CULTURE WATCH: Generosity – The Good and the Bad News

Generosity – The Good and the Bad News

By Wendell Cantrell

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What do you think is happening to giving levels in the average evangelical church today? If your answer is “trending downward,” you are right on. According to Empty Tomb, a Christian research group, church giving reached a new low in 2011 and tithing will not recover from the last recession. This group has tracked giving levels from 1968, when the average church member gave 3.1% of their net income, to 2011 when the level was down to 2.4%. The sharpest decline was in “benevolences.” This is giving that doesn’t apply to a local church’s need, but to missions or seminary support. This gifting is in serious decline, having dropped to .34% of a person’s income. This is a 48% decrease since 1968. We need to remember to thank the Lord every time we pass the mission photo wall in the foyer that our benevolence level helps send that many folks!

A recent report1 gave three possible reasons for the decline in giving. Certainly, economic struggles are a big factor. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to affect the line at Starbucks. Another factor noted was the decrease in church attendance. The “grazer effect” seems to be taking over in many congregations. The idea of weekly attendance has given way to the mindset of attending when it is convenient and doesn’t conflict. Other venues like podcasts and home group meetings are often so much more convenient. Bottom line—we are not there, so we aren’t giving as much. The third factor has been analyzed by Rick Dunham with Dunham & Company, a fundraising consulting company. He believes that a key reason for the decline is the fact that churches haven’t embraced the biblical mandate of true giving. He notes that we need to embrace the idea that church giving is investing in eternity, the stuff that really matters, like souls for Christ. It isn’t about putting a little money in the plate while thinking, “I’ve done my duty.” We all should be regularly examining our level of giving and asking if we are being good stewards of God’s resources.

I want to switch gears and focus on the good news for a moment. You may be wondering why I didn’t start with the good news. The good news is that, strange as it may sound, scripture and science are in agreement on a relevant topic—giving. When is the last time you heard a confirmation like that? In this segment we will move more toward general generosity and the biblical idea that it is more blessed to give than receive. Acts 20:35 tells us “…You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” That is the scripture. The science part comes from a neat little book I recently read that spoke about the transforming power of a generous life.2 We will look at how generosity brings us joy and increases our well being.

We will briefly explore three avenues of secular research mentioned in the book. I will avoid the technical aspects and try to keep it pretty simple. First we have Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton doing research for a book they called Happy Money. The authors wanted to know if spending money on others, instead of ourselves, makes us happy. They found that pro-social spenders (those spending money on others or charities) rated happier. They got Gallup pollsters involved and took the research worldwide, finding that in almost every country there is a correlation between giving and happiness.

Another author, Daniel Pink, explored goals of recent college graduates. He categorized their goals in two ways. Goals related to helping others were labeled “intrinsic aspirations.” He called goals related to money or recognition “extrinsic aspirations.” His group of professors found that the students with intrinsic goals, where they hoped to help others and make a positive contribution in the world, rated much higher in satisfaction and well being. His encouragement to readers was not to shun worldly success, but to replace that selfish ambition with the ambition to make a difference in others’ lives. As a disciple of Christ, please refrain from saying, “we told you so.”

The last finding was the most profound for me. Dr Stephen Post, a world-class bioethics researcher, authored a book called WhyGood Things Happen to Good People. He quotes a study spanning over sixty years that provides amazing data that giving and helping others clearly results in long-term health benefits. Their clear message from this long period of observation says, “Giving is the most potent force on the planet. Give daily, in small ways, and you will be happier. Give and you will be healthier and live longer.” This author took a somewhat different tact on what giving looked like. Post focused on nonmonetary giving areas such as forgiveness, respect, loyalty, and listening (these are four of the ten he listed). The four main areas in which we can be doing our giving are family, friends, community, and humanity.

The main takeaway from these three secular sources is that if we strive to live our lives as a gift to other folks in the unique ways we are best at, we could live a happier, healthier, and longer life than our self-centered friends. It is pretty amazing how this secular research basically defines the benefits of a self-giving life that we are each called to as we are daily conformed to our Savior’s image. Many of you reading this have already embraced generosity as a way of life. If it is something you have been thinking and praying about, I encourage you to look at the nearby needs and commit to help meet them. Remember—giving is living.

Questions or comments may be directed to culturewatch@dentonbible.org.

(1)  Religion News Service, Church Giving Reaches Depression-Era Lows, by Katherine Burgess

(2)  I Like Giving, by Brad Formsa