see generosity through this new lens, Harper reconnected with David Wills and two other like-minded friends, Maclellan Foundation Senior Grants Manager Daryl Heald and Saddleback Community Church Stewardship Pastor Forrest Reinhardt. Together, they founded Generous Giving.

Harper describes the organization’s mission this way: “Our primary motivation is not the liberation of resources, but the liberation of people. Generosity is a pathway to deeper spiritual health, fruitfulness, and vitality,” he says. “The culture inundates all of us with the message that bigger, better, faster makes you happy. It’s all a lie, but it’s sneaky and seductive. Orienting our lives toward giving ourselves away mitigates some of that risk and invites us into this place of joy where Jesus said it’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

Hundreds of times a year, Generous Giving hosts an overnight small-group retreat called Journey of Generosity, or a “JOG.” It also holds an annual large-group Celebration of Generosity (“COG”). A key component of both are the video-based stories of people who have made counter-cultural decisions in order to live extraordinarily generous lives. Like the story of Dr. Renee Lockey.

At age 37, Lockey was in a career she loved and saw as a ministry. As an obstetrician and gynecologist, “I get to walk with women and families through really, really joyful times and through some really challenging times. I get to experience life from the beginning to the moment the baby takes its first breath.” Still, she wasn’t as content as she thought she would be. “It was an uncomfortable place to be, to realize you’d accomplished your goals and now what?”

Filled to overflowing

As Dr. Lockey wrestled with that question, she went on a medical missions trip.

“You can’t go and look at another culture and not…compare and contrast — like this is what they have, this is how they live, this is what I have, and this is how I live. There were times when…it would just break me, and I just realized that it’s only by God’s grace that I have anything more than they have. It’s not because I’m entitled to it or I deserve it. And even if I say, ‘Well yeah, but I earned it or I worked for it,’ then I would hear in the other ear: ‘But I gave you the ability, I gave you the opportunity, I gave you the talent, I gave you the funding, I gave you the resources, I gave you the education. What do you have that I haven’t given you?’”

When she returned home, she went for a run, thinking about how she might change in response to what she had just seen and experienced. “I’m just running and I hear God say, ‘I want you to work like a doctor, and I want you to live like a nurse.’”

She figured nurses make about a quarter of what she was making. “I basically just took my salary and I just sectioned it off. I said, ‘This is what a nurse would make and the remaining three-quarters is His.’ And I felt like God said, ‘That’s right. That’s what you share.’”

Lockey says it took some time to get used to budgeting her money more carefully and to reconsider her previous goal to retire at age 50. But she felt confident that she was being faithful to what God was calling her to do.

“When I have a choice about whether to save or whether to share and I get to bless somebody, often behind the scenes, and see the way it’s impacted their life, the reality is it feels right,” Lockey says. “It’s very satisfying. I feel like that hole that I had [in my life] three or four years ago…has been filled to overflowing. And I feel like it fills me up and then it pours out to others in a way that I hope I bring a lot of joy to people’s lives. And that joy I wouldn’t have to give if He hadn’t first given it to me.”

Built on the rock

Interspersed with such stories, JOG participants hear biblical teaching about generosity from well-known teachers such as Randy Alcorn and Tim Keller, who unpack Acts 20:35 and 2 Corinthians 9. And they reflect on Richard Foster’s exposition of Matthew 6 from the simplicity chapter in his long-time bestselling book, Celebration of Discipline. In all, the teachings provide a foundation of six core messages.

  1. Giving brings joy.

    Remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ - Acts 20:35

    “I have seen this message validated over and over again in the lives of generous Christians,” Todd Harper says, “like the person who shared how every now and then, just for the fun of it, he’ll pay for the groceries of the person in front of him at the grocery checkout. ‘Sometimes I…sense God is telling me to make that lady’s day,' the man explained. ‘But truthfully, the reactions I get make my day.’”
     
  2. Giving is a heart issue.

    For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Matthew 6:21

    “[Randy Alcorn] advises, ‘If you want a heart for something, invest in it.’ To illustrate, he explains that if you invest in Google, you get more interested in news about Google. You follow it closely. There are lots of other tech companies, but you’re more concerned about Google because you’ve invested in it. Similarly, if you invest in the kingdom of God, your heart grows for the things of the kingdom.”
     
  3. God gave first.

    For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. – John 3:16

    “God’s gift of His Son is the ultimate example of generosity,” Harper says. “Because we are called to bear the image of God in all that we do, we then are most like God when we are generous.”
     
  4. Seek first God’s Kingdom.

    But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. – Matthew 6:33

    “Earlier in Matthew, Jesus teaches that we can’t serve both God and money. Then He adds this curious instruction: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life’ (Matthew 6:25). It’s difficult to be generous if we worry about things, especially money. Conversely, if God and his ways are more important to us than anything else, we can be generous and not worry that we’ll run out of ‘all these things.’”
     
  5. God owns it all.

    The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it. – Psalm 24:1

    “Imagine working for a large foundation with nearly unlimited resources. Your job is to give your foundation’s money away to causes it has decided to support,” Harper says. “Truly generous people understand that they are God’s money managers. Their wealth is not really theirs. Instead, they know God has entrusted us with his resources so we can use them as he directs. When we understand this biblical message, we become like that guy who hands out checks for the foundation: What a great job! I don’t have to worry about sharing ‘my’ money, because it really isn’t mine. It all belongs to God.”
     
  6. Heaven is my home.

    But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. – Philippians 3:20

    “If heaven is our true home, why worry about the furniture, appliances, and landscaping that we can’t take with us? Generosity keeps us focused on what really matters, what really is important to God. When we are generous in Christ’s name, we are furnishing our eternal home with treasures far greater than anything we can buy on earth. That doesn’t mean spending money on nice things is wrong. It just might not be the best option, and certainly not the only option. Because in our heart’s true home none of that will matter.”

    Equally important to what happens at a Journey of Generosity retreat is what doesn’t happen. At no point are people asked for money, told how much they should give, or pointed toward where they should give. “What we’re about,” Harper explains, “is more transformational than transactional.”

Life is better when shared

Evan Carter grew up experiencing what he describes as “surface-level Christianity.” However, in middle school he got involved in the ministry of Young Life and “heard the Gospel in a way that connected with my heart.” He stayed involved in Young Life throughout middle and high school and then became a volunteer leader with the ministry while he was in college.

Much like Todd Harper, Carter worked hard from an early age and he enjoyed spending the money he made. In his mid-30s, however, his convictions about money began to change, in part, because of his encounter with Generous Giving. He realized that he had been living within a rigid framework in which 10% of his income was God’s and 90% was his. “That whole paradigm began to implode in a good way. The Lord just really got a hold of my heart in that area and began to soften it.”

Carter and some friends had established a mentoring program for college students and one year they were invited to bring the students to a JOG retreat. Carter was there primarily as a chaperone, or so he thought. “Five minutes into it, I thought, ‘Okay, I don’t know why you all are here, but I know why I’m here.’ I was so convicted by what the Holy Spirit was doing in my heart…in that 24-hour span that I immediately said, ‘I want to get involved.’”

He went through leader training shortly thereafter and today facilitates JOGs around the country several times a year. Sometimes the groups are brought together by others, but sometimes he invites people, including clients. Carter is a financial advisor whose compensation is based on the amount of money he manages, so helping people catch a vision for giving money away might seem financially counterproductive. After all, if his clients give more, that would mean less money for him to manage and therefore less fee income.

“I suppose that if they wanted to give away radical amounts of money, it would change my bottom line,” Carter says. “But at the same time, God’s bigger than that. He’s got either more resources for them one day or he’s got other clients for me that need more help.”

In his own life, Carter has seen God bring about a clear change in perspective about generosity. “I would say the biggest contrast at a macro level would be one from scarcity to abundance. If you were to put a magnifying glass on my heart,” he says, clenching his hands tightly, “I was basically living like this for the first 35 years. What I’m watching the Lord do through the JOG and some other things the Lord has been impressing on me over time is opening up [my heart and hands].”

That change in perspective has led to a change in how he and his wife, Julia, give. They’ve gone from giving a fixed percentage of their income to beginning each year asking the Lord what He would have them give, and then responding accordingly in faith.

As they continue on their journey, Carter says they find themselves viewing more and more financial decisions through a generosity filter. When they bought their house, for example, it was important that they could use it for ministry.

“I was sitting in the kitchen the first morning after we moved in and I remember asking the Lord, ‘How can I remain this appreciative to you for giving us this?’ I felt like the Lord said, ‘Share it.’” So they do.

Even though Evan and Julia have three young children, they regularly open their home to people who need a place to stay for months at a time, and they use their home to host Young Life events and JOG retreats. “That’s one of our family values: life is better when shared. That’s probably a very tangible way our girls are getting to see not only financial stewardship, but then [through] a kind of communal opening up of possessions, that it all belongs to the Lord.”

More than money

When Rachel Erkmann’s husband, Mike, suggested they go on a JOG retreat, she wasn’t interested. “I was like, ‘No thank you. I’d rather not do a weekend retreat talking about generosity.’ But down deep, it was really because I didn’t want to feel like I wasn’t doing enough.”

Rachel says when she and Mike were newly married they were open to doing whatever God asked them to do without limits. After a while, though, that enthusiasm began to wane. “As we grew in our careers, yeah, we were investing in our neighborhood, and we loved the Lord, and we were following Him, but at the same time we were accumulating financially. And after a while, 10 years later, 12 years later, I’m realizing, if God asked me to sell everything we have, I don’t know that I would say yes very easily. That was a scary place for me to be in my faith, in my walk.”

Eventually, Rachel agreed to go on the retreat. “I was thinking it was going to be [an experience where] someone comes in and they tell you how to be generous, and that would be the weekend discussion. And that’s not at all what it was. It was just story after story after story of people whose lives are changing and it opened up my heart to want that, too.” Little did she know what would come from that desire.

After Mike and a business partner purchased a commercial property management company, Rachel began taking some of the women who worked there to lunch. At one of those lunches, an employee named Ainsley opened up about a liver disease her husband had. After she described how a liver transplant could extend her husband’s life if they could locate a donor, Rachel casually said, “I could do that.” Ainsley tried to wave her off, but Rachel and Mike began discussing and praying about it.

Rachel says, “I had to come to terms with, ‘God, we’ve given our finances over to you, but is really everything that I have yours?” As for Mike, the risks involved in the transplant operation weighed on him. “I had a moment where [I was] up at 3 a.m., [my] mind’s racing, and I [thought], ‘You truly could be a single dad.’”

As Rachel and Mike built relationships with Ainsley, her husband TJ, and their three young children, their hearts were drawn toward helping them. “He has these three beautiful children,” Mike says. “[A transplant] might not extend his life long-term, but what we understood is it would give him 10 years. That’s when I remember saying, ‘We’re in. We’re all in.’ Ten years of life to be a dad. TJ’s a phenomenal dad.”

Ultimately, the surgeries were successful. It’s been a humbling, life-changing experience for TJ — and for Rachel as well.

“It just became apparent to me…that God is in the business of blessing,” she says. “What’s been super cool for us is [seeing] that God’s going to bless that person and He’s just letting you in on it.... It could be that the whole reason God had Mike buy that business…was that our lives would intersect with [Ainsley and TJ]. We don’t know what all the reasons are for things, but I feel honored that we have been invited into God’s story.”

The next step

Todd Harper says people sometimes begin a Journey of Generosity retreat wondering, “What’s the catch?” They assume that at some point, whether at the end of the experience or a few weeks later, they will be asked for money. But that never happens.

If there is a call to action, it comes from God, with times of quiet reflection built into the weekend in which participants are encouraged to “ask, listen, and obey.”

“That’s our hope for everyone who participates in a JOG,” Harper says, “that they would ask God what He wants them to do, take time to listen, and then step out in faith in obedience to that invitation.”

Twenty years after the founding of Generous Giving, Harper’s enthusiasm is stronger than ever. He loves helping people change the lens through which they see generosity — from obligation to opportunity, and from duty to desire. And he never tires of being in the room when that happens, or when he reconnects with past JOG participants at the annual Celebration of Generosity. “It’s mind-blowingly delightful to be with these kinds of people.”

As he considers how his own life has turned out since encountering God in that grassy meadow in Midlothian, Texas, as a college freshman, Harper sums it up this way: “I’m not as rich as I thought I might be financially, but I can’t imagine being richer.”

At www.GenerousGiving.org, you can view stories of other people who have taken new steps in their journeys of generosity, download a free three-week Bible study, and learn more about participating in a JOG weekend retreat.