Are American Christians Selfish?
The book Passing the Plate is addressing the “generosity problem” of American Christians. The authors claim (and I believe them) that their research shows that if American Christians were more generous, we could change the world. They write, “We estimate that if committed Christians in the United States gave 10 percent of their after-tax income – fully but no more than 10 percent – that would provide an extra $46 billion per year of resources with which to fund needs and priorities.”
Whoa. That’s a lot of money eh?
They go on to state six facts that they find in their extensive research. Here they are:
Fact #1 – At least one out of five American Christians – 20 percent of all U.S. Christians – gives literally nothing to church, para-church, or nonreligious charities.
Fact #2 – The vast majority of American Christians give very little to church, para-church, or nonreligious charities.
Fact #3 – American Christians do not give their dollars evenly among themselves, but, rather, a small minority of generous givers among them contributes most of the total Christian dollars given.
Fact #4 – Higher income earning American Christians – like Americans generally – give little to no more money as a percentage of household income than lower income earning Christians.
Fact #5 – Despite a massive growth of real per capita income over the twentieth century, the average percentage share of income given by AMerican Christians not only did not grow in proportion but actually declined slightly during this time period.
Fact #6 – The vast majority of the money that American Christians do give to religion is spent in and for their own local communities of faith – little is spent on missions, development, and poverty relief outside of local congregations, particularly outside the United States, in ways that benefit people other than the givers themselves.
The next part of the book details the authors trying to explain why this is the way it is. Before I read that, I wanted to offer some of my theories as to why American Christians are not as generous as we should be.
I am basing my responses on a very important assumption that I have. It is my belief that, generally speaking, most people, especially American Christians, want to be generous.
I really believe this is true. I think, again, generally speaking, most people want to help others in need, care for those less fortunate and be considered generous individuals. I don’t think the main reason we don’t give more is that we’re selfish jerks. Of course, there is some of that in there. It’s definitely one of the reasons. We do tend to be selfish jerks at times. But, I think that when push comes to shove we don’t want to be. I think we long to be generous in all aspecst of our lives. But, there are a lot of things working against us.
Here’s what I’ve seen:
Reason #1 – We are shackled with debt.
I believe this is one of the biggest reasons we aren’t more generous. We just can’t be. Every dollar we make is accounted for and the flex that we have after we take care of teh necessities is taken up in debt payments. I know that in my congregation there are some who wish they could give more but they just can’t figure out how to because they are paying off so much debt. The biggest issue is that most of us don’t know how to get out. That’s a big responsibility of the church in my mind. We need to help people live healthier financial lives. Not for the sake of reasonability. Not just because its a wiser way to live. I think far too often teh call to being debt free is couched in reasons that aren’t based on mission. But, we need to call people to a debt free lifestyle so they can more freely respond to the needs of others.
Reason #2 – Our churches aren’t worth giving to
I think this is a significant issue our churches need to face. If fact #6 above is correct, I think we can’t just blame it on selfishness. I have found that when a church is doing something that is perceived as significant, people generously and freely give financially towards it. But I believe that most of what our churches do is not worth giving too. If most of what the church does is inward focused, then I too would not be too excited to give to the local church. If our churches were more mission focused and outward focused in their very nature and we told the stories of what God was doing through them, I believe we’d have a different story here. I’m happy to give to buildings, salaries and programs if those buildings, salaries and programs are changing the world and doing the work of the kingdom. Sadly, I just don’t think this is generally the case.
Reason #3 – Our churches are terrible at inviting people to give
Most churches I visit the offering takes one of two forms. The first form is that the offering barely exists and is brushed over as if the church is embarrassed about it. I understand what they are trying to do with this approach. The hope is that people won’t be offended that the church is asking for money. But, what really happens is that the message is sent that the church doesn’t consider money an important part of discipleship and it also sends the message that how you deal with your money is a personal matter that is between you and God and others have no right to meddle in that part of your life. The second form is that the offering is a very guilt ridden, passive-aggressive moment of compulsion. We mostly draw on the fact that we’re supposed to give, should give instead of helping connect the act of giving as an at of grace. This act of grace is a grace in the givers life as well as a grace in the life of those who are helped by the gifts given. I personally think that we should be excited about the moment of offering in the church service. It’s a chance for the church to say, “This is a big deal. How you manage and handle your money is a significant part of your discipleship and we want to encourage you to think very carefully about how you approach it. How you handle your money is a community issue because others are directly affected by your generosity.” We have to stop being embarrassed about inviting people to financially join our church’s mission and start talking about it like the exciting thing that it is.
Reason #4 – We like our stuff and our comfort too much and we let each other get away with it too easily.
This is where the selfish jerks thing come in. 🙂 Seriously though I think this is because we have unwittingly bought into the values of our culture. The world tells us that its okay to take care of yourself (and to some extent it is, right?) but we’re too quick to justify each other when we find ourselves putting more effort into our own comfort than the gospel calls us to. I remember sitting on the porch with a number of friends from church and my wife confessed that she was troubled by the fact that she wasn’t able to serve and work with those who were hurting more often. The response from the group was very interesting. We tried to comfort her and give her excuses as to why this was okay. Sure, they were good excuses to pay attention to, but what she really needed was for us to encourage her to engage this thought some more. She didn’t need us to give her permission to keep up with the status quo. Rather, she needed us to help her find a better way forward. While we thought we were doing her a favor, we did her a large disservice.
Reason #5 – We’re lazy and happy with the status quo.
I think on some level this is true for more than just our generosity in finances, its true for our how we respond generously with all of our lives. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt called to do something, respond to a need, or make a change in my life but didn’t. Why? Well, honestly sometimes its just easier to sit on the couch and watch my television shows, surf Facebook and keep the status quo the status quo. I think this is true with the way we handle our finances as well as many other parts of our lives.
Okay, I’ll stop here. Hopefully this stimulates some thoughts.
The bottom line is this: Christians can change the world and our churches need to be cultivating the generosity of their members. Churches also need to be making such a difference in the world that people can’t help but find a way to partner with them financially.