Huffpost Religion
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

David Briggs Headshot

The Flesh Is Weak: Churchgoers Give Far Less Than They Think

Posted: Updated:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. --Matthew 6:24

Churchgoers like to think of themselves as generous and cheerful givers, but for many the flesh appears to be weak when it comes to living up to their own standards for charitable giving.

A quarter of respondents in a new national study said they tithed 10 percent of their income to charity. But when their donations were checked against income figures, only 3 percent of the group gave more than 5 percent to charity.

The people most likely to misreport high levels of giving were those who said faith was very important to them and those who attend services more than weekly, according to a report by University of Notre Dame sociologists Christian Smith and Heather Price presented at the recent Association for the Sociology of Religion meeting in Denver.

The findings from the Science of Generosity Survey not only suggest the need to take a closer look at self-reported figures on tithing, but indicate the strong internal conflicts many religious individuals face when it comes to giving.

Like the Gospel parable of the rich young man who refused to give up his possessions, parting with their personal treasure is one of the greatest challenges facing people of faith, research indicates.

There is "in many American Christians ... a kind of 'comfortable guilt' -- that is, living with an awareness and feeling of culpability for not giving money more generously, but maintaining that at a low enough level of discomfort that it was not too disturbing or motivating enough to actually increase giving," Smith, Michael Emerson and Patricia Snell report in their book, "Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money." "Many Christians did not have clean consciences about money. But neither did they seem prepared to change their financial dealings in ways that would eliminate their modest levels of guilt."

A Wide Gap

Several studies have shown charitable giving is important to religious individuals, and people who are active in their faith tend to give more than those who are inactive.

Findings from the Science of Generosity Survey, a 2010 study of 2,000 adults ages 23 and older, also revealed support for the ties between faith and generous giving. Several Notre Dame researchers shared results at the sociology meeting.

Religion can be a positive factor for blood donation, Kraig Beyerlein found in a survey study attempting to measure altruistic behavior.

And in-depth interviews with 40 families who participated in the survey revealed the most generous self-reported givers, those donating about 3 percent to 12 percent of their incomes, were in the category Hilary Davidson called "sacred givers."

These individuals said their giving was related to their faith, and that generosity benefits their own spiritual development, Davidson said. Those respondents spoke of "learning how to free yourself" from economic concerns to serve others and of "wanting to model my life after Christ."

But other figures from the Science of Generosity Survey and the 2010 General Social Survey indicate how little large numbers of people actually give to charity.

The generosity survey found just 57 percent of respondents gave more than $25 in the past year to charity; the General Social Survey found 77 percent donated more than $25, Price and Smith reported in their presentation on "Religion and Monetary Donations: We All Give Less Than We Think."

In one indication of the gap between perception and reality, 10 percent of the respondents to the generosity survey reported tithing 10 percent of their income to charity although their records showed they gave $200 or less.

The self-deception appears to be limiting giving.

In analyzing data from two churches in the Northern Indiana Congregation Study, researchers Brandon Vaidyanathan and Snell found some respondents claimed to be tithers or high givers when church-reported figures showed that was not the case.

"To the extent that some parishioners already rate themselves as high givers, when in fact they are not, then they are essentially able to ignore messages about giving -- they would interpret such messages as not pertaining to them but to somebody else," Vaidyanathan and Snell reported in a paper on "Motivations for and Obstacles to Religious Financial Giving" in the Sociology of Religion journal.

Money left in member's pockets in faith traditions that emphasize the responsibility to care for the global poor can have severe consequences far beyond smaller church budgets, analysts state.

Digging Deeper

A rapidly changing number now more than 5 million is the centerpiece of the website for empty tomb, inc., a Champaign, Ill.-based research organization on religious giving.

The figure representing the number of children under 5 who have died since the beginning of 2012 is a dramatic reminder of the effects of declining giving on social needs such as global poverty.

From 1968 to 2009, member giving to church finances as a percentage of income decreased from 2.45 percent to 2.04 percent, a decline of 17 percent. Far more dramatic has been the decline in giving for benevolences, or the broader mission of the church ranging from supporting seminaries to feeding the poor. Per member giving for benevolences dropped 48 percent, from .66 percent of income in 1968 to .34 percent in 2009, empty tomb reported.

One reason, said Sylvia Ronsvalle of empty tomb, is the church did not offer a positive alternative to the rampant consumerism in the affluent post-World War II society. Religious individuals today may be confused about what constitutes successful giving since all many of them are asked to do is the minimum to keep the local congregation going.

"We've succeeded at maintenance," she said. "But is that what we're supposed to be succeeding at? No."

In Smith, Emerson and Snell's book, the data shows, among other things, that one out of five U.S. Christians gives no money to charity or that nearly three-quarters give less than 2 percent of their income. "The majority of American Christians are actually quite ungenerous financial givers" given the teachings of their faith and their potential for generosity, they reported.

"It would appear that American Christians have much soul searching to do about the question of money," the authors concluded.

In the struggle between the charitable demands of faith and the desire to hold on to and accumulate personal possessions, mammon appears to be winning.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.