Giving for God: Well-considered joy
By Doug Koopman
So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given ... Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. – 2 Cor. 9:5,7 NIV
It is hardly news that American churchgoers do not meet the standard of tithing their gross income to the church. According Barna Research Group data gathered in 2007 and published the next year, only 5 percent of American adults contributed 10 percent or more of their income to all forms of charity. Among those the survey described as born-again Christians, the proportion of tithers was 9 percent. Over the last 10 years, Barna finds that these proportions have stayed fairly constant, ranging from 5 to 7 percent for Americans overall.
The surveyors noted that charitable giving, particularly to churches, is likely to decline in the future. First, over the past 10 years giving to churches, as a proportion of all charitable giving, has declined from about 85 percent to about 75 percent. Givers are being selective in their giving and more often choosing against giving to their local churches. Second, denominations are declining in membership numbers, and attendance at all types of conventional churches is falling. In the future, then, local congregations, particularly in traditional denominations, can expect to see lower giving amounts. Third, emotional appeals for giving have become both more frequent and less individually fruitful.
The problem of Christians meeting their commitments to support the work of their own and sister churches is not new. The above passage from 2 Corinthians, written by Paul to one of the earliest churches, makes this point. Many of today’s churchgoers are familiar with the last verse, particularly the last phrase: “God loves a cheerful giver.” Sometimes people use it after they’ve informed a listener that they are not too cheerful right now, so they’re not going to contribute very much, at least at the moment, but thanks for asking. Maybe later they’ll have the enthusiasm.
What Paul is doing here is instructive. He is obviously reminding the Corinthians of an earlier pledge, perhaps made with too much emotion, to contribute funds to help struggling fellow believers in Jerusalem. The passage of time has caused the Corinthians to do some re-thinking. Rather than accept that, Paul holds them to their pledge. He knows both the money and the cheerfulness are still in Corinth; it just takes some extra effort to bring them out. An advance delegation goes there to work with the Corinthians before a later group shows up expecting the full amount.
Paul provides a means for the Corinthian church to meet its goal and meet the needs of the Jerusalem churches. It takes an uncomfortable stretch, but even stretching can be joyful. Apparently it worked at Corinth. The data from Barna and others suggests the modern church is facing a similar problem: how to get parishioners to regularly and with good judgment give to support the church, without sensationalizing the need or the benefit.
Questions for reflection:
- What are your memories of the use of the phrase, “God loves a cheerful giver”? Was it ever used to avoid a contribution?
- The passage implies that financial planning requires an even temper—perhaps a little less optimism at the outset and a little more discipline down the road.
- Does your church plan its budget that way?
- Do you plan your family budget that way
—Doug Koopman, Professor of Political Science, Calvin College