Where in the US are people the most generous? Based on stereotypes, one might be tempted to think of the South, because of its hospitality culture; or the West Coast with its activist streak; or perhaps the Northeast because of “old money.” However, according to a study by the Barna Group in 2019, the three most charitable cities in America are all in Idaho: Pocatella, Idaho Falls, and Jackson. Christians in these cities give on average $17,977 to charity annually. Surprisingly, Las Vegas—often called “Sin City”—comes in second with a rate of giving of $10,410. America’s largest cities do not even make it onto the list of the top 50 most charitable cities in the US. That means that Christians on average in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, and Philadelphia give less than $3,308 per year.
In another study (2017), the Barna Group found that age makes a significant difference in giving. Eighty-four percent of millennials report to giving less than $50 to charity per annum, even though charitable giving ranks high on their priorities. The most generous generation in the $500-$2,500 range is Gen X, and the most generous generation over $2,500 is comprised of those older than baby boomers. It would be easy to blame our materially obsessed culture, but Christians fare no better when it comes to giving.
According to Nonprofit Source, only 5 percent of church members give regularly. Households that make more than $75,000 are the least charitable. Nationwide, Christians today give 2.5 percent of their income. For comparison, during the Great Depression, that number was 3.3 percent. Thirty-seven percent of those who consider themselves evangelicals do not give to churches at all. According to a study from the University of Notre Dame cited by Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson in their book, The Paradox of Generosity, when it comes to giving away 10 percent of finances, only 2.7 percent of people, religious or nonreligious, fall into this category. Other studies confirm this dismal picture, such as the long-term study by John L. and Sylvia Ronsvalle, The State of Church Giving Through 2007.
So, if generosity through tithing is part of our faith and we have good causes to give to, why aren’t we Christians more generous? Certainly, we’ve all heard examples of incredible generosity from believers, but the statistics prove that most of us are rather miserly when we ought to be generous. What might turn us from our tight-fisted approach to finances toward what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians as a “cheerful giver”?
Giving Without Strings
When we give, we experience a split second of loss. At a speed faster than light, we calculate the costs and benefits of giving, and if the latter outweighs, we give. If the latter does not, we hesitate. Rarely do we come to the insight that it is a privilege to give. Every so often, we read of someone giving selflessly, and we are caught off balance. Nathan Hale, a young teacher who joined the Connecticut militia during the Revolutionary War, gave his life for his country with these words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” The English hung him for espionage.
The Macedonian churches offer another picture of the privilege of giving. These churches, according to Paul, were poor. Paul goes as far as to say that they were in extreme poverty (2 Cor. 8:2). The Greek word that he uses, ptōcheia (poverty), coupled with the prepositional phrase, kata bathous (according to depth), suggests the lowest level of poverty.
When we consider the severity of ancient poverty, Paul’s words speak of a brutal reality. Adolf Büchler, a scholar and rabbi in the early 20th century, offers a graphic picture of poverty in the first century in Judea. One day rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai and his disciples found the daughter of one of the wealthiest men of Jerusalem; she was picking barley seeds from horses’ dung. When the rabbi asked what happened, she simply replied that the family’s wealth was lost after the destruction of Jerusalem. Poverty had reduced her to inhumane levels.
Ramsey MacMullen, the great Roman historian, fills out this picture further. He reminds us of the ancient mindset:
Nothing was wasted in the ancient world: not an abandoned baby, not the cloth that kept the ragpicker in business, not the empty fisherman’s shack on the beach, not even the grain of barley in horse manure on the streets. There were always people poor enough to fight over another’s leavings.
The reality of the Macedonian churches might not have been this dire, but it was close.
Yet these churches begged for the privilege to give. When we consider the racial and social composition of these churches, this point is even more remarkable. Not only were the Macedonians (Gentiles) giving to strangers, but they were also giving to Jews (a peculiar people in the eyes of society). No wonder their generosity took Paul aback. Their generosity broke economic and racial barriers even in their poverty.
The Macedonians gave out of an understanding of grace (2 Cor. 8:1). Grace, when understood, gives, forgets self, turns outward, and works for others. The Philippians (a church in Macedonia) furnish a concrete example. The Philippians supported Paul in his missionary endeavors. In fact, this church might have been the only one to do so, which begs the question: Why did a poor and struggling church support Paul? And why did Paul take money from this church when he knew far wealthier ones who were willing to give?
When finances are exchanged, strings are attached. Marcel Mauss, the great anthropologist, makes this point in his book The Gift. According to Mauss, even between husbands and wives, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Giving is recompense for antecedent receiving. If Mauss is correct, Paul did not take finances from certain churches because these groups had a spirit of control; they wanted recompense.
Paul lived in a world dominated by patron/client relationships. Giving was not unconditional. The giver gave to get. To be a man of God, Paul could not be indebted to people because he needed freedom to follow God. He could not, therefore, be a client even to the most benign patrons. Freedom was far more precious.
So, why did Paul take finances from the Philippians? Paul knew the heart of this congregation. He knew that God’s grace affected them on the deepest level. The Philippians knew that God who was rich became poor for their sakes so that they might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). They experienced the gracious sacrifice of their Lord. So, when they gave, they gave not to control, not to boast, not to lord over. They did not give as patrons but as servants of God. They did not even give to Paul, ultimately speaking. They gave to God. It just so happened that Paul stood in the stream of their generous overflow.
We can make the case that one of the poorest churches in the New Testament did the most with its finances because it learned the value and power of partnerships (Phil. 1:5). The Philippians might not have given much, but God honored their giving and multiplied it over a hundredfold when they supported Paul. Paul’s labors were theirs in a real way. Therefore, the Philippians impacted Asia Minor, Rome, and beyond. They changed the world more than any other church in the first century, perhaps more than any church in history.
Wealthy congregations like the Laodiceans who had three thriving industries—banking, medicine, and textiles—were poor in God’s sight. The Holy Spirit rebuked them and showed them their true spiritual state: They were naked, poor, and blind (Rev. 3:17).
The Philippians, on the other hand, learned the power of partnerships (koinonia, from which we derive the word fellowship). They learned that even if they lacked resources and experience to make a global impact, they could change the world by laboring with others. By discernment and generosity, they supported Paul not only with finances but also with their own lives. More than anything else, it was their love that encouraged Paul. Epaphroditus, a member of the church, nearly died trying to reach him while he was in prison. Such selflessness moved the apostle’s heart forward and inspired him.
In our connected world, gospel partnerships should be the norm. Selfless partnerships born out of love and discernment without a spirit of control will always produce a harvest. We will see the acceleration of God’s work. Unfortunately, a spirit of envy and rivalry encroaches and wars against partnerships. The opening chapter of Philippians shows this dirty underbelly of ministry.
When Paul’s rivals heard about his imprisonment, they were incentivized to preach more, not to further the mission or to glorify God but to gain greater names for themselves. They were opportunist in the true sense of the word. At that point, partnerships are impossible, and what seems like progress is actually digging deeper into death, and the outcome is a diminished return. The spirit of the Philippians was just the opposite; they supported, loved, and worked with Paul. That partnership lasted and made a lasting difference.
The Spirit of Generosity
Why do we give? If we give to control, then our generosity is vitiated. That is the spirit of the flesh, and it is as old as the serpent in the garden. A Latin sentence expresses this logic in three words: Do ut des (I give so that you may give). It is the spirit of control, magic, and false religion. It is manipulation magnified.
Sure, we give, but it is often to control, to boast, or to make strategic statements that are neither strategic nor worth making. The main problem here is that when we take control, control is not given to the Holy Spirit. Our way may lead to temporary gains, a house, a church perhaps, but these houses fade (Ps. 127). But when we keep in step with the Spirit of God, whatever he establishes lasts forever because it is not made with human hands. This means that human hands cannot destroy it.
After Sunday service, a young banker approached me and said he would like to give his savings toward the work of overseas missions. I said that we should talk first. Over frozen yogurt, we chatted, and I told this young man to take vacations days and go overseas to see the work he wanted to donate to, meet the people, and hear from God. I did not want any regrets. He agreed. He went, saw, and gave. And as the years passed, he gave more.
Since my meeting with this young man (over ten years ago), I see the fruits—new ministries, small businesses, a school, and great encouragement to many missionaries. The most beautiful part is that the recipients have no idea that this man gave. My church made these donations anonymously. Now I run a nonprofit, and we operate under the same principle. The only thing that the recipients know is that God provided, which is an accurate picture, because the people who gave gave ultimately to God. The dynamic of generosity is foremost vertical, which means horizontal giving can be pure generosity.
Here we come to the heart of the Christian message. When the Father gave his Son, he gave what we could never repay. The precious blood of Christ outweighs gold and silver. In Christ’s sacrifice, we see unconditional love, unadulterated generosity, and thorough self-emptying. The wonder of salvation is that God did not have to save fallen people. He chose to save through his own sacrifice, a father’s loss and a son’s life. Generosity flows down to us.
Moreover, God did not give to control, but he gave to love, to save, and to redeem. His giving is pure giving. When this love captivates us, we can’t help but respond in love. Generosity is love’s reflex. Fall in love, and you will be generous and even beg to give. Only then will we begin to understand the logic of the Macedonian churches and their surprising joy of giving.
We are in the midst of a pandemic and protests. The church has an opportunity to show the generosity of God to a world that only knows the cynicism of giving and receiving on account of the cruel weight of mammon that reduces people to dollars, cents, and pawns. To succeed, the church will have to relearn the vertical dimension of giving to God. The proof will be giving without taking credit, without the thought of gain, and without a spirit of control. When the church gives as freely as it has received, pandemics and protest can become portals into a new world where grace is not just preached but is seen, touched, and lived.
John Lee is the head of the Upper School at The Geneva School of Manhattan. He also writes for The Banner, the denominational magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, and leads Ad Fontes Philanthropy, a nonprofit that seeks to support kingdom endeavors.
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