I referred yesterday to Christian Smith’s co-authored book, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (Oxford, 2009). The book is well worth the time of any serious Christian, especially if you lead a church or mission and need to better understand the lack of generosity by American Christians.
Yesterday, I mentioned that Smith said that the vast majority of Christian organizations exist because a small minority of people were generous. I always thought this was true when I was a pastor but I had no real proof since I did not know who the real givers were in the local church. (I chose not to know.) Since I began ACT 3 in 1991 I have known who my donors were because I need to know in order to cultivate the support of those who give and to thank them properly. I can tell you that Smith is profoundly right. ACT 3 is supported by a handful of people and only a few churches. I have done almost everything I know to do, and am willing to do for personal and ethical reasons, and it seems very difficult to change this pattern. I talk about this with other leaders and find the same is true for them too.
So, according to Christian Smith, why do American Christians give so little?
Answer: “For one, many people have little perspective on how wealthy they are, and view themselves as just getting by. They objectively have the resources to give generously, but subjectively think they don’t. Part of this is that most Americans are not great with finances generally—most people just spend and get into debt. Giving generously requires principled decisions up front, rather than saying, ‘Let’s just live our lives, and if there’s anything left over, maybe we’ll put it in the offering plate.”
“The second factor is that a lot of churches are not as forthright and bold about teaching these matters as they could be. A lot of pastors are incredibly uncomfortable with the topic, partly because their own salaries are being paid by what’s being given, so it’s seen as selfish fundraising. Some pastors have uneasy consciences about how much they give.”
“Also, a significant minority of American Christians don’t trust where their money’s going and if it they do they never hear what it has accomplished. For people to give generously, it helps them to know, see and hear what they are helping contribute toward. There are so many scandals, so the more transparency and accountability, the better.”
“In our culture, money is sacred; for some people it can replace God. This is exemplified by a cartoon I’ve seen where a person being baptized by full submersion is all the way under the water except he is holding his wallet above the water. The idea is of somebody becoming a Christian in every part of their life except for their money. But if you read Scripture, the sacredness of money and income in our culture is something that Christianity challenges.”
I have found a deep anxiety over the past eighteen years as president of ACT 3 when it comes to asking for money. I relate well to what Smith says above. At first I adopted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach I believed George Muller used. Then I went to a Hudson Taylor model, which in effect says, “Ask but don’t tell.” Now I believe the D. L. Moody approach is often the best: “Ask and tell because good stewards will want to invest when they see the real benefit of the mission to the kingdom of God.” To this end I will say more about the amazing opportunities God has set before ACT 3 in the future. I will be asking you to help us more directly. If you think I ask too much then forgive me. I am only trying to make a great opportunity as widely known as possible because what we practice—“equipping leaders in the unity of Christ’s mission”—is both important and desperately needed in our time.