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A Fascinating Survey on Church Giving

Why don't people give? What makes people less likely to give? What are the implications of this?

In 'Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money', the authors share a fascinating study they conducted in 2006 that proposed a hypothetical scenario. This article gives a brief summary of the survey, and provides 2 implications. I'd recommend you read the study for a more detailed overview and analysis. Here's the hypothetical they proposed:

"Suppose your church made a new requirement for church membership: members must give 10 percent of their after-tax income to the church or other good causes. Those giving less than 10 percent could still attend church, but would not be considered members in good standing. How would you personally most likely respond to this requirement?
  1. I would start giving 10 percent of my income
  2. I would attend church, but give less than 10 percent of my income
  3. I would move to a different church that does not ask its members to give 10 percent
  4. I would drop out of church life altogether
  5. I already give 10 percent of my income
We intentionally wrote this question with the strong language of “requirement,” “must,” and “not considered members” in order to raise the stakes high enough to see where people would stand on a demanding proposition. We also specifically wrote it to include “other good causes” so that givers could choose to donate to a wide range of causes beyond their own churches. And we intentionally specified “after-tax income” to make all respondents clear on the magnitude of the requirement and to make it less costly than 10 percent of gross income."

A brief diversion about 10%

Yes, the New Testament makes no commands on a figure of 10% (or any other figure). However, if anything, the New Testament requires far more than a tithe. Surely the grace of God experienced in Jesus doesn't require less of his people than the 10% required in the Old Testament?!

"Christians do not live by law, but by God’s grace as revealed in Jesus Christ. If the tithe were demanded by the law, it is inconceivable that we would consider giving less under grace… . As affluent American Christians who are encircled by a consumer mentality where greed abounds, many of us no longer understand the meaning of words like “generosity” and “sacrifice.” We need a guide, a benchmark, a beginning point. Clement of Alexandria called the tithe a formation for generosity. We believe the tithe is the answer for American Baptists. Tithing allows us to express the new basis upon which we build our new lives…"

Tithing as a concept should be seen as a good start, or 'training wheels' as Randy Alcorn puts it to a lifestyle of grace-motivated generosity.

Why do people not give?

Let's zoom in on the reasons why people wouldn't support a requirement to give 10% or more:

"For those church-attending Christian survey respondents who reported that they do not now already tithe and that they would not begin tithing if their churches required it, we then asked the following question to try to draw out their thoughts, feelings, and motives for resisting tithing: What would be your most important reasons for not giving 10 percent of your after-tax income if your church required it for membership in good standing? (click 1–2 of your most important reasons):
  1. I could not afford to give 10 percent of my income
  2. I have the money but do not want to give that much money away
  3. As a matter of principle, the church has no right to ask its members to give specific amounts of money
  4. I doubt that other church members would give 10 percent of their income and I would not want to give 10 percent of mine unless I knew everyone was doing so
  5. I do not trust those to whom I would give money to spend it wisely; there would be too much waste and abuse of donations
  6. 6. Government taxes and spending are already taking care of most of the needs that my giving would go toward
  7. There are not enough legitimate needs in the world to require so many people giving 10 percent of their income in order to meet
  8. I would rather spend that money myself on things that I enjoy
  9. I don’t know, no reason in particular
  10. Other (specify):

How did people respond?

"The vast majority of respondents unwilling to tithe cluster into only a few of the answer categories. The most popular answer, chosen by 59 percent, was that “As a matter of principle, the church has no right to ask its members to give specific amounts of money.” The second most popular answer, at 52 percent, was, “I could not afford to give 10 percent of my income.” Nine percent said that “I do not trust those to whom I would give money to spend it wisely; there would be too much waste and abuse of donations.”

In summary, the top 2 reasons for being unwilling to tithe:

  1. The church can't tell me what to give.
  2. I can't afford to give.

What makes people less likely to give?

What was also interesting was the type of people who are less likely to give. These 2 factors dramatically reduced a willingness to give:

1. Wealth.

"Earning a higher income is negatively associated with already tithing and being willing to start tithing if churches required it. Churchgoing American Christians who earn higher incomes, in other words, appear less likely and willing than lower income earners to give 10 percent of their after-tax income."

In fact:

"Earning higher incomes does not make American Christians more generous with their money. It actually appears to make them more stingy, protective, and distrustful."

This reality is demonstrated outside the church. The Atlantic reported that "The wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income; the poorest, 3.2 percent."

2. Education

"The least educated seem the most supportive and the highest educated the least supportive."

In summary: the less wealthy and educated people are, the more likely they are to give generously. Sad, but true.


The authors are aware that this is a hypothetical scenario, and that real-life responses may be very different:

"We must remind ourselves that our results in this chapter refer not to actual situations faced in real life, but rather to hypothetical scenarios posed in abstract survey questions. It could well be that real churchgoing Christians would respond differently to actual requests by their churches for members to give 10 percent of after-tax income."

However, many pastors would reflect that these findings would match with their observations and conversations within their churches. There are many implications that could be drawn from this survey. I would like to draw out 2 implications from this survey. What implications would you draw from this?

1. 'Can't afford to' needs to be challenged

Randy Alcorn addresses this bluntly:

"When people tell me they can't afford to tithe, I ask them: "If your income was reduced by 10% would you die?" They say, "No." And I say, "Then you've admitted that you can afford to tithe. It's just that you don't want to."

When people say they can't afford to give, this should be challenged.

2. Giving requires a radical lifestyle change

In practical terms, many people would claim they don’t have any margin in their budgets for generous giving. After all of the ‘living’, there is nothing leftover for giving. Instead of giving first and living on what’s leftover, many are living first and giving on what (if any) is leftover. Obviously, this is not consistent with the Bible’s teaching on stewardship - i.e. everything is God’s, and we are stewards who will be held to account for how we managed what God gave us. But this approach - giving first, and living with what’s leftover is a radical concept. It is counter-cultural, and would be a challenging message for many in our churches to hear. However, this is the response to the gospel - to follow Jesus and to submit to his Lordship for his glory in every aspect of our lives - not least of all our wallets. There are lots of good strategies for increasing giving, but at the heart of any significant change is a radical reorientation of lifestyle that flows from our understanding of the gospel. Helping people to see how the gospel leads to a thoroughly radical, self-denying, sacrificial, God-glorifying lifestyle is essential if real change is to take place. This was mentioned in a recent post on Tony Morgan's website:

“People want to know how to reorder their life priorities.” Many people who don’t give don’t see how much of a blessing giving can be. They need someone to help them reorder their life priorities. This is where church leaders come in.

Otherwise, calls to 'give more' will simply be heard as 'there's nothing spare to give'.

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