The Rev. Gary Rarick promoted "Big Surprise Sunday" at Plainville (N.Y.) Christian Church United Church of Christ for about four weeks. Kept in suspense, one member asked if they were having a guest speaker. Another asked if they were having a party. One even had a dream that country singer Taylor Swift was coming to sing with the church choir. But the actual surprise - the church was giving each member $20 with which they were to go out and try to make a difference.
"No matter what they did, I wanted them to think that ministry isn't something that happens just by coming to church and sitting in a pew every Sunday," Rarick said. "If we just go home and forget about church until the next week, that isn't making a difference and being a good, active Christian."
The idea came to Rarick after preaching about the parable of the talents, a story in the Bible where a landowner gives three slaves a different amount of money in hopes of them turning it into more money to give back to him. However, Rarick wasn't concerned with growing the money to bring back into the church – he was more concerned with his members trying to think of creative ways to use the money to make a difference in their communities. As a young pastor celebrating his one-year anniversary at his first church out of seminary, Rarick's goal was to do something different and memorable. But first he needed to get his congregation on board.
"No one made a sound or moved – a bomb could have been dropped outside and no one would have moved," Rarick said of the announcement. "Everyone was stunned and I was actually pretty nervous."
While some are still figuring out what to do with it, other members used their money in a variety of different ways. A few simply added it to their weekly offering and gave it back to the church or the youth group. One woman took the $20 to buy ingredients for pumpkin rolls and pies to sell and has since quadrupled the funds. Three young sisters pooled their money together and bought school supplies for needy children. An enterprising young woman garnered more donations from family and her employer and donated the total to a local nonprofit. Still others gave their money to the local food bank or the Meals on Wheels program.
Barb Longwell was at first conflicted about what to do with her money. Then one day at the grocery store deli counter, she saw a woman buying a few slices of ham and a few slices of cheese, with instructions to the clerk that her order could not exceed five dollars. Realizing that the woman was struggling financially, Longwell used her $20 to buy a grocery store gift card and gave it to her.
"I thought, here's a local person on a fixed income who is obviously struggling a little bit," Longwell said. "It felt good that I could do that for this lady, even though I felt like I would have liked to have done more."
The five-week project technically ended Oct. 21, when 13 members gave testimonials to the congregation explaining how they used their money. But Rarick is encouraging his congregation to continue this kind of thinking in their daily lives, long after the project is over.
"For anyone who thought about the project for even five minutes after church on Sunday, I would say it was successful," Rarick said.