02 The Heart Gap

The Heart Gap


Key Findings

  • Millennials are more likely than older adults to think of generosity in terms of hospitality and less in terms of money.
  • Service or volunteerism is highly valued and more frequently
    practiced by Elders.
  • People tend to think their preferred way of expressing
    generosity is more generous than other ways.
  • Just one in 10 Christians say “to serve God with my money”
    is their ultimate financial goal.

Researchers asked what actions people believe qualify as “giving to others.” While there is generally broad agreement about the spirit of generosity, people differ when it comes to envisioning an act of generosity. “Service” (32%) and “emotional / relational support” (30%) are the two most popular options, with about one in three U.S. Christians saying they strongly associate actions that fall into these categories with the concept of “giving to others.” About one in five says giving money is the action they most associate with the phrase (22%), while fewer say “hospitality” (12%) or “gifts” (5%). To be clear, donating money is in third place, and only one-fifth of adults select it as their top expression of “giving to others.”

The findings reveal gaps by gender and by generation on this question. Women and men are about equally likely to associate gifts and service with giving to others, but women more strongly associate acts of emotional or relational support with generosity (36% vs. 22% men) while men have a greater tendency than women to choose giving money (27% vs. 17% women).

Even more significant than gender differences, each generation seems to have their own set of associations. Millennials, for example, are on par with the norm when it comes to service, emotional or relational support, and gifts. But the percentages for money (13% vs. 22% all Christians) and hospitality (21% vs. 12%) are essentially flipped: Millennials prioritize hospitality far more than money as an expression of generosity. At a different extreme are Elders, who are much more likely than the average to strongly associate service with generosity (52% vs. 32% all) and not at all likely to choose hospitality (less than 1 percent of Elder respondents chose this option).

Researchers asked people to define these categories in their own words, and some interesting themes emerged from their responses. Most think the concepts of “welcome” and “openness” broadly encompass the idea of hospitality, while only about onethird limits the definition to hosting in one’s home. This more general, rather than specific, notion may account for hospitality’s popularity among Millennials, who tend more than other generations to value openness and unqualified acceptance.

In what ways are Christians most often generous to others? Researchers found that people most strongly associate their own chosen means of expressing generosity with their ideal of generosity. That is, people walk their talk. If they believe monetary giving is the best way to be generous, they give money. If they believe serving is the best way, they tend to give through acts of service. Three out of five people who practice generosity by offering emotional or relational support to others generally associate acts of relational support with generosity.

Serving or volunteering and offering relational support are the most common expressions of generosity across generations, but percentages vary, likely related in some instances to free time and financial situation. Elders, for example—many of whom are retired or no longer working full time—are the age cohort by far most likely to report expressing generosity in service or volunteerism. And Millennials, who tend to have fewer overall financial resources, are least likely to say they most often express generosity through monetary giving.

According to the 2015 National Time Use Survey, Gen-Xers are the generation most likely to volunteer (28%) and Millennials are least likely (19%). However, when hours of service are accounted for, Boomers and Elders 65 and older pull ahead of young adults: Older Americans volunteer an average of 94 hours annually, more than twice the average of 36 hours among people under 35.(5)

In the Barna survey, pastors were asked to select as many expressions of generosity as they believed applied to them. Like other Christians (Elders excepted), relational support is pastors’ most frequent act of generosity (86%), followed by giving money (77%), giving gifts (61%) and extending hospitality (58%).

Serving & Supporting People

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 7 percent of adults volunteer on any given day in America. Those who serve usually spend between two and three hours at a stretch doing their volunteer activity.6 In this study, Barna found that engaging in the act of volunteering correlates with a perception that doing so is generous; that is, if a person has volunteered their time on behalf of an organization within the past six months, he or she is more likely to associate volunteering with generosity. And the reverse is also true: People who have not volunteered are less likely than those who have to think of volunteering as particularly generous.

When people think about their acts of generosity, they think beyond volunteering for organizations. Some participants in the qualitative interviews mentioned taking care of people inside or outside of their household—or both—and labor statistics confirm that between 10 and 25 percent of Americans engage in caregiving on an average weekday.7 Other interview participants mentioned “picking up slack at work,” singing at funerals, doing housework for extended family members and assisting with meal preparation.

Somewhat similar are acts people identify under the category “emotional / relational generosity.” The main difference seems to lie in the planned nature of volunteering contrasted with a spontaneous approach to relational support, which people seem more often to offer in the midst of daily interactions. For example, one interviewee said, “I listen when others are hurting.” Another reported, “I use social media to support friends and charities.” And still another said offering advice is a way she is emotionally generous. One respondent said “allowing you to merge into traffic” was his act of relational generosity, and still another said he likes “saying hello to people I don’t know, but acting as if I do”—an act that, for the recipient, may baffle more than delight.

Some acts described by interview participants under the label “hospitality” are in the same thematic ballpark. Rather than limiting the concept of hospitality to hosting, many respondents described actions taken outside the home. One said, “I buy lunch most often. I inquire about others’ lives and try to remember important things they tell me.” Another, a cashier, reported a different way she is hospitable: “Smile and be kind to strangers that I meet in daily errands and while working, especially if they are not nice first.” And yet another described “holding the door for someone, getting something for someone who can’t reach, allowing someone to go ahead of you in the grocery store.”

In short, the spectrum of actions people consider to be generous is wide—especially when they are thinking about their own actions.

Giving Gifts & Money

One respondent had a unique take on gift giving: “Sharing my food, cigarettes and drinks with my coworkers.” While there may be potential drawbacks to some gifts (cigarettes, for example), neither pastors nor Christians seem to believe that a gift’s desirability—or not—is what makes it generous. Rather, it is still the thought that counts.

Cigarettes aside, gift giving is a part of American culture with its own schedule and social obligations. For example, Christmas and birthdays are common occasions to give gifts and, often, to expect to receive them. Despite these social expectations, some interviewees said that giving gifts on these occasions is an act of generosity.

Many Americans donate money on a similar “schedule,” especially during the end-of-year holiday season. Accounting for these occasions and all other donating throughout the years, how much do they give?

When it comes to donations, self-reported giving is not usually as reliable as reviewing actual tax-return data—but the latter was not an option open to the research team! So Barna asked respondents to report how much money they donated to their church or other nonprofits last year, expecting that the resulting data might be more useful to gauge Christians’ self-perceptions than to measure actual monetary giving.

However, researchers found that respondents’ self-reported donations approximate the amounts predicted by age, churchgoing habits and marital status. Younger adults tend to earn less money, to attend church less often (or not at all) and to be unmarried—and 84 percent of Millennials report donating less than $50 during the past year, more than twice the percentage of Elders who say so (37%). Middle-aged and older adults tend to earn more, to attend church more often and to be married, and their self-reported giving is only a bit higher than what researchers would expect, given these factors.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports the average American has $39,424 in annual disposable income (that is, the amount that remains after taxes are paid).8 According to analysis of data Barna gathered between 2013 and 2016, practicing Christians report giving an average (median) of $1,400 a year to their church— thus, between 3 and 4 percent of their disposable income. More than half of all Christians in The Generosity Gap study say they gave less than $500 last year, and 15 percent did not donate at all. So the $1,400 “per person” is not evenly spread across the Christian population; some are giving much more, and some much less.

Aside from any specific theology about tithing, most leaders will agree than $1,400 a year is modest compared to the economic capacity of the average person of faith. An examination of Christians’ priorities for money reveals one reason why: Of 10 possible answers to the question, “What would you consider to be the ultimate financial goal in life?” the option “to serve God with my money” ranks at number six, with just one in 10 Christians choosing that answer. Serving God with one’s money is, for most people, not as urgent as other priorities—though Elders are twice as likely as others to say it is, which makes serving God the number one financial goal among senior Christians. The percentage of Elders whose goal is “to have enough money to give charitably” is also higher than average (18% vs. 11% all Christians).

“Providing for my family” tops the list among all Christians (22%), and Millennials are more likely than the norm to select this option (31%). Since many young adults are starting their family (or at least contemplating it), it makes sense that this obligation would be on their minds. It’s less clear whether this is a true generational difference or if Millennials’ goals will change over time.

These differences show that a Christian audience—especially one that is intergenerational—will hear teaching and other messaging about money through a variety of personal filters. For all but the small percentage of Christians that already views money primarily as an opportunity to serve God, teaching on biblical generosity will have to start with why to give, not how to give.

For many, money is about caring for loved ones or giving to the Church. For others, it is about lifestyle and personal contentment. We’ll return to these distinctions in the next chapter as a helpful lens for understanding a variety of giving behaviors and attitudes—and why this is a challenging gap to close.

How Generations Perceive Themselves

Many Millennials prioritize practical concerns over philanthropic goals when it comes to their financial plans, yet generosity remains a significant facet of their self-concept. Of the four adult generations of Christians, Millennials are most likely to say that generosity is important to them personally. Boomers are less apt to say so, and twice as likely as the youngest adults to say generosity is only somewhat or not very important to them (39% vs. 20% Millennials).

Generosity appears to be important to most Christians, but how well aligned are their giving practices with their priorities? Researchers have found that asking survey-takers to view themselves through the eyes of another person often yields amore honest response. So Barna asked, “If your friends knew everything about your finances and giving habits, how would they rate your generosity?”

Millennials are slightly more prone than their older counterparts to say their friends would rate them as very generous, while Elders are least likely to say this. Twelve percent of Boomers, meanwhile, say their friends would rate them as not very generous, six times the percentage of Elders who say so. A plurality in each generation says they are somewhat generous.

As explored in the previous section, Millennials are most likely of the generations to report donating less than $50 last year. Yet here we see that three in 10 would rate themselves as very generous with their monetary giving. What’s going on here? Analysis suggests Millennials think they are generous relative to their income level and life stage—but they also recognize, as we’ll see below, that older generations often have greater resources and therefore tend to give more.

How Generations Perceive Each Other

Understanding the different ways generations think about life, values and priorities can be helpful for any leader trying to create and sustain intergenerational community. At the same time, if we hold too tightly to our generational stereotypes, the “generation gap” becomes merely a cultural trope that has outlived its usefulness, a convenient excuse for divisions rather than a starting point for greater understanding. In a few findings from this study, the latter appears to be the case—and the “heart gap” created by stubborn generational stereotypes presents a pastoral challenge to leaders.

Barna asked Christians about the generations in their church congregation: Which is most generous with money, time and hospitality? The answers reveal a high degree of generational loyalty among older Christians but less consistent perceptions among younger adults.

The older three generations (Gen-Xers, Boomers and Elders) believe that, out of all the age groups in their church, Boomers give money most sacrificially—but among Gen-Xers only about onethird says so, compared to majorities of both Boomers and Elders. The greater part of Millennials is nearly split on whether Boomers or Gen-Xers are most sacrificial in their giving, but one in five says their own generation sacrifices most when it comes to financial giving. Fewer than one in 20 among the older generations agrees.

As with financial giving, most Christians perceive Boomers to be most sacrificial with their time, and the percentage that believes Millennials to be most generous in this regard shrinks in each successively older generation. Thirty-five percent of Millennials say their age cohort is most sacrificial when it comes to time, compared to one in seven Gen-Xers, one in 10 Boomers and just 3 percent of Elders. There are, of course, many ways to be generous with time beyond formal volunteering. But according to the American Time Use Survey, a lower percentage of Millennials and a higher percentage of Elders volunteers on any given day, compared to other generations.

When it comes to hospitality, more than three-quarters of Christians over 50 say older adults are strongest in this area; twothirds of Gen-Xers agree that Boomers and Elders in their church are most hospitable. Millennials, meanwhile, consistent with their definition of generosity, give themselves high marks here. Because openness and welcome are of such high value to younger adults, and more broudly in an increasingly contentious society, hospitality is a potential avenue for reverse mentoring, wherein older Christians learn from younger believers. Taking a learning, rather than teaching, posture could be an older Christian’s most generous act.

Narrowing the Heart Gap

Imagine that a twenty something Christian, Rachel, hears a Sunday message about generosity, and decides to be more intentional about acts she perceives to be generous. So she begins to host weekly home-cooked dinners for a few single coworkers who live far from home, and invites a friend to sleep on her couch until the friend can find an affordable place of her own. She joins a cultural exchange club to get to know people who have different beliefs and backgrounds, and practices listening to their stories so they feel heard and understood.

Folks from the older generations in Rachel’s church—a group that likely includes her pastor, since the average Protestant pastor is over 5010—may not see these actions as a legitimate response to the call for greater generosity. Neither her financial contributions to the church nor the number of hours she serves have increased. According to their perceptions of generosity and preferences for different kinds of generous actions, Rachel is failing to mature as a generous Christian.

If not navigated wisely, the “heart gap” detailed in this section has the potential to alienate Christians of different ages from each other. But it doesn’t have to be that way—we don’t have to be slaves to our stereotypes. As David Kinnaman explores in the conclusion to The Generosity Gap, these differences offer Christians an opportunity to practice generosity in ways that create deeper and more resilient intergenerational unity.

Do motives make a difference? They sure do. Christians whose ultimate financial goal is centered on serving God or providing for others tend to be open-handed with their resources (Givers), while those whose goal is self-focused are more likely to hold on to their money (Keepers).

Previous Section

The Mind Gap

Read Section
Next Section

The Soul Gap

Read Section