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Reclaiming the Testimony

Many congregations are currently in the midst of planning or implementing an annual stewardship program of one sort or another. Such campaigns will have a lot of variety, but they all likely have two things in common: numbers and narratives. In this week's article, Cesie Delve Scheuermann reminds us of the power of storytelling. In the midst of the numbers, let's not forget the narrative.

Yours truly,

Adam J. Copeland, Director
Center for Stewardship Leaders
Luther Seminary

Reclaiming the Testimony

Cesie Delve Scheuermann

Storytelling. It's a tradition as old as, well, the Bible. But somewhere along the line our churches have forgotten how to tell them. Perhaps it was the rise of televangelists who were often seen boo-hooing as they told a story about how faith transformed their lives. As well-informed, rational mainliners we would never, ever, EVER want to be like them. Thus, we nearly gave up storytelling all together and tried to convince people on an intellectual and rational basis that what we had to say indeed had validity.

But we should have consulted science. Because social science research has shown that engaging people's hearts, especially when it comes to charitable giving, is much more effective than trying to win them over with statistics.

In their excellent book, "Made to Stick", the Heath brothers, Dan and Chip, recount the famous "Roika" experiment carried out by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon. Students were given five one-dollar bills for taking a bogus survey at a coffee shop. On their way out, they were given one of two letters about "Save the Children" charity.  

Letter One recounted the horrifying statistics of the food shortages in Africa. Eleven million people starving and dying in Ethiopia. Four million Angolans fleeing their homes. Three million Malawians suffering from food shortages.

Letter Two focused on "Roika," and painted a written picture of the seven-year old girl from Mali and how she was facing abject poverty and starvation. How the donor's gift would be used was highlighted. Nary a statistic was given but after reading the letter, the students had a clear mental picture of Roika and her plight...and knew that a financial donation would make a difference.

A story was told.  

You can guess who received larger donations. In fact the difference was startling. The average donation given for the statistics-filled letter: $1.14. The Roika Story? $2.38. Curiously, guess what happened when they combined both statistics and a story? The average gift was $1.43.  

Deborah Small, of the Wharton School of Business, who helped conduct the study said, "What we find is that when people are thinking more deliberatively...they become less generous overall."

So, what's this got to do with stewardship? Quit trying to convince people of the worth of your church by talking about your budget and how much money you need. Tell them a story -- preferably about one person. It's time for mainline churches to recapture the old-fashioned testimony. Our churches are doing great things. Let's be bold enough to tell somebody. And according to science, people will be moved to support it.

A version of this post previously appeared on the author's blog.


Cesie Delve Scheuermann works with many non-profits and churches as a consultant on stewardship, grant writing, and development issues. She is a United Methodist and writes the weekly blog, "Inspiring Generosity: Changing the Churches Culture Around Money." She lives with her family and cookie-stealing Labrador in Salem, Ore.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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