A friend of mine rarely gets within the shadow of a church steeple. Regularly he explains to me his aversion. His family attended mass each Sunday, the whole family shoved into a single pew, and the priest would personally take the weekly offering.

The father had a collection basket on a long pole that he would send down each pew and pull it back “like reeling in white fish,” my friend says. The priest, scowlingly, would look into the basket, and if not enough had been collected, he would send the basket down the row — again and again. He did this pew by pew, my fomenting friend cries, “until your pockets were down to nothing but lint and chewing gum!”

Personally, I once saw a pulpit shyster, whose “ministry” flourishes to this day, order a wheel barrel rolled to the front of a revival meeting. He declared that “God needed the money” and the service would not conclude until it was full.

I watched people bring cash, checks, wedding bands, watches, and car titles down the aisle to cast into that wheeled bucket. I suspect that some gave with all sincerity of heart, but had I anything in my pockets besides “lint and chewing gum,” I would have gladly given it just to set the whole circus down.

Truth be told, many of the church’s stewardship tactics (“stewardship” being the code word for all things financial) are plain un-Christian. How else can one describe the manipulation, compulsory giving, browbeating and shaming, and the back-slapping, high-pressure shenanigans of hucksterism?

Of course there is that more benign form of coercion, perfected in our profit-driven culture: This smiling though nefarious strain of greed that instructs us to give in order to get. It might seem less shady than the whole wheel barrel scene, but putting money in the collection basket only because you hope God will give you back more isn’t cheerful giving. It’s a Ponzi scheme.

The concept in the New Testament is willful giving from the heart — not for the sake of getting more, or because of being held financially hostage — but for the sake of helping others in need. As the Apostle Paul said, “Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.”

John Wesley preached, “Our giving is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, and clothes for the naked. It gives the stranger a place to lay his head. It supports the widowed and the fatherless; is a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, and is of ease to them that are in pain.”

We need fewer hulking church endowments, fewer mega-millionaire ministers, and much less coercion from the pulpit. Let each person “decide in his own heart how much to give; and don’t give in response to pressure. For God loves a cheerful giver,” and the most cheerful giver of all is the one who helps others in need.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.org.