This could be the worst moment in our lifetimes to discover that American Christians give away relatively little of their money.
The economy is in the midst of the worst downturn in at least 17 years and the most serious U.S. banking crisis in at least 20. It has the potential to be as painful as the Great Depression. Banks are failing. Workers are losing their jobs. Homeowners are losing their homes.
But this may actually be the best time for an emerging study that delivers the bad news. Over the next few months or years, as our economy travels down a long road of recovery, our neighbors may need much more assistance than we've grown accustomed to providing. And like skyrocketing home prices, the lack of generosity among American Christians is a trend that cannot continue without doing serious harm.
More than one out of four American Protestants give away no money at all—"not even a token $5 per year," say sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell in a new study on Christian giving, Passing the Plate (Oxford University Press).
Of all Christian groups, evangelical Protestants score best: only 10 percent give nothing away. Evangelicals tend to be the most generous, but they do not outperform their peers enough to wear a badge of honor. Thirty-six percent report that they give away less than two percent of their income. Only about 27 percent tithe.
Economists sometimes view recessions as necessary purgings of excessive behavior, correcting irrational investments in stocks in the 1920s or tulips in 17th-century Holland. Perhaps the current correction, as families learn to live on less and depend on each other more, will make American Christians more generous. It would be a correction long overdue.
The $85.5 Billion Gap
American Christians' lack of generosity might not be as shocking if it didn't contrast so starkly with their astounding wealth. Passing the Plate's researchers say committed American Christians—those who say their faith is very important to them and those who attend church at least twice a month—earn more than $2.5 trillion dollars every year. On their own, these Christians could be admitted to the G7, the group of the world's seven largest economies. Smith and his coauthors estimate that if these Christians gave away 10 percent of their after-tax earnings, they would add another $46 billion to ministry around the world.
This kind of money matters. Smith says he embarked on his study after discovering the difference a healthy church budget could make for a church youth group. Working on Soul Searching, his 2006 book about the religious lives of teenagers, Smith says, "It was clear how much churches can do when they put up the money for hiring a good youth minister or putting programs in place."
His inside look into church spending opened his eyes to the limits of church giving. This is pretty pathetic, he remembers thinking.
How much do American Christians really give? What could they give? And most importantly, why don't they? Smith began investigating the questions with Michael O. Emerson, a Rice University sociologist with whom he wrote 2001's Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, and Patricia Snell, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, where Smith serves as director.
One early finding: That estimate of $46 billion in additional giving is unrealistic. Not because it's too big, but because it's too small. Estimating 10 percent giving for every committed Christian in the U.S. neglects two groups: those who truly can't afford to give 10 percent (due to illness or unemployment or similar reasons), and those who are already giving more than 10 percent (more on this group in a moment). If you calculate that 10 percent of Christians can't give because of their financial limitations, most of the rest give 10 percent, and a handful of generous givers continue their current generous giving pattern, committed American Christians could realistically increase their giving by $85.5 billion each year.