September 13, 2021

Generations of Givers

My grandfather and I are different kinds of investors.

Grandpa’s investment portfolio was comprised largely of equities and he knew something about each of the companies whose stock he held. When he moved to a new town, he was likely to buy several shares of the company that employed the most people there because he wanted to invest in his community. By contrast, my investment portfolio is a carefully managed collection of mutual funds. I would be hard-pressed to tell you what companies are represented, what they do, or where they are. My strategy is focused on outcomes, on projected return and estimated risk.

My grandfather and I are also different kinds of charitable givers.

Grandpa gave to his church almost exclusively. He saw church giving as a religious duty and he trusted his church to identify the greatest need in his community and to pool its members’ alms into a single, coordinated response. My wife and I still give the lion’s share of our charitable dollars to the church, but like many of our peers we also give directly to a variety of other charities that do meaningful work in our community.

Most of the congregations that I know are experiencing a generational shift in giving – older people tend to give more to their congregations than younger people do. This does not mean that the current generation of middle- and early-career adults is constitutionally less generous. (A quick visit to the GoFundMe website will reveal younger adults supporting a wide variety of causes.) But, it does mean that these adults no longer regard the church as their community chest. As one peer said to me recently, “If my money is going to support [the local homeless services agency], I want the gift to be in my name not my church’s name.”

To what extent do the people who support your congregation financially also support other charitable causes? Where does the church rank among their giving priorities?

In my experience, there are four main categories of church givers with lots of room for overlap between categories and for nuance within them:

  • Tithers: Some people heed (or aspire to heed) the Old Testament’s mandate of giving the first ten percent of their income back to God. When these givers give to the church, they give without restriction because releasing control is part of the discipline. Tithing is focused on a giver’s spiritual need to give and not on the church’s practical need to receive.
  • Institutionalists: Some people give to the church because of the important and ongoing role that the church plays in the lives of its people and of the wider community. These givers are glad to support the congregation’s annual operating budget because they see it as a means of ensuring the effectiveness and endurance of an important community institution.
  • Impactors: Some people give to the church because they believe that their gifts will have a tangible impact. These givers might be willing to support a capital campaign, or a youth mission trip, or an outreach drive. But, they are not likely to “dig deep” for the congregation’s annual budget or for its endowment because the impact of those kinds of gifts can be harder to see.
  • Participants: Some people give to the church because it is a sign of their participation in the life of the community or because they have a fee-for-service mindset with regard to the church programs they attend. Their gifts to the church are not sacrificial or, in many cases, even noticeable components of their household budgets.

Most congregations still include people in all four categories and perhaps they always will. But, church leaders should anticipate that the distribution of people among these categories may change as a more secular, less institutionally-minded generation of adults steps to the fore.

Church leaders must resist the temptation to critique the motivations of their church’s givers. This all-too-familiar phrase is not helpful: “If everyone tithed, we wouldn’t have any financial problems!” Good stewardship is grounded in good pastoral care. In this and every other area of ministry, the church needs to meet its people where they are and gently invite them to deeper levels of discipleship.

What is the main theme of your congregation’s giving program? With whom does it resonate? With whom does it not? How might you appeal to different kinds of givers simultaneously? How might you inspire your church’s givers to give in a different way?