The ministry known as empty tomb, inc., is based in a modestly sized office building within walking distance of the University of Illinois at Urbana—Champaign. Founders John and Sylvia Ronsvalle describe it as a Christian research and service organization. That's an understatement on the order of saying the Salvation Army occasionally helps a homeless person.
For reporters writing stories about the state of giving in churches, empty tomb is the go-to think tank. The Ronsvalles crunch statistics so vigorously that in 2010 they will publish the 20th edition of The State of Church Giving, a challenging report of nearly 200 pages. They praise whatever progress they find, such as the decision of Francis Chan's Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, to devote half its budget to missions. They also catalog how little priority most churches give to worldwide evangelism or to fighting preventable childhood deaths in developing nations.
The Ronsvalles decided early on in their married years that they would tithe. "We were poor when we started," Sylvia said. "We had two rooms to live in and $75 a month in food stamps." They now tithe not only on all the donations they receive but also on the value of their medical coverage. John understands Matthew 23:23 as Jesus' implicit affirmation of the tithe as the starting point for a person concerned with righteousness.
After so many years of studying the world's needs and the church's poor giving patterns, the Ronsvalles struggle to reconcile the two. John said they sometimes think of Christians as two figures from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy: the slow-moving Ents and Theoden, the king who spends much of the narrative in an enchanted stupor.
"It's like people in this country are under the influence of drugs, and it is the drug of affluence," Sylvia said. She cited Jacques Ellul's observation, in Money and Power, that Jesus speaks of mammon as a personal being in Matthew 6. "Mammon is competing for your soul with God. The church in the United States, with all the blessings we've had, can lay those resources at God's feet or can be consumed by them and become like Theoden, become like the Ents, become drugged. It would take visionary moral leadership to wake people up."
For the Ronsvalles, tithing is not only a matter of obeying God. It is also a conscious way to resist the self-worship that accompanies greed and stinginess. In one essay they have published online, the Ronsvalles quote a fellow Christian as asking them, "If I'm not trusting God with my money, am I really trusting him with my eternal salvation?" Christianity Today
Tithing: Test Me in This
by Douglas LeBlanc
Thomas Nelson, February 2010
176 pp., $13.99