The Common Good
March 2009

Stingy Givers

by J. Dana Trent | March 2009

Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money, by Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson, with Patricia Snell. Oxford University Press.

The massive economic crises of recent months have led to drastic cuts in the American family budget. These crises are sure to have financial implications on what is, according to Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell, already less-than-generous church giving.

In Passing the Plate: Why Amer­can Christians Don’t Give Away More Money, the authors shed light on why U.S. Christians are astonishingly un­generous. They outline giving trends with current data, startling statistics, and a clear sociological delivery—leaving the conscientious reader very troubled about the failure of Christian tithing.

According to their research, 20 percent of American Christ­ians give nothing to church, para-church, or nonreligious charities. The remaining 80 percent give something, but not much. The mean average of giving is 2.9 percent of their after-tax in­comes—no­where near the mark of biblical mandates of tithing.

For the authors, this lack of generous giving is a riddle of enormous consequence. Consi­dering cur­rent domestic and global needs, generous giving “could transform the world, starting right away,” they write. And, U.S. Christians appear to have the financial resources to give generously in light of these needs. Nearly every tradition in American Christianity teaches tithing. In light of these factors, why don’t we give away more money?

The authors offer nine hypotheses: 1) despite general affluence, many American Christians do not possess the resources to tithe; 2) many think they do not possess the resources to tithe; 3) they do not perceive the existing needs that their money could address; 4) there is a lack of awareness regarding the teachings about tithing; 5) they distrust waste and abuse by nonprofit administrators; 6) there are low expectations of giving from churches and clergy; 7) they lack confidence that other Christians are contributing; 8) there is a sense that money and financial issues are highly private and therefore areas where people feel unaccountable; and 9) most U.S. Christians give in unplanned and inconsistent ways.

Given their research, the authors are confident that U.S. Christians actu­ally possess the financial re­sources to give generously of their after-tax income. If Christians were committed to tithing, they could do it. Tithing would come at a lifestyle cost for many, including cuts in consumer spending, and require disciplined planned giving with the support of their local church cultures.

MOST PASTORS ABHOR talking about money with their parishioners, which compounds the challenge. Most U.S. Christians are not seriously confronted with their local church giving, the authors write, and have not wrestled with the theological and moral teachings of their traditions. Due to the lack of accountability, there are few or no real costs or consequences for stingy giving.

In their conclusion, the writers also acknowledge that churches are competing with the monster of consumerism, which focuses our attention not on our abundance, but on all we do not possess. This, they write, leaves Americans “feeling pretty poor.” Mortgages, car payments, cable television, eating out, vacations, and countless small purchases create widespread financial commitments for families and individuals. In light of these expenses, U.S. Christians operate with a mentality and theology of scarcity. Increasing gifts to their churches or other charitable organizations will require re-prioritizing, planning, and feeling less “poor.”

This begs the question: Would U.S. Christians commit to tithing if they were required by their churches to give generously? The authors say no. In their final chapter, they conduct an experimental interview in which churches enforce tithing or parishioners risk their good-standing membership. The vast majority, more than two-thirds of those polled, would oppose a tithing requirement by not giving 10 percent, moving to another church that does not require tithing, or dropping out of church life altogether.

The authors trust theologians and ethicists to evaluate the moral gravity of ungenerous giving. They allow the numbers to speak for themselves—awakening us to our tightfisted ways, the needs of others, and reminding us to bring our “first fruits” to God, even in the midst of economic struggle. This book is a must-read for anyone who “passes the plate.”

J. Dana Trent works at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, and is an ordained Baptist minister.

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