Whatever Happened to Tithing?

Written By Jana Riess

It’s fall stewardship season again, and Christians who are active in their churches know what that means: time to make a pledge of time, talents, and money for the coming year.  The trouble is, most of them don’t do a thing about the last of those three promises.  According to a startling new study by sociologists Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, and Patricia Snell, most American Christians give very little, if any, of their money to charity.

In Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (Oxford, Oct. 2008), the authors demonstrate that Americans give less than 2 percent of their after-tax income to charity, and that’s probably an overstatement: When asked in surveys, most people tend to exaggerate, not underestimate, their own generosity.  The reality is more likely less than 1 percent, and many Christians give nothing at all. That includes those who are active members of churches as well as those who don’t affiliate with a particular congregation.

What’s especially interesting about the book is not just its persuasive statement of the problem but its careful unpacking of the many reasons why Americans don’t give.  It’s not, as some say, because we don’t have the money; our charitable giving has steadily declined since the 1920s, for example, but our discretionary income is four times what folks in the 20s had.  It’s also not because we are mired in credit card debt; although the “average” credit card debt is often bandied about as being $8,000 or $9,000 per family, that average is grossly inflated by a small proportion of heavy debtors who owe far more.  A quarter of American families have no credit cards at all, and half of those who do pay off the balance every month.

Why, then, are we so stingy?  One reason that will make many pastors and religious professionals uncomfortable is the finding that people in the pews often just don’t know what the church expects insofar as giving is concerned.  Passing the Plate shows statistically that many pastors and priests are quite vague about “offerings.”  Very few mention that the expectation is  10 percent of income, preferring to use terms like “stewardship” and “charitable giving” so as not to offend the faithful.  Among churchgoing Christians, a surprising number of parishioners surveyed know on an intellectual level that a tithe is 10 percent of income, but they have no idea how that relates to their own lives or finances.  Nearly half of the Christians surveyed said that they don’t believe their religions expect them to be giving 10 percent of their income.  It’s rare for a sociology book to make behavioral recommendations, but one theme does come through loud and clear: churches need to set higher expectations for giving, and communicate those to parishioners.

This book is not going to win any writing awards.  These authors are what people in the publishing business call “content providers,” not storytellers; they are academics and policy wonks, and it shows.  The writing is what you would expect: it’s heavy on statistical percentages, bar graphs and demographic analysis.  But beyond the stylistic issues, the book is packed with valuable information for pastors, laypeople, and anyone involved with non-profit charitable fundraising.  Three “take-away” points for ordinary Christians include:

1)     People are statistically at least twice as generous when giving is regular, disciplined, and planned ahead of time.  Getting serious about tithing involves a long-range plan, whether we’re giving it all to a particular church or spreading it out among a broad range of charities.  When we’re left to our own short-term devices, there’s always too much month at the end of the money, and we don’t give generously to churches, hunger organizations, or other worthy causes.  Fill out pledge cards, arrange for automatic debits to your religious or charitable organizations of choice, and you’ll be on your way to a more generous lifestyle.  Spontaneous giving when the offering plate comes around seems like a great idea, but in practice, people give very little this way.

2)      Churches need people in the pews to catch the vision.  It’s not enough for clergy to say that the heater is broken or that the kids’ basketball team needs new uniforms, so people need to give.  Rather, churches must communicate their vision not only for their own ministries and programs, but also for national and international relief.  This sounds basic, but according to the book, few religions do this successfully.  The book’s opening chapter is valuable in encouraging Christians to imagine what their giving could accomplish in the world in concrete terms—diseases eradicated, children fed and educated, and missionary work funded around the globe. And that’s not even considering how the practice of tithing can spiritually enhance the lives of the givers.

3)      The wall of silence about financial practices has to come down.  People need to share their own experiences with tithing and financial generosity.  One finding that emerges in the book is that churches that have their own members openly discuss their giving practices in the form of testimonials foster enthusiasm among others in the congregation.  In other words, people want to hear from their peers on this issue, and need to know firsthand the stories of those who feel that being generous has transformed their spiritual lives.

This book is a great start toward getting people to talk about tithing.  And who knows?  If even a small percentage of American Christians read this and make tithing a priority, we’d be well on our way to funding many of the good works that the authors dangle before us in chapter 1.  

Copyright © 2008 Jana Riess.