by Ron Sider
A Lot of Lattés
Many have lamented the meager giving of American Christians. Others have questioned the data on which this criticism was based or pointed out that American Christians give more than those in most other nations. Now we have a careful, scholarly analysis of how much—i.e., how little—American Christians give, plus a sophisticated sociological analysis of why.
Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money is a powerful study about the pitifully small charitable donations of the richest Christians in history. In spite of the fact that most Christian denominations support tithing (see Appendix A), only a tiny fraction of American Christians actually tithe. Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, and Patricia Snell set out to discover why. Using a number of the best currently available data sets plus a survey and personal interviews of their own, the authors offer the best available information on what American Christians actually give to charitable causes and then try to figure out why such rich Christians give so little.
Chapter 1 hits the reader like a ton of bricks, spelling out in detail what American Christians could accomplish if they would tithe. If just the "committed Christians" (defined as those who attend church at least a few times a month or profess to be "strong" or "very strong" Christians) would tithe, there would be an extra 46 billion dollars a year available for kingdom work. To make that figure more concrete, the authors suggest dozens of different things that $46 billion would fund each year: for example, 150,000 new indigenous missionaries; 50,000 additional theological students in the developing world; 5 million more micro loans to poor entrepreneurs; the food, clothing and shelter for all 6,500,000 current refugees in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; all the money for a global campaign to prevent and treat malaria; resources to sponsor 20 million needy children worldwide. Their conclusion is surely right: "Reasonably generous financial giving of ordinary American Christians would generate staggering amounts of money that could literally change the world."
Chapter 2 outlines the dismal reality of what American Christians actually give. Twenty percent of American Christians (19 percent of Protestants; 28 percent of Catholics) give nothing to the church. Among Protestants, 10 percent of evangelicals, 28 percent of mainline folk, 33 percent of fundamentalists, and 40 percent of liberal Protestants give nothing. The vast majority of American Christians give very little—the mean average is 2.9 percent. Only 12 percent of Protestants and 4 percent of Catholics tithe.
A small minority of American Christians give most of the total donated. Twenty percent of all Christians give 86.4 percent of the total. The most generous five percent give well over half (59.6 percent) of all contributions. But higher-income American Christians give less as a percentage of household income than poorer American Christians. In the course of the 20th century, as our personal disposable income quadrupled, the percentage donated by American Christians actually declined.
In Chapter 3, the authors evaluate nine frequently offered hypotheses to explain this modest giving. They conclude that five have substantial validity: 1) many Christians have not seriously wrestled with their own tradition's theological teaching on giving; 2) many churches simply accept low expectations for giving and therefore provide little communal support for generosity; 3) some Christians question the reliability of the churches and organizations requesting funds; 4) because of near total privatization and lack of accountability in the area of charitable giving, there are no real consequences for stinginess; 5) most Christians give on an occasional basis when they feel like it, rather than in a disciplined, planned, structured way.
In Chapter 4, Patricia Snell reports that the authors' in-depth interviews confirmed the previous chapter's findings and underlined two other important issues. Many pastors feel uncomfortable talking about Christian giving and consequently do not provide significant teaching for their congregation. In addition, the widespread consumerism and materialism of the culture—expressed above all in our incessant advertising—seduces many people into making extravagant decisions about major purchases like houses and cars and smaller things like recreation, eating out, vacations, etc.; and the result is that most families are financially pressed in spite of enormous wealth.
In their concluding chapter, the authors summarize their findings. They think there are five primary reasons for the fact that "the wealthiest national body of Christian believers at any time in all of church history end up spending most of their money on themselves." The most important is our society's "institutionalized mass consumerism." The second is the failure of pastors to deal with the issue. The third is that many Christians seem to be confused about the meanings, expectations, and purposes of faithful Christian giving. Fourth, some have distrust about whether their donations will be used wisely. Finally, the near total privatization of the topic means that almost no American Christians discuss their giving with anyone else.
The level of self-centered materialism systematically described here is truly staggering. The publisher should have used an earlier title that was considered: Stingy Believers. The book should drive us to our knees. A good deal of the problem is that pastors are not leading their congregations to think clearly about this issue. I have often said (without any hard data) that I do not think one American pastor in fifty is talking about God's concern for the poor as much as the Bible does. Perhaps that is changing a little thanks to Rick Warren's recent significant leadership in this area. But overall, our pastors, seminary professors, and denominational leaders are simply unbiblical in their failure to lead their people into persistent, honest wrestling with faithful Christian stewardship of resources and the way that generosity could advance Christ's kingdom.
I am not a sociologist, and I will not pretend to evaluate in detail the sociological scholarship that undergirds this book. Knowing that the authors are distinguished sociologists, I assume their scholarship is solid. I am convinced that Passing the Plate is urgently important for the American church. Every pastor should read it and beg God for the courage to insist that his or her congregation deal directly and systematically with this topic in an ongoing way. Every seminary professor and church leader should read it and take its lessons to heart. And every informed Christian layperson should pray over this book, asking God for a biblical understanding of stewardship and the strength to act accordingly.
Ronald J. Sider is professor of theology, holistic ministry, and public policy at Palmer Seminary and president of Evangelicals for Social Action. He is the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Baker).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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