03 The Soul Gap

The Soul Gap


Key Findings

  • A person’s ultimate financial goal strongly correlates with his or her giving habits.
  • Givers are more likely to be married, to have children and to be Protestant, while Keepers are more likely to be single, not to have children and to live in a city.
  • Orthodox Christian beliefs and regular church attendance correlate with more generous giving habits.

The previous chapter looked briefly at what Christians say about their ultimate financial goal for life. To find out if these “soul motivations” are connected to behaviors and attitudes related to financial giving—and, if so, what it may mean for cultivating Christian generosity—Barna analysts created two groups:

  • Givers are motivated by “others-focused” goals: to provide for their family (43% of Givers), to give charitably (23%) to serve God with their money (20%) or to leave a legacy for others (14%). Fifty percent of Christians are Givers.
  • Keepers are motivated by “self-focused” goals: to support the lifestyle they want (42% of Keepers), to be content (37%), to be debt-free (16%) or to earn enough to show how hard they work (5%). Thirty-five percent of Christians are Keepers.

Fifteen percent of respondents don’t fall into either category because they are primarily motivated to meet their financial obligations, which researchers categorize as an “indeterminate” goal.* In an analysis of employment status, household income and how these uncategorized respondents perceive their financial situation, researchers discovered they are more likely than Givers or Keepers to be unemployed and earn less than $50,000 per year, and to say they are “struggling to keep up with day-today expenses.” So for many, if not most, their ultimate goal is a reflection of real and present financial struggles, not of a spiritual mindset or a gap in effective discipleship. This needs-focused group is excluded from analysis in this chapter, since their primary financial goal does not appear to drive their giving behaviors or views on generosity. (In fact, though they tend to earn less than Keepers, they often give more.)

For the other 85 percent of Christians who are either Givers or Keepers, ultimate financial goals correlate to both generous habits and perspectives on generosity—perhaps the most important gap revealed by this research. Here’s the big takeaway right up front: Christians with giving goals give a lot, and Christians with keeping goals give less or not at all. The challenge for leaders is not to coax Keepers to give more, but to help them close the soul gap and become Givers from the inside out.

Let’s get to know these two groups.

Who They Are (Demographics)

As we saw in chapter 2, Millennials are more likely than other generations, by a significant margin, to prioritize providing for a family above other financial goals (31% vs. 18% Gen-Xers and Boomers, 13% Elders). Elders, by contrast, are most likely to say serving God with their money is their ultimate goal (19% vs. ~10% all others). These outlier percentages push more Millennials and Elders into the Giver category than their middle-aged counterparts.

When it comes to household income, Givers are not giving more because they make more. In fact, Keepers tend to be somewhat more financially comfortable than Givers: 45 percent earn more than $75,000 per year compared to 39 percent of Givers. Some of this disparity may be due to the fact that Keepers (37%) are more likely than Givers (30%) to live in a city, where incomes are sometimes higher to cover steeper living expenses. Relatedly, Christians in the Northeast are more likely than those in other regions to prioritize keeping goals; Keepers (44%) actually outnumber Givers (42%) among Christians in that region.

Asian Christians are more likely than other ethnicities to be Givers (60% vs. ~50% all others). In an analysis of Asian respondents’ answers to the question of financial goals, Barna found they are slightly more likely than white, Hispanic and black Christians to prioritize any of the giving goals; that is, higher percentages of Asians say they want to provide for family, donate to charity, leave a legacy or serve God with their money, compared to Christians of other ethnic backgrounds.

There is no significant difference between Givers and Keepers on educational attainment, but marital status is a different story: Givers are more likely to be married (65%), while Keepers are more often single (51%). It’s also slightly more common for Givers to have children under 18 living at home (47% vs. 41%). It appears Regular church attendance strongly correlates with giving goals that, at least in the U.S. where increasing numbers of people choose not to marry or have children, the family remains a crucible where self-focus can be transmuted to putting others’ needs first.

Last in the realm of demographics, a Christian’s faith tradition appears to influence whether they are a Giver or a Keeper. Protestants overall, and especially non-mainline Protestants—a category that includes denominations often identified as “evangelical”—are more likely to be Givers, while Catholics are about evenly split between Givers and Keepers.

What They Practice & Believe (Theolographics)

Barna has found that religious beliefs and faith practices (“theolographics”) are often just as predictive of people’s behavior and perceptions as demographics—if not more so. This trend holds true when it comes to Givers and Keepers.

Regarding faith practices, regular church attendance strongly correlates with giving goals. Nearly six in 10 Christians who attended a worship service within the past week are Givers (57%), compared to 45 percent of Christians who did not. There is virtually no daylight between those who attended within the past month (44% are Givers) and those for whom it has been longer than six months (45%); only weekly church involvement appears to make a significant difference.

With regard to religious beliefs, Christians who align with traditional orthodoxy are more likely to be Givers. (Or it may be that Givers are more likely to profess orthodox beliefs; it’s unclear whether financial goals or religious beliefs are causal.) Givers are also more likely to say their faith is very important in their life and to say they sense God actively involved in their day-to-day life.

One in three Givers says they donated $500 or more last year to their church or other nonprofits (33%), compared to about one in five Keepers (22%); they are nearly twice as likely to report donating $2,500 or more (14% vs. 8%). Plus, they are more likely to report setting their own giving at 10 percent or more of their income (25% vs. 13%).

These findings dovetail with ongoing research Barna has conducted since 2011 with American Bible Society on U.S. adults’ level of engagement with the Bible: Those with a higher level of engagement tend to give more. Specifically, the Bible engaged have a “high” view of the Scriptures and read the Bible four or more times per week; as of 2017, this group makes up about 20 percent of the U.S. adult population. Compared to those who read the Bible less often or hold “lower” views of the Scriptures, Bibleengaged Americans are far more likely to report donating $2,000 or more to their church or a charity last year (49% vs. 17% Bible friendly, 18% Bible neutral, 13% Bible skeptics).11

What They Say About Generosity

Not surprisingly, Givers are more apt to say generosity is extremely important to them (33% vs. 24% Keepers) and to believe generosity is always a discipline (26% vs. 18%) and a response to Christ’s love (53% vs. 43%).

Givers are also more convinced than Keepers of how important it is for Christians to support their home church: 42 percent strongly agree that “every member should give some amount,” versus 30 percent of Keepers. Additionally, they are more likely to specify that Christians should give their church 10 percent or more of their income (30% vs. 22%).

When it comes to what category of actions they most strongly associate with generosity, one in five among both Givers (20%) and Keepers (21%) says giving money is most generous. However, Keepers tend most to favor emotional or relational support (37% vs. 24% Givers) while Givers prefer serving (36% vs. 27%) and, to a lesser extent, hospitality (15% vs. 8%).

Drilling down to specific actions, scenarios that involve a mediating organization seem to have greater appeal for Keepers than for Givers, such as volunteering for a nonprofit (58% Keepers vs. 53% Givers) or donating money to an organization or cause (24% vs. 16%). By contrast, Givers seem to favor actions that demand some level of personal, relational investment, such as taking care of a sick person or teaching Sunday school.

More than one-third of Keepers, however, says emotional or relational support is their go-to mode of generosity (38%) compared to three in 10 Givers (29%)—but they are less inclined than Givers to view more demanding relational acts, such as teaching Sunday school, as supremely generous. Further research is needed to discover what’s behind this apparent dissonance.

The Giver-Keeper Gap

The gap between Christian Givers and Keepers is one of the most significant for church and ministry leaders to negotiate—or, if possible, to close—because it impacts both the “top line” of making devoted disciples and the “bottom line” of meeting the ministry budget.

In the final analysis, it’s clear that a “giving soul,” revealed by a person’s ultimate financial goal, is highly correlated with orthodox beliefs, a personal experience of faith, a premium on generosity as a value and, overall, greater financial contributions. The gap between Givers and Keepers, then, is a soul gap of fruitful discipleship. And the job of ministry is to help people cultivate motives that transcend day-to-day circumstances such that their generous impulses become generous habits, and their generous habits a way of life.

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