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American Christians Fail at Passing the Plate

The subject was health care reform and the TV camera was rolling as a S.C. man said he had health insurance and he shouldn’t have to pay for other people’s. “It’s not my problem!” he said emphatically.

Whatever his religion or membership, he is not a true United Methodist if that’s what he believes. The United Methodist Church is a church that believes when one person is in pain we all are hurting. We are connected through God, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. Methodism’s founder was a huge believer in giving to others: “Do all the good you can by all the means you can …”

What do American Christians generally think about giving to their church and others?

Not too much, it turns out. Look at the people in your pew Sunday. More than one out of four U.S. protestants give no money to their churches, according to Oxford University Press’s 2008 book, Passing the Plate, by Christian Smith and two others. One of five American Christians give literally nothing to church, para-church or nonreligious charities.

Liberals care more for the poor? Conservative evangelicals tend to be the most generous, but not enough to note.

According to Passing the Plate:

  • Most of the money American Christians give to the church is spent on their own local communities of faith, as opposed to missions, development or spreading the gospel or poverty relief beyond the local congregation. (Of the $137 million taken in through pledges, non-pledged gifts and unidentified gifts in 2007, S.C. United Methodists spent 25 percent on new construction, loans and interest payments.)
  • Higher-income Christians give little or no more money as a percentage of household income than lower-income Christians. In 2000, those in the $10,000 household income category averaged 2.3 percent; $10,000 to $19,999, 1.7 percent; and on down to less than 1 percent for those making $40,000 to $69,000. “Were it not for a relatively small group of Christians who give of their money generously, American Christianity would go financially bankrupt,” the authors write, and most of its ministries would fold.
  • Commitment in other forms apparently has little to do with giving. “Forty-five percent of all Christians (37 percent of Protestants and 56 percent of Catholics) who attend church two times a month or more often give away less than 2 percent of their income.

If committed Christians (attending church twice a month or more) gave 10 percent of their after-tax income, authors say the results would be staggering: an extra $46 billion in addition to sustaining all buildings, programs and ministries now underway.

Yes, we can afford it; we spent $27.9 billion on candy in 2005, $15.2 billion on boats and marine products; $59.4 billion on jewelry and watches and, in 2003, $45 billion on lotteries.

Our failures are driven, the author says, by our churches’ low expectations, distrust of administration, members not seeing the need(s), lack of awareness of churches’ teaching on tithing and sacrificial giving, money being seen as a subject not open for discussion; members not having a structured giving method; and the fixed incomes of some who do not have the discretionary financial resources.

While members pledge to pay their utility bills, they don’t pledge to pay the church; neither to they have automatic deductions for the church.

‘Sharing the Vision’ versus ‘Paying the Bills’

The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, a part of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, suggests sharing the vision by telling stories that make a difference, saying thank you and keeping in mind people that want to address human needs as opposed to funding a bureaucracy or building.

Beyond the costs of physical plants of each church, stewardship leaders might want to measure how much of its budget goes to staff, programs and ministries beyond its own boundaries in preparation for making a case for giving.

Lovett Weems, of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, said church leaders – especially pastors – should make sure their personal giving is what it should be.

As a planning tool only, Weems suggests a pyramid with the generous givers (anonymously) at the top and that stewardship leaders then consider ways to make sure these givers stay connected. The second layer of active givers with room to grow need opportunities to become more involved and grow and to have a relationship with the generous givers. The largest group may be newcomers to the faith who need the basics as opposed to clever appeals: Bible study and nurturing to help them to develop faithful support.

Across denominations in general, pastors voiced discontent with the lack of training and denominational support for dealing with money issues; yet “budget” eats up considerable time in local church meetings. Some pastors find it hard to talk about giving and choose instead to abdicate their responsibilities, the book says. For the laity, there is a disconnect between American individualism and biblical admonitions to give; God has the right to ask for money while the church does not: “[S]ince God apparently has no ‘official’ representative in society, God’s call to give money generously gets lost as a theological abstraction.”

The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church says each conference is “to educate the local church that tithing is the minimal goal of giving in The United Methodist Church.”

The United Methodist Conference of South Carolina has placed the responsibility for stewardship in a task force that falls under its Board of Laity. Its window on the conference Web site offers articles and resources from the Global Board of Discipleship emphasis, “Stewardship Alive.” Some courses have been offered for district layleaders, according to the S.C. Laity task force chairperson, Donald Love. The task force also has provided training in Lay Speaking and hopes to provide mentoring teams on the subject. A congregational specialist, the Rev. Jim Arant, is also charged with the issues of stewardship.

Religious communities are beginning to feel the effects of the recession but not as acutely as other kinds of charities, the Center reported. Mega churches may be experiencing the largest decrease in funding, the most staff layoffs and the most difficult budget cuts.

Giving USA Foundation said in Christian Century, religious organizations reported a 5.5 percent increase in donations last year.

The United Methodist Conference of South Carolina reports 44.3 percent of the 2009 actual budget has been collected, as compared to 48.2 percent last year, a drop of 3.9 percent.

The S.C. conference’s 2010 budget, after a reduction of the conference portion of 5.1 percent, is set at $16,948,274, with 14.8 percent budgeted for district and conference administration, jurisdictional mission and ministry and General Conference administration.

With the contemporary thought tha
t checks are on the way out and the church must adapt to modern ways, religious giving works best when it is a regular habit, Passing the Plate authors say, whether it be putting it in the plate – as some pastors would argue is an important spiritual component and part of the liturgy – or establishing an automatic bank draft.

There’s a banking slogan, “Pay yourself first.” A Dallas group has come up with a twist on that, “I am second,” with Jesus being first.

Each church’s leadership and each member must decide which is slogan fits their lives best.

Stewardship study questions:

  • What does the Bible say about giving?
  • Should we take Jesus’ comments (Matt. 23) as going farther than the Old Testament’s 10 percent tithe – or as a way to ignore the tithe?
  • Should pastors keep their contributions discreet, so as to give “in secret,” or set an example by dropping their offerings in the plate on Sunday morning?
  • What blocks members from giving?
  • What encourages members from giving?
  • At home, do you discuss your plans to give? Real discussion?
  • The offering is part of the liturgy. If this disappears from worship – in favor of automatic-debits or a box at the back of the church, will we lose something important? Does the visible act set an example to adults as well as children?
  • Do statements from the pulpit or other church gatherings impede your giving or remind you of your commitment?  (Passing the Plate says it boosts giving.)
  • Is the tax-free gift to the church a key factor in your generosity?
  • Generally, because of the lack of knowledge about how the money is used, some resent the portion that goes to the General Church. How can we dissolve the distance between the local and the General church to discover the value of your gifts beyond your own church’s front door?
  • What qualifies as sacrificial giving?

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