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Rethinking Stewardship: US Christians and the Riddle of Stingy Giving

This email continues our series based on the Rethinking Stewardship supplement to Word & World This article and accompanying video focus on the article "U.S. Christians and the Riddle of Stingy Giving," by Michael Emerson, Christian Smith and Trish Snell. I hope you find creative ways to use these videos in the stewardship ministry of your congregation.

Chick Lane
Director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders
Luther Seminary

"U.S. Christians and the Riddle of Stingy Giving"
Comments by Chick Lane, Director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders

Unlike the old good news-bad news jokes, the story of giving by U.S. Christians is a bad news-worse news story. The bad news is that the average U.S. Christian contributes 2.9 percent of their income to charitable causes. The worse news is that because a few people give a very high percentage of their income to charitable causes, the median U.S. Christian gives just 0.6 percent of income to charities, and the median regular attending U.S. Christian gives just two percent of their income to charitable causes.

This bad news-worse news story is all the more striking because American Christians tend to consider themselves both charitable and generous. Just ask us! How can that perception be so far from reality? How is it the reality is so far removed from the very obvious call of the Bible to much higher levels of giving?

Undoubtedly, the more important questions are, "Why are we so stingy?" and "What can be done about it?"

Emerson, Smith and Snell identify nine possible explanations. These can be found in the Word & World article, and more fully in the book "Passing the Plate." Reason number one "America's institutionalized mass consumerism." We are inundated with the message that happiness comes through having more stuff. As many have observed, enough is never enough. To give anything away in this consumerist culture creates a conflict with the desire to have as much as possible for self.  

Another set of reasons has to do with the institutional church—our reluctance to talk openly about money, a lack of biblical teaching about money, too many examples of fiscal malfeasance by religious leaders, etc. These reasons combine to limit the giving of members to their congregations.

Finally, the authors make excellent and practical suggestions that can help turn the giving ship in a more positive direction. Certainly, the most memorable is that congregations should develop a "live the vision" culture rather than a "pay the bills" culture. This "live the vision" culture would focus "on nurturing members' Christian spiritual lives," "on serving the world," "on opportunities for faith-guided change" and "on Christian discipleship as a transformation of the self and community."

Watch the accompanying video.

Listen to the audio recording of Michael Emerson's presentation and his presentation slides from the Rethinking Stewardship Conference, July 2010.  

Click o order Word & World Supplement 6, which contains articles from the Rethinking Stewardship Conference.


Christian Smith is William R. Kenan Jr. professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. Michael Emerson is the Allyn R. and Gladys M. Cline professor of sociology at Rice University. Patricia Snell is a programs and research specialist for the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.

More Information

The stewardship website of the New Jersey Synod of the ELCA contains many valuable resources and thought provoking materials. Some of the material is specific to the congregations in the synod, but much of it will be helpful to any congregation in any denomination.

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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