I have started a short series on money called "The Great Give: The Discipline of Generous Living." Financial stewardship has been called "the one area of our spiritual lives we cannot fake." Our giving says so much about our spiritual living. Perhaps that's why Jesus taught more about money than He did about heaven or hell.
Once the topic of money is broached, a whole host of practical questions follows. How much? How often? Net or gross income [I love the answer: "If you want a net blessing, give on net income. If you want a gross blessing, give on gross."]? A very important question concerns the destination of our giving. To whom/where should we direct our generosity?
I'd like to answer this question on two fronts. First, I believe it is important for Christians to focus a majority of their charitable giving on Kingdom-centered initiatives. To be sure, the local symphony, animal shelter or policeman's banquet are all noble causes. But, when the souls of people are at stake, the greatest investment we can make is in ministries which are strategically and intentionally designed to make Jesus Christ known. This doesn't mean that every ministry is financially accountable or equal in regards to its effectiveness. But, when the Christian has to decide whether to save the trees or save people, give to people. In this, you lay up for yourselves treasure which are heavenly and eternal [Matthew 6:19-20].
Second, I believe it is important for Christians to give to their church first, then to support ministries. Throughout the Bible, God's people were commanded to give their tithe ["tenth"] to the priests, the apostles or the church. The Israelites were not allowed to take a tenth of their crop and distribute it at will. The early church brought their money "to the apostles to give to those who had need" [Acts 4:35]. Each time, God's people entrusted their resources to leaders who were given the responsibility to steward and safeguard the resources.
I believe there is a logistical and spiritual reason for this plan. Logistically, or practically, the community leaders [Levites, apostles, elders, etc.] are charged with seeing the needs in the whole community. As leaders of God's people, they are better able to disburse the funds of God's people in an equitable, balanced, strategic manner. Conversely, if all the people in the church gave to whomever they wished, the church would have no means to accomplish it's central mission. Spiritually, the act of giving is intended to be a step of faith wrapped in surrender. There is the ever-present temptation to go half the distance of faith/surrender by giving, but still attempt to maintain control by personally choosing where my money goes and how it is spent. In this, I miss the full "losing" and "gaining" that God has planned for me [Matthew 16:25].
Having offered this perspective, let me also address the other side. I do believe it is important for Christians to support initiatives within their community. Supporting participants in a breast cancer awareness walk-a-thon or giving a contribution to the local Girl Scouts can be a great thing. In addition, I do believe it's important for Christians to support ministry beyond the scope of their church. Hopefully, every believer has a relationship with a missionary whom they support. There are thousands of God-honoring, non-profit organizations who are committed to spiritual life change [I sit on the board of a an incredible Christian fraternity, http://www.betaupsilonchi.org/] and they deserve our partnership, over and above our commitment to our churches.
The good news is that all the money to accomplish all of God's mission is available. Let's seek the wisdom of God to give faithfully, regularly and strategically to the places where we might see the greatest return on our generous investments.