The Generosity Gap

The Generosity Gap

How Christians' Perceptions and Practices of Giving Are Changing— and What It Means for the Church


by Christopher J. Kopka

In our organization’s efforts to serve and walk alongside the Church, Thrivent Financial recently commissioned Barna Group to perform qualitative and quantitative research around the subject of generosity. We originally thought the research would help us prove or disprove a set of commonly held assumptions and beliefs expressed by pastors toward an entire generation: Millennials.

You’ll see that this research report does indeed bust some generational myths. What we and Barna did not anticipate, however, was that the research would yield an even deeper set of insights. How do we collectively understand generosity? And where do we as church leaders or churchgoers have misunderstandings about generosity? Is it possible to both know and grow generosity in all its expressions? Might it even be possible to order our daily lives around generosity in ways that demonstrate loving God and loving our neighbors?

We’re honored to be a part of this important work with Barna. The Generosity Gap provides a snapshot of “what is,” not “what should be.” Some of the findings are encouraging and hopeful. Others are, well, a bit disappointing. Taken together, however, The Generosity Gap provides a realistic look at the state of generosity in the North American church.

What you will not find in this monograph is also worth mentioning. You won’t find a laundry list of five, eight or 10 “to dos.” That does not mean that you shouldn’t hammer out your own list of next steps and actions. You should! Yet we, with Barna, feelthere’s something different about this research. It doesn’t lend itself to one-size-fits-all solutions to giving. There’s no quick fix for the engagement challenges discussed in this report.

Instead, we want churches not only to read The Generosity Gap research, but also to interact with the data and with one another. Frankly, we are convinced that significant lessons can be learned from this study about fostering generosity and engagement— especially among Millennial Christians.

The Generosity Gap offers readers a remarkable invitation, an invitation to think deeply, to pray boldly, to explore courageously, to question tenaciously and to act fearlessly. In that process— both alone and in conversation with others—we believe churches can spur generosity that grows people’s engagement with their faith, not solely supports the church’s financial needs.

For more than 100 years, Thrivent Financial—a not-for-profit membership organization of Christians—has sought to help its members be wise with money and live generously. The Generosity Gap builds on our mission to grow the wisdom of the Church as a body about how to help all people live generously.

It is our great pleasure to partner with Barna in bringing you The Generosity Gap. We trust that it will be a blessing to all readers, and especially to those in church leadership.

For pastors and church leaders ready to learn more about generosity best practices and insights through our soon-to-be completed digital community, I invite you to visit our website at InsightWise.org.

Thank you for your decision to read The Generosity Gap. May the lessons you learn in the pages of this report be a blessing to you and to others in our shared journey toward generous living!

Christopher J. Kopka
President, Thrivent Church Solutions Group
Fellow Generosity Sojourner

Chris Kopka describes himself as a poet by passion, a lawyer by training and a business strategist by accident. His personal mission? Helping people to see themselves as blessed so they might share their blessings. (He also bakes bread.) Chris joined Thrivent Financial in 2006, where he currently serves as President of Church Solutions Group leading Thrivent’s churchrelated business and functions. He and author / painter Anna Dvorak have been married since 2004.


There are both practical and spiritual reasons for churches and Christian organizations to encourage Christians to live generously. Practically speaking, churches have bills to pay and communities to serve, and Christian nonprofits can’t do their good work without adequate financial and volunteer resources. These needs are real and ongoing, and most can only be met with dollars and time donated by consistently generous Christians.

From a spiritual standpoint, generosity according to the Scriptures is, among other things:

  • A hallmark of a good life: “The generous will prosper” (Prov. 11:25).
  • A natural response to God’s generosity: “Everything
    we have has come from you, and we give you only what you first gave us!” (1 Chron. 29:14)
  • A benchmark of our love for God: “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. . . . When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Matt. 25:34–40)
  • A principal way to obey Christ: “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

Most U.S. Christians today do not live up to the biblical ideal. People tend to think of themselves as at least somewhat generous, yet few who intend to give 10 percent of their income actually do so. Forms of generosity other than financial giving are hard to track, but few Christians do as much as they would like in the way of service, kindness, hospitality and similar generous acts. Why? What factors make generosity a challenge for most people? And among those who are notably generous with money, time and other resources, what attitudes, practices, expectations or perceptions contribute to their open-handed habits?

Changing Reality, Widening Gaps

The need for answers is not theoretical. As the proportion of Christians in the U.S. continues to shrink with each successive generation,* the base of givers and volunteers on whom churches and Christian nonprofits depend is also shrinking. Practicing Christians—who say their faith is very important in their life and have attended a worship service within the past month—are a diminishing slice of the overall population. In 2001, 45 percent of all U.S. adults qualified as practicing Christians. In 2017, just 34 percent meet the criteria. And among Millennials, the youngest adults, the proportion is even smaller: Just one in five is a practicing Christian (21%).

Not only are Millennials less likely to practice Christianity and, thus, to financially support a local church; they also have less money to spend on such support. According to a report released by investment giant Morgan Stanley, “Millennials have grown up in the shadow of the Great Recession, are saddled with higher education debt and housing costs, and are forming households later. These facts dramatically affect how Millennials spend.”1 Additionally, they face a tougher job market than when previous generations were starting their careers. In 1990, 77 percent of 20– to 34-year-olds were employed. By 2012, the percentage had dropped to 67 percent—a massive decline whose effects are still being felt half a decade later. It wasn’t until 2015 that Millennial employment once again crept over 70 percent, where it continues to hover today.(2)

On top of these factors, the overall employment landscape has changed dramatically. According to Forbes there are 53 million freelancers in America today, and it’s estimated that one out of every two workers will be a freelancer by 2020.3 That means a “steady paycheck” isn’t necessarily all that steady, even for those who work 40 or more hours a week. As you can see in the table, few people donate, or tithe, 10 percent or more of their income— but even if more of them did, the dollar amount of their donations would likely be less consistent than in decades past, when work was more consistent.

But financial giving is not the only way of living generously, nor the only method under strain. Rather than working eight hours and heading home, more people than ever, thanks to networked technology, are “always on” and always “on call.” Their available time for volunteering, hospitality and making connections with others is shrinking alongside boundaries between work and life.

All these factors (and others) are creating immense “gaps” in Christian generosity and making urgent the case for us to rethink churches’ efforts.

Making a Study of Generosity

If the groups they lead are to survive and adapt to this changing reality, pastors and organizational leaders need both accurate information and wisdom for applying data to their particular context. Commissioned by Thrivent Financial, Barna researchers designed a study to assess Christians’ perceptions and habits of generosity. Our hope for The Generosity Gap is to provide the data and insights leaders need to help each other navigate the years ahead.

Researchers designed a three-phase study. First, Barna conducted qualitative interviews with U.S. adults ages 18 to 69. Some, but not all, of these adults identified as Christians. As part of the qualitative phase, researchers also interviewed Protestant pastors through Barna’s PastorPanel. Insights gleaned from open-ended interviews in the qualitative phase guided researchers’ design of the survey instruments used in nationwide polling.

Second, the Barna team designed a quantitative survey for self-identified Christians. The questionnaire included several screening questions so that insights derived from the study would be maximally useful to pastors and ministries that work primarily through churches: Self-identified Christians who report they have never attended church and who disagree that their faith is important for their lives were screened out of participation. Those included in the final sample could be called “interested Christians,” since they indicate that faith is or might be important to them, and either currently attend or have been involved in a church at some point in their lives. To avoid needless complexity, “interested Christians” are most often referred to in this report just as “Christians.”

Third, researchers designed a quantitative survey for U.S. Protestant pastors. Many of the questions parallel those from the survey of Christians, so that analysis can reveal similarities and differences between church leaders and interested Christians.

And, indeed, there are differences—“generosity gaps”—to be found between pastors and Christians, between Christians of different generations, and between people’s intentions and habits. To make these accessible, we’ve structured our analysis around Jesus’ command to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” (Mark 12:30).

  • The Mind Gap: Pastors’ views on how people ought to express generosity are different from other Christians’. How can leaders teach more clearly on how to think about Christian giving?
  • The Heart Gap: Different generations tend to think differently about generosity and act generously in diverse ways. How can leaders help Christians of different ages acknowledge their differences and reconcile with one another?
  • The Soul Gap: Christians with “giving” goals give more, while those with “keeping” goals give less. How can leaders help people orient their life’s purpose toward God and others, rather than themselves?
  • The Strength Gap: Churchgoers who consider generosity important are not always aware of their opportunities to give. How can leaders help people turn their desire to give into regular habits, especially with the help of technology?

The Generosity Gap explores each of these and offers leaders a starting point for generating solutions. Our prayer is that pastors and other Christian leaders will use these data to help each other strategize for the future, dreaming up fresh tactics for how to connect Christians’ heart, mind and soul with their potential strength of generosity.

Time & Money

Volunteer hours and donor dollars are bread and butter for churches and nonprofits. Here’s a breakdown of who is most likely to give one or the other (or both).

Different generations have different priorities when it comes to generosity. But what does that mean in practice, when it comes to sacrificing their time and financial resources?


Next Section


Read Section