After I had given a stewardship lecture, a pastor once asked me, “What is the one thing that I should do for my congregation to help them become generous?” Unfortunately—or, perhaps, fortunately—there is no single answer. However, one key idea emerges from studies on the subject: religious giving is a rational behavior that can be explained, affected, and changed.1
Liberality is about giving good things to others freely and abundantly. If you give an allowance to your child, a good tip to a porter, or a donation to a beggar, most people would probably consider you a person of liberality. For this article, we view liberality as the application of a plan of systematic benevolence to a church, comprising three elements: tithing, proportional offerings, and donations.2 After considering the how and why of religious giving, we will propose a research-based model to help pastors inspire a growth in liberality in their churches.
Facts and factors influencing religious giving
Several factors affect religious giving. Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell reveal that 20 percent of all Christians in the US donate nothing to the church, and most of those who do contribute very little. The majority of a church’s money comes from a minority of its members: 20 percent provides 75 percent of the financial resources. Paradoxically, those with higher incomes donate less as a percentage than those with lower incomes. Religious giving is inversely proportional to growth in income. When income rises, religious giving declines. Also, Christians increasingly give just to their local communities of faith.3
Unfortunately, Seventh-day Adventists have conducted few studies on their religious giving. It seems that our primary interest is more about accounting and less about uncovering the profile of givers and the factors that influence them. One exception is the work of Robert McIver, a research specialist at Avondale University College. Based on an analysis of more than 118,000 separate tithe receipts and the responses of over 8,000 surveys collected in five countries, McIver’s study reveals that the absolute dollar amount returned as tithe within our denomination has increased. However, the percentage of income given has fallen in the past 40 years.4 This situation, coupled with the general decline in mission offerings and the impending economic crisis, represents a threat to mission, especially to our commitment to a worldwide mission.
Because the factors that determine religious giving are many, it would be unwise to zero in on a single aspect. Theology, faith, church involvement, and church attendance affect the level of religious giving. Individuals who have a strong faith and a conservative theology5 and who are active in church involvement and attendance are more likely to give at a higher level.6 Good management of personal finances (comprising planning and pledging) will also strongly shape religious giving.7 Another positive element is adequate emphasis by the local church on the value of religious giving.8 Finally, a commitment to wise and transparent financial management on the part of the church or religious organization also definitely influences giving.9
The growing liberality model
Our approach to growing the level of liberality rests on some key assumptions: the church is a living organism, liberality does not happen in a vacuum, humans can partner with God to create the conditions for the emergence of faithfulness and liberality, and the local congregation is the best place to grow liberality. The model is articulated around three main components: empowering members, mainstreaming the stewardship message, and creating a conducive church culture.
The thrust for empowering members is to help members grow in all aspects of their lives (3 John 2). The focus is on both spiritual and financial empowerment.
Spiritual empowerment implies that the church encourages its members to establish and maintain a daily connection with God. It is founded on the principle that contemplation creates transformation (2 Cor. 3:18). Interaction with the greatest Giver of all is the surest means to transform self-oriented individuals. McIver's study found that people who pray regularly, study the Bible and their Sabbath School lesson daily, and attend church services are more likely to tithe faithfully.10 From the same perspective, the certainty that the particular teachings of one’s faith are true,11 a strong sense of mission,12 and the practice of giving as a spiritual discipline are strong predictors of liberality. The association between spirituality and liberality is undeniable.
Some local initiatives can contribute to the spiritual empowerment of members:
- Help members follow a daily Bible reading plan. The “Believe His Prophets” initiative could be an interesting option.13
- Explore ways to encourage more members to study their Sabbath School lesson and attend Sabbath School.
- Make the weekly prayer meeting appealing and accessible to members.
Financial empowerment is a process during which a member develops his or her potential to generate and manage personal financial resources. Ellen White speaks about the alarming situation prevailing in the area of financial literacy: “Many lack wise management and economy. They do not weigh matters well, and move cautiously.”14 As a result, “when there is a call made for the advancement of the work in home and foreign missions, they have nothing to give, or even have overdrawn their account.”15 Many sincere believers fail to partner in God’s mission because their finances are in disarray.
They [the clergy] do not want to give the impression that they are pleading for their own income or being insensitive topeople’s economic conditions.
Some areas of financial empowerment need special attention. First, members should develop the right mindset about financial resources: God is the Provider, and He gives us the power to generate wealth. Hence, our pockets are not empty. Second, all need to develop wise spending habits, resisting the appeal of commercials that drive us to spend by appealing to our senses. Jesus instructs His followers to “sit down and calculate the cost” (Luke 14:28, NASB). Third, believers need to understand the implications of indebtedness. How can one avoid using others’ money, and, if already in debt, how does one get out of it? Fourth, we should clarify the importance of savings and help members to be knowledgeable about the best practices. Fifth, teach and challenge members to experience the principle “Whatever He receives, He multiplies” through the practice of tithing and giving offerings and donations. Last—but highly correlated to religious giving—offer an explanation and appeal to members to pledge a percentage-based offering. Individuals who commit themselves to give a regular percentage of their income as offerings end up giving more than those who respond only to the prompting of specific circumstances.
Mainstreaming the stewardship message
The next component of the model ensures that the stewardship message reaches all segments of the church membership. New members and the children learn about liberality through both example and intentional teaching (Rom. 10:14; Ps. 78:5, 6). Stewardship is both caught and taught.
However, widespread ignorance exists regarding religious giving. Many Christians do not think of liberality as a primary expression of discipleship. They are not aware of the biblical teaching of 10-percent tithing and that sacrificial, proportionate financial giving is the norm of Christian stewardship. What could be the reasons for such unawareness? One cause could be the dichotomy that often exists between evangelism and stewardship. When we introduce people to Christ, we hesitate to instruct them in matters of giving. Author Ellen White warns about this omission: “Some refuse to accept the tithing system; they turn away, and no longer walk with those who believe and love the truth. When other lines are opened before them, they answer, ‘It was not so taught us,’ and they hesitate to move forward.”16
Another factor related to such ignorance is the phenomenon of “reluctant stewards” of church finances. Daniel Conway describes the clergy as being uncomfortable in talking about finances.17 They do not want to give the impression that they are pleading for their own income or being insensitive to people’s economic conditions. In a few instances, I have received invitations to give a stewardship talk or seminar with the recommendation from the leadership not to discuss finances. As a result, financial stewardship becomes a rarely addressed subject in church circles.
One effective way to share the stewardship message is to adopt an undercover strategy of including it in existing programs and church initiatives. Such an approach is usually less costly and taxing for the church schedule. Some “undercover” initiatives could effectively bring the stewardship message to the various segments of the church:
- Revitalize the mission story and the call to tithe and offerings during the Sabbath service.
- Help Adventurers and Pathfinders earn the Wise Steward Award and Stewardship Honor, respectively.
- Instruct prospective members about stewardship during evangelistic campaigns and Bible studies.
- Nurture members in stewardship through systematic home-visitation programs.
- Preach a stewardship-related sermon once every quarter in the local church.
Creating conducive church culture
This component of the model focuses on the characteristics of the recipient of giving, the church itself. Catherine Eckel and Philip Grossman speak about the “deservingness” of the recipient: Is the church context encouraging the liberality of its members?18
Jared Peifer observes that people who consider that “budget is appropriate,” have “trust in leadership,” and are “enthusiastic about programs” usually elevate their giving rate by 8 to 11 percent.19 Nine percent of nongivers mentioned trust in financial management as their most important reason for not giving.20 It appears that issues related to congregational spending, expenses, disbursements, and financial conflict influence members’ giving, and trust (or lack of it) is a major contributive factor.
Scripture reveals that Paul invested in creating the right church culture to encourage giving
(1 Cor. 16:1–4). The apostle not only emphasized planned and proportional giving but also elaborated on the responsibility of the church as the recipient of the giving. It must do everything possible to ensure that givers will have full confidence in its financial management.
Some actions can improve the deservingness of the local church:
- Have an effective internal control system that members recognize.
- Provide regular and accessible information about church finances.
- Assess and improve the quality of programs and services.
- Prioritize investment in mission.
Growth in liberality results from how we do church. Teaching the theology of liberality and conducting stewardship programs are foundational. However, they have a limited impact unless we empower believers and increase their perception of the “deservingness” of the church.
- A version of this article was published in Dynamic Stewards 23, no. 2 (April 2020): 6–8.
- See Ellen G. White, Counsels on Stewardship (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1940), 80, 81.
- Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, and Patricia Snell, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), locs. 976, 982 of 4932, Kindle.
- Robert K. McIver, Tithing Practices Among Seventh-day Adventists, 2nd ed. (Cooranbong, Australia: Avondale Academic Press, 2016), 22, 23.
- Laurence R. Iannaccone, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” American Journal of Sociology 99, no. 5 (March 1994): 1180–1211, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2781147; Dean R. Hoge, Charles Zech, Patrick McNamara, and Michael Donahue, Money Matters: Personal Giving in American Churches (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 91; Daniel V. A. Olson and Paul Perl, “Free and Cheap Riding in Strict, ConservativeSpace Churches,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no. 2 (June 2005): 123–142.
- Dean R. Hoge and Yang Fenggang, “Determinants of Religious Giving in American Denominations: Data From Two Nationwide Surveys,” Review of Religious Research 36, no. 2 (December 1994): 136, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3511404.
- Smith, Emerson, and Snell, Passing the Plate, 90.
- Brandon Vaidyanathan and Patricia Snell, “Motivations for and Obstacles to Religious Financial Giving,” Sociology of Religion 72, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 201, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41288568.
- Jared L. Peifer, “The Economics and Sociology of Religious Giving: Instrumental Rationality or Communal Bonding?” Social Forces 88, no. 4 (June 2010): 1583, https://doi.org/10.1353/sof.2010.0004.
- McIver, Tithing Practices, 22, 23.
- Olson and Perl, “Free and Cheap,” 126.
- Peter Mundey, David P. King, and Brad R. Fulton, “The Economic Practices of U.S. Congregations: A Review of Current Research and Future Opportunities,” Social Compass 66, no. 3 (September 2019): 406, https://journals.sagepub.com/home/scp.
- “Believe His Prophets: A Five-Year Program Reading Through the Bible and Selected Ellen White Writings,” Revival and Reformation, https://revivalandreformation.org/bhp.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press. Pub. Assn., 1948), 224.
- Ellen G. White, “Represent Christ in Self-Denial,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 19, 1893, 1.
- White, Counsels on Stewardship, 105.
- Daniel Conway, Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and Lilly Endowment, The Reluctant Steward Revisited: Preparing Pastors for Administrative and Financial Duties: A Report and Commentary on a Study Conducted by Saint Meinrad School of Theology With Funding From Lilly Endowment Inc. (Saint Meinrad, IN: Saint Meinrad School of Theology, 2002), 21.
- Catherine Eckel and Philip Grossman, “Altruism in Anonymous Dictator Games,” Games and Economic Behavior 16, no. 2 (1996): 181, https://econPapers.repec.org/RePEc:eee:gamebe:v:16:y:1996:i:2:p:181-191.
- Peifer, “Economics and Sociology,” 1583.
- Smith, Emerson, and Snell, Passing the Plate, loc. 1506 of 4932, Kindle.