the shape of leadership

What Gives?

The gap between the ideal and reality of tithing

Ron Sellers on February 12, 2024

Regardless of whether believers see it as a biblical mandate, the traditional standard for church giving is 10% of one’s income. Yet two recent studies from Grey Matter Research and Infinity Concepts found most Christians do not practice tithing.

The reports — Who Controls the Wallet? and The Generosity Factor (2023 and 2021, respectively) — reveal fewer than 13% of U.S. evangelical Protestants tithe.

Nearly one-third (31%) said they did not give to a church during the previous 12 months, while 43% contributed nothing to charities or ministries outside of church. Twenty-two percent made no donations — not a penny — to church or charity.

The average evangelical Protestant gives 2.4% of household income to church and a combined 3.2% to church and charity. Half of all evangelicals give less than 1% of their household income to church or charity.

What’s going on? I believe five factors contribute to the gap between the ideal and reality of tithing.


1. False Assumptions

Some polls on tithing ask Christians about the percentage they give. However, people don’t typically think or budget in percentages.

You probably remember the amount of your monthly mortgage or rent payment, but do you know the exact proportion of your household income that represents?

In 2017, Grey Matter Research asked American donors how many dollars they contributed to charities (excluding places of worship). Only 4% quoted a figure representing at least one-tenth of their household income. When asked what percentage of their household income they gave, however, 38% said they gave one-tenth or more.

In other words, people believe they are giving far more than they actually do. When teaching about giving, don’t merely ask congregants to tithe. Encourage them to calculate what 10% of their household income is, and give that.

This exercise might be a wake-up call for many congregants. When Christians believe they are already meeting the standard for tithing, they often see no reason to increase their giving.


2. A Lack of Discipleship

Many churches offer stewardship programs and teaching on tithing. Unless congregants have a solid spiritual foundation, however, these may have little impact on giving.

We found the single biggest predictor of generosity is frequent spiritual activity, including church attendance, prayer, small group participation, and Bible reading.

As an example, generosity levels among evangelicals who read the Bible daily are 582% higher than those of evangelicals who never read Scripture.

Unfortunately, just 11% of evangelicals are fully engaged spiritually (attending church and small groups weekly, reading the Bible daily, studying the Bible multiple times per week, and praying multiple times per day), according to the 2023 Grey Matter study Uneven: Success, Stagnation, and Delusion in Spiritual Growth. Another 22% are highly engaged spiritually, while 38% are moderately engaged and 28% have low or no spiritual engagement.

Thirty percent of evangelicals do not pray multiple times per day, and larger shares don’t attend in-person or online church weekly (38%) or study the Bible even once a week (46%). Most aren’t reading Scripture daily (67%) or attending small groups weekly (71%).

Pastors are trying to promote stewardship to a population that often has low spiritual engagement. The basic Christian disciplines make a huge difference in giving. Perhaps church leaders should focus first on building this foundation, anticipating increased giving as a natural outgrowth of greater spiritual engagement and maturity.

Donors expect assurance they
are supporting a deserving cause
and their gifts are making a difference. Furthermore, they want to feel appreciated.


3. Generational Changes

For years, people tended to give more as they grew older. However, a 2022 report from Grey Matter and Infinity Concepts titled The Generation Gap shows that pattern is changing. Today’s young adults may never develop the giving habits of their parents and grandparents.

Evangelicals under age 40 focus less on local causes and more on international issues. Young people are more likely to view with skepticism organizations that ask for money, while older evangelicals generally start with trust.

Younger Americans crave far more variety in their giving, and they are more likely than older donors to give spontaneously, or when it “feels right.”

Further, greater economic stability helps account for increased giving among older adults. Yet today’s young adults may not experience the same upward trajectory previous generations enjoyed.

According to Forbes, freelance or independent workers now represent 36% of the U.S. workforce, and the trend is growing. One thing the gig economy does not bring is economic stability.

There is also a significant increase of direct giving among younger generations. Young adults are more likely than others to give directly to people in need — whether friends or strangers — through crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe. As they mature, these cohorts may continue choosing such giving methods over traditional church and charity contributions.


4. Lack of Motivation

Years ago, many Christians gave to church out of a sense of obligation. Increasingly, people need more compelling reasons to give.

According to Lifeway Research, three-quarters of Protestant pastors say apathy and lack of commitment are problems within their churches. Nearly half (47%) indicate these are their greatest challenges.

In an apathetic environment, it is no longer realistic to pass the plate and expect the money to appear.

Students preparing for ministry study hermeneutics, homiletics and theology. Rarely do they learn about fundraising, marketing, and strategic communication. Nevertheless, today’s pastors need to develop all of these skills.

Donors are interested in where their money is going. They expect assurance they are supporting a deserving cause and their gifts are making a difference. Furthermore, they want to feel appreciated.

Unfortunately, many church leaders do little to communicate these things, beyond issuing financial spreadsheets during quarterly board meetings.

Besides their roles as preachers, teachers, administrators, counselors, and more, pastors increasingly need to learn effective fundraising techniques.

In an age of apathy and disengagement, it is no longer sufficient to tell congregants, “You should support the church.”


5. Virtual Church

According to Pew Research Center, 27% of American adults regularly watch religious services online or on television. While churchgoers overwhelmingly prefer in-person attendance, the convenience and variety of electronic experiences is drawing many of them to screens.

Sixteen percent of Americans attend church exclusively in person, 10% view services only via screens, and 17% attend both remotely and in person. Most within the latter group are tuning in to churches other than those they attend in person.

When people watch your services remotely, they need an easy and convenient way to give, rather than waiting until they’re in the building and a collection plate passes by. If they’re not part of your in-person congregation, they need to know why they should support your ministry.

Pew found many remote viewers report a sense of disconnection from others. Provide simple ways for online participants to connect with your congregation, including through electronic giving options.

Digital church is still a fluid situation, but it’s here to stay — and it will affect giving. Make giving easy and convenient, even for attendees who are not physically present.

Each of these issues presents challenges for ministries. Navigating them will require wisdom, strategy, faith — and, above all, prayer.

As Chuck Swindoll once said, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” How you respond to these trends will help determine your church’s financial future.


This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

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