The numbers may be surprising. A people who claim generous giving as a way of life, with the biblical standard of 10% as their benchmark, give only about 3% of their income to charitable causes, including their local church.
And of evangelicals, only
12% qualify as tithers, giving 10% or more of their income to their church (or other organizations), according to researcher George Barna.
So, what’s the disconnect? We talk about tithing. We teach tithing. But many believers don’t tithe. Why?
And here’s a better question: What’s at stake if we don’t give generously?
First and ten
The play is complete, the ball is down, but the purpose of the next play is unclear. If the football has been moved 10 yards, it’s a first down and the offense gets to start counting its march downfield from its new vantage point. If not, the play could be the last, for now. Ground gained could be lost.
So the chain gang comes in from the sidelines to measure the advance of the ball. Was it 10? Is the offense positioned to start another advance?
Similarly, in ministry, gospel advance is often determined by the resources available to move the mission forward. And month after month, we call in the chain gang to measure our progress financially.
Sometimes we pass the line.
Often we fall short.
At issue is how we teach people to give, and how we budget based on those expectations.
Many evangelicals have a firm commitment to tithing as a New Testament command. Tithing is commanded in the Old Testament. In fact, multiple tithes are collected from the Israelites to support the priests, the temple, and the poor.
It is the prophet Malachi who puts the sharpest point on the one-tenth rule: “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me!….By not making the payments of the tenth and the contributions. You are suffering under a curse, yet you—the whole nation—are still robbing Me. Bring the full tenth into the storehouse so that there may be food in My house. Test Me in this way,” says the Lord of Hosts (Mal. 3:8-10, HCSB).
When Jesus speaks about giving 400 years after Malachi, the tenth is assumed (Matt. 23:23). But Jesus, criticizing the legalistic actions of the Pharisees, expresses concern about the heart in giving. And Paul prescribes giving that is compassionate, generous, systematic, and regular (1 Cor. 16:1-2).
Some would argue that the tithe is still in place for New Testament believers, that it is still a command. Others contend that, free from Law, the tithe becomes a benchmark for believers who choose to give, and that the command is instead generosity.
Call it obedience
Former Illinois pastor Rick Ezell frames tithing as an act of obedience. “If you are tithing, you are being obedient to God’s instructions. But remember that tithing has always been the floor—the place to begin, not the ceiling—the place to end, of giving to God’s work.”
In a recent devotional for his South Carolina congregation, Ezell advised taking steps to correct faulty giving patterns. “If you are not tithing, perhaps it is because of poor money management. Many believers don’t tithe not because they don’t want to, but due to their current economic situation and spending habits. Maybe you need to spend some time examining your expenses and evaluating your priorities.”
“I am very direct about preaching and teaching on generous giving,” said Doug Munton, pastor of First Baptist Church of O’Fallon. He holds up the tithe as the standard. “I have tithed and beyond all of my life and this is extremely valuable to my spiritual life. I preach on the importance of a generous life.
“Generous giving (tithing and beyond) is one of our expectations of members of FBCO. And generous giving is one of the great joys of my life.”
For Bryan Price, pastor of Love Fellowship Baptist Church in Romeoville, the tithe offers clarity. “For me, the idea of tithing gives a better guideline for people, gives a benchmark,” Price said. “Focusing on giving (rather than tithing specifically), that benchmark was missing.”
Both Munton and Price preach regularly on giving. Munton leads an annual stewardship emphasis. And Price returned to a financial series after a two-year break when he was encouraged by church leaders to address the issue again.
“Having discussion with our elders, I asked our Sunday school to join me (in a stewardship emphasis). Price admits he feels some tension when preaching on giving. “You don’t want to come across trying to beat people over the head about money,” he said, but “we made a concerted effort, and it proved beneficial.”
Especially among younger people. “You would think people would be familiar with tithing, but we have younger people coming up and newly marrieds. They’re hearing these things for the first time really.”
And the results? “We have definitely seen an increase in giving in the past several months,” Price said.
The head of an organization called Generous Giving, Brian Kluth, says pastors can’t be shy about teaching on money. “We need to learn to be open-handed people in a tight-fisted world.” Kluth had considerable success as a pastor leading his Colorado congregation in giving. “Every time you give to the Lord, you are declaring who your source is, who your help is,” Kluth said.
In a recent blog post on tithing, Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd warned against greed as the enemy of generosity: “Somehow we must grow in our faith enough to understand that when we do not give biblically by both tithing and practicing generosity, we are not walking in godliness.”
But, he admits, it will take support from the pews to overcome reticence to address money issues. “Lead the way laypeople, encouraging your pastor to preach on tithing and generosity. Encourage and defend him both privately and publicly,” Floyd wrote.
Floyd’s comments come as the SBC strains to rebound in Cooperative Program giving to missions, and to answer long-term questions about funding for SBC missions on all fronts. The potential for gospel advance would be almost unimaginable, if the biblical standards for generosity were heeded.
What if we all tithed?
Empty Tomb, Inc., a Champaign-based research firm, asked this question when average giving by church members was at its lowest point in their annual surveys (2.46% in 2008): What if all givers tithed? The researchers projected that if every church member in the U.S. gave 10% rather than the average 3%, the additional amount available for kingdom work would be $172-Billion.
Empty Tomb speculated, “If those members had specified that 60% of their increased giving were to be given to international missions, there would have been an additional $103-Billion available for the international work of the church. That would have left an additional $34-Billion for domestic missions, including poverty conditions in the U.S., and this all on top of our current church activities.”
Meanwhile, the ball moves ahead in fit and starts, while the measuring gang rattles the chains on the sidelines.
Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist where this article first appeared in the September 21 issue. Read the Illinois Baptist online now.