Time for a “Call Out?”

Michael Metzger

Free riders
Bill Cosby was feeling frustrated four years ago at the NAACP gala commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. He believes black men have become free riders. “Everybody knows how important it is to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with ‘Why you ain’t…’” Since 2004 “A Call Out with Bill Cosby” has stirred the pot yet has been well received. “People have been waiting to hear the truth, they don’t want to be coddled,” says Cosby. This raises a question. What if a church got feisty and “called out” congregants who are free riders? Oh, no—we couldn’t do that. Well…one religious faith does, with noteworthy results.

Let’s cut to the chase scene. You’ve mailed in your 2007 Income Tax Returns by now… right? Quick—do the math. What percentage did you give to charities? I once asked my father this question. “That’s none of your damned business.” The truth is that Americans view giving as a private matter and “have pretty much made up their minds on the subject” of tithing.1 Congregations are balking at being told what to give.2 Yet if Christianity is to be taken more seriously, something must be done.

On the one hand religious Americans are generous relative to the rest of the US population. They gave an estimated $97 billion to congregations in 2006, almost a third of the country’s $295 billion in charitable donations, according to Giving USA Foundation. But giving to religion is growing more slowly than other types of giving, says Patrick Rooney, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. That’s partly because people are attending church less frequently, says Mr. Rooney, and are giving to a wider array of causes. But it’s also because the number of free riders is increasing in most churches. This might call for a “call out.”

Today’s churchgoer donates only about 2 to 3 percent of their income. We get away with this because we do our giving in secret. Except for Ronald Reagan. He said he believed in tithing but as President had to make public his giving, which amounted to $5,965 in 1981—1.4 percent of his income. Oops. When made public, giving by members in 41 U.S. denominations has declined steadily for 25 years from a high of 3.10 percent of income in 1968.3 Even in the best churches, only 24 percent of members tithe.4 This pays for 80 percent of a church budget while a quarter of the congregants cover the other 20 percent and 50 percent give little or nothing.5 Any healthy business, school, or sports team demands that members contribute or vacate. Churches generally do not—except for the Mormons.

Mormonism diverges from other faiths by calling for a compulsory 10 percent tithe on members. It also demands volunteer time, including “the role of bishop (pastor), that requires from twenty to forty hours per week.”6 Making serious demands on members means members take their faith more seriously. In 1984 Rodney Stark predicted that by 2080 the Mormon faith would have no fewer than 64 million adherents (it had 5 million then) and possibly as many as 260 million, making it one of the fastest growing faiths in the world.7 Over the past twenty years, the Mormons have outstripped his most optimistic predictions. Mormon leadership makes serious demands of its members, just as Bill Cosby is making serious demands of black men. Why don’t we?

Some people say tithing is no longer valid. Now it’s “grace giving” done freely and cheerfully. I’m OK with that. Depending on how you interpret the Old Testament, the tithe was either 10 percent or 28 percent (it was either one tithe expressed three ways or three tithes stacked on top one another). The point of a tithe wasn’t that God needed our loose change but that we needed to learn charity. Jesus’ New Covenant exceeded the Old; so “grace giving” should exceed the tithe and fall between 11 percent and 29 percent. How are we doing?

America is a nation of people with adequate income laden with debt.8 The chief culprit is our imagination—shaped by everything from the rise of the credit card, explosion of retail, media, and advertising. We first spend our money on what we imagine constitutes “the good life”—homes, cars, clothes, and vacations. If anything’s left over, we tip God, which is what free riders do. But a second culprit is our therapeutic culture, where pastors rarely pronounce prohibitions as the prophets once did: “Thou shalt not.”9

“If every member of the group can share in the benefits… then the rational thing is to free ride,” writes Rodney Stark, “rather than to help attain the corporate interest.”10 What if we stopped coddling Christians and demanded they give or get out? The history of religious faith indicates that when “denominations ceased to make serious demands on their followers, they ceased to prosper,” says Stark.11 Mormon leadership and Bill Cosby understand a “call out” can be done in a constructive way. Why don’t we?

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1 “New Study Shows Trends in Tithing and Donating”, www.barna.org
2 Suzanne Sataline, “The Backlash Against Tithing: As Churches Push Donations, Congregations Balk: ‘That’s Not the Way God Works,’” Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2007, p. W1.
3 John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, Behind the Stained Glass Windows: Money Dynamics in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996)
4 “New Study Shows Trends in Tithing and Donating”, www.barna.org
5 John L. Ronsvalle and Sylvia Ronsvalle, The State of Church Giving through 2001 (13th ed. Champaign, Ill.: Empty Tomb, 2003)
6 Stark, Rise of Mormonism, p. 90.
7 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Mormonism (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005)
8 C.f., Stuart Vyse, author of Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold on to Their Money (Oxford University Press, 2007).
9 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006).
10 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco Edition, 1997), pp. 174-175.
11 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776 – 2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ and London, UK: Rutgers University Press, 2005), p. 1.

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6 Comments

  1. I really have not seen anything about percentage giving in the New Testament. I think it is also worth considering what the tithe in the OT was used for and if that can be applied today.

  2. Focusing on percentages gets legalistic, yet Jesus was very concerned about people’s giving, as evidenced by his watching what people put into the treasury in the temple. There he affirmed only one giver– a poor old woman who gave everything she had. If you want a new testament standard, that’s it: 100%; or as some wealthier friends of mine are setting as their goal: giving away 90% of their income.

  3. Is it possible that while giving is right and correct and a call to us from God, that the way it is preached( or not preached) has become more American culture, than Biblical mandate. In that view giving is our choice and not an act of worship. Man becomes the sovereign one and God waits around like a taxi driver waiting for His tip.

  4. Hi there!

    Well, it is yet another great article by one of my favorite teachers and I agree with every word in it. I was quite surprised about the statistics in the US. I am not sure about Russian statistics, but looking at our church I can say that devoted and born again Christians in Russia give in average at least 10%.

  5. Dwight makes a good point. The fact is, for most Americans, the choice as to what to give was made long before the basket is passed. Between mortgages, autos, and education–and what we feel we must have to be happy–there is a rough equivalency with the federal budget when it comes to discretionary giving: @3% can be played with. The rest is locked in.

  6. I can only speak for myself, but I know that I’m hesitant to give to the local church because I see the money mostly going to build up the institution (i.e. “we’ve budgeted for a new sound system this year and we need a better sign out front and colored bulletins”). I’d rather work to build up a family of neighbors who give to others as there is need, then to pay for more programs that miss the point anyway. Jesus does own 100% of my possesions, and 100% of me, so I don’t think I’m “rebelling” against him…just maybe not playing along with the Christian corporation.

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