For many Christians, the word “stewardship” seems like a gilded demand for “tithing,” giving 10% of one’s income to a local congregation. It may surprise you, but I’m not really a fan of tithing. In addition to being biblically suspect, tithing lacks thoughtful practicality, given what we know about people’s varying giving levels. At last year’s Rethinking Stewardship conference, I condensed my argument into an 18-minute presentation. In addition to the video below, you can find a written summary of my talk, encouraging stewardship pitches to be more storied and inspired.
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
Many congregations’ websites describe the practice of tithing on their giving pages, almost as placeholder text. Sometimes it’s simple and direct: “The biblical model for giving is to tithe, allocating 10% of one’s income to the church, so that should be your goal.” Other descriptions are more subtle: “We appreciate your support for this church, where our mission to share Christ’s light with the world includes the practice of directing 10% of church gifts to support global charities.” Thereby implying, we tithe as a church so you should, too - through us!
Some leaders are aware that many members give closer to 1% than 10%, so giving invitations might not mention percentages at all. But avoiding the conversation entirely may abandon an important opportunity to nurture disciples in the joy of giving. Plus, whether it’s welcoming a handful of crumpled dollar bills from a single parent, or a retiree’s hefty Qualified Charitable Distribution, we must be sure to lay an approachable mental map for generous gifts!
There are serious limitations to structuring stewardship rhetoric around the supposed “Biblical Standard™” of tithing - and I propose we can do better. Let us rethink how we invite people to give, inspiring their support rather than obliging it.
Now, I’m all for generosity as a spiritual practice. My wife and I designate more than 10% of our income to our “Generosity Fund,” which aims beyond charities to more direct practices, such as tipping extra when possible. Restaurant servers deserve livable income, not tip-structured-minimum-wage (you can learn more about the racist legacy and sexist ramifications of the tipping system across the web). Unreliable income, wage stagnation, cost inflation - there are burgeoning stressors on most people’s budgets. But in the way faith like a mustard seed can transform our surroundings, generosity can snowball from tight amounts into a powerful force.
But instead of forceful, we feel stagnated, mired in financial anxieties. The data indicates that, on average, U.S. individuals give around 2-3% of their after-tax income to charities (including churches). So while there may be some tithers in your congregation -- and God bless them -- the average church-goer will give away 2-3% of her income, and probably not to your congregation alone. Given this reality, we can recognize when a stewardship pitch is winding up some sort of biblical mandate to give four times as much… and predict that’s probably not going to make its mark.
I don’t have room here to do a careful exegesis, so at the risk of oversimplifying: a fair reading of scripture does not reinforce any goal or requirement that Christians today should give 10% of their income to their local congregation. If tithing became a key concern of Jesus, he would probably mention it. Instead, while Jesus talks about money all the time, he is nearly always addressing people’s relationship with money, and the (in)justice associated with the distribution of money. In imagining the Christian life, Paul embraced generosity, cheerful giving, and caring for those in need. But there is never any sense of a 10% catchall expectation in the Gospels, epistles, or elsewhere in the New Testament.
The Old Testament includes several passages that note the practice of giving 10% to the Temple. This money went to support the Levitical priests, temple upkeep, sacrifices, and charity. Deuteronomy 14:22-29 suggests tithing also led to huge (God-sanctioned) parties with good food, strong drink, and great rejoicing.
So, if we don’t use tithing as a rhetorical device to compel giving, what should we do? This path is where I lean on invitation rather than the obligation. And for Christians, invitation is a key ingredient of discipleship.
As Henri Nouwen famously observes, “Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission.” Stewardship ministry then becomes a way to proclaim what we believe.
One of the best ways to make this proclamation is to tell stories; stories of our ministry, stories of lives changed, stories of the Spirit working through the gifts we give back to God in the offering. Tell the story of Dave whose life was changed by volunteering at your food shelf. Tell the story of Nikkeya who led confirmation classes and is now going to seminary. Tell the story of Haden who discovered God on a mission trip. Tell the story of Edna who was touched when the pastor visited her last week.
As a friend of mine puts it, we are made of and moved by story. Stewardship, at its best, invites people to join in the story of God’s work in your midst -- an invitation that can truly inspire generosity.
"The Folly of Tithing" image by Madeline Burbank. License use via Luther Seminary.