04 The Strength Gap

The Strength Gap


Key Findings

• People who consider generosity important give more consistently to their church and other ministries.
• People who give more use electronic giving methods more often.
• Individually asking people to give is more effective than asking them as part of a group.

How highly a Christian values generosity tends to correlate with whether, and at what amount, they set aside a regular proportion of income for their local church or another ministry (most churches call this kind of giving a tithe). More than half of those who say generosity is not very or not at all important to them say they do not set aside a certain amount to donate; they either vary the amount they give (30%) or do not give at all (27%). By comparison, nearly two-thirds of those to whom generosity is extremely important set their giving at 10 percent of their income (9%), at more than 10 percent (33%) or at a different percentage each year (21%).

Similarly, those who most highly value generosity are six times more likely than those who say it is not very or not at all important to report donating more than $2,500 during the past year to their church, a ministry or a nonprofit (18% vs. 3%), and three times more likely than those who say generosity is only somewhat important (18% vs. 6%). In other words, making giving a priority matters.

There are stark differences when it comes to agreement or disagreement with the statement, “Every member should give some amount to their church,” with strong agreement much more likely among those who value generosity most.

However, the differences (while still statistically significant) are not as stark when it comes to these folks’ expectations for how much a Christian should give to their home church. As with the reasons Christians should be generous, examined in chapter 1, there does not seem to be clear consensus on how much Christians should give.

More than three out of four pastors across denominations strongly agree that all members should financially support their church, but there are notable differences between parishioners of different denominations and their pastors. For example, 57 percent of Southern Baptist adults strongly agree (vs. 94% Baptist pastors), compared to one-third of Lutherans (34% vs. 74% Lutheran pastors) and just one-quarter of Methodists (25% vs. 85% Methodist pastors).

Asking That Strengthens Giving

Barna asked Christians how they responded when asked to give individually or when asked as part of a group, to find out if “the ask” makes a difference to people’s giving behaviors. The short answer is yes. Even people who do not consider generosity important are more likely to say “I always give” or “I usually give” when they are asked individually, compared to when they are asked as part of a group.

But many pastors seem reluctant to personally invite people to give. Only one-third says they make a personal, one-on-one appeal twice a month or more often (32%). Those who lead large and growing churches, however, appear to be more comfortable with a personal “ask.” Pastors of churches with 250 or more in weekend attendance are more likely to invite someone to give at least twice a month (34%) compared to those with 100 or fewer in attendance (27%). And those who pastor growing churches are more likely than leaders of declining churches to do so (35% vs. 22%).

This is not to say that willingness to individually ask is causal of church size or growth—it’s not clear from this study which factors combine to grow attendance. But there is statistical correlation between church size / growth and more frequent personal invitations to give.

Given these findings, it’s worth asking if church leaders should branch out from their “offering ask” of the whole congregation to a combination of group and personal appeals. People’s generosity can be strengthened by a face-to-face invitation to give.

Methods That Strengthen Giving

How do people give? Mostly, they put a check (or cash) in the offering plate when it is passed during the worship service. However, a majority of Christians reports their church offers electronic giving options of various types—and analysis reveals that those most likely to give do, in fact, utilize these options. For example, 15 percent of all Christians say they have given to their church through online / web giving. But those who consider generosity extremely important are much more likely than others to have used this giving method (22%), and those who have donated $2,500 or more are even more likely to have done so (33%). More Givers (motivated by giving goals) than Keepers (motivated by keeping goals) likewise report having donated to their church via online giving.

Another clear finding, which came as a surprise to financial analysts, is that automatic checking account withdrawal (ACH) is massively underused as a method of regular giving; only onethird of pastors report their church offers this giving method (33%). It’s possible some parishioners are concerned about incurring fees for their church, but most are probably just not aware that it is an option. (Only 16 percent say their church offers ACH.) One obvious benefit to churches of ACH is consistent weekly offerings independent of attendance; especially during the summer months and holidays, such consistency can make a big difference to a church’s cash flow.

What are the takeaways here? Offer electronic giving options in addition to the offering plate or basket. Extend to those most eager (even spontaneously!) to give any and all opportunities to do so. Technology may offer people greater opportunity to flex their giving muscles—including Millennials and younger GenXers, “digital natives” for whom electronic giving is the norm— and many Christians want that chance.

In addition, consider how to connect the dots between automatic or e-giving and compassion. The leeriness some leaders express about electronic methods usually has to do with its potential for set-it-and-forget-it mindlessness. But this potential can be stopped in its tracks with solid teaching paired with opportunities for other, non-financial acts of generosity.

Love the Lord Your God

by David Kinnaman,
President of Barna Group

What is the greatest commandment? According to Jesus, as most Christians know, it is to love God with our whole lives and our neighbors as ourselves (see Mark 12:30). But there are a number of mindsets and heart postures that can sabotage our ability to obey. In this study, our team calls them “gaps.”

The findings behind the Mind Gap reveal increasingly divergent expectations between church leaders and Christians (especially Christians under 40) for living generously. The Heart Gap data shows a growing alienation between generations based on their perceptions of each other’s generosity (or lack thereof ). The differences between Givers and Keepers expose the Soul Gap between selfish and selfless financial goals. And the Strength Gap between people who want to give and their awareness of opportunities to do so show leaders their best bets for connecting generous people with giving options.

Our aim at Barna and Thrivent is not to hand you a menu of ready-made solutions to these very real problems, but to equip you with ways of thinking about the data that can lead you, alongside a broader community of leaders, to answers and ideas that fit your unique ministry circumstances. With that end in mind, let’s look at just a few of the challenges posed by each of these gaps and think together about the implications.

Generosity of Mind 

Many churches, and faith-based nonprofits, rely on planned, consistent financial giving—and pastors’ tendency to view generosity as “a discipline” or “planned” reflects this reliance. In contrast, more than one-third of Gen-Xers and nearly half of Millennials think of generosity as “spur-of-the-moment,” a mindset that appears to be at odds with church leaders’ expectations.

It’s easy to understand why pastors might be freaked out by this gap. On top of their genuine desire to make disciples who are open-handed and sacrificial stewards of their resources, most pastors have some portion of their family’s livelihood at stake: If people don’t give, pastors don’t get paid.

So the knee-jerk response of some church leaders might be to strategize ways to turn naturally spontaneous givers into planful givers—to close the Mind Gap by trying to change other people’s minds. But what if we focus first on our own minds? Is it possible there’s nothing inherently wrong with being spontaneously generous, that we’re snapping to judgment without considering whether our assumptions can stand up to scrutiny? If we dig into the pages of the Scriptures, might we find numerous examples of disciplined, consistent tithing and lavish, spur-of-the-moment generosity? (Hint: Yes.)

Here’s something we’ve consistently found in our research with younger Christians: Millennials are more likely than older believers to appreciate being challenged, to welcome opportunities to rise to the occasion. What a wonderful trait! Why would we want to change it? Instead, let’s consider together what it could look like to respond adaptively to Christians of any age who are on the lookout for occasions to be generous.

I’m certainly not saying churches should give up on teaching disciplined generosity; the biblical witness and Church tradition emphasize the spiritual benefits of fixed, sacrificial giving practices. But what might you also do, in your community and set of circumstances, to invite extravagant, unexpected generosity from people serving an extravagantly generous Lord?

Generosity of Heart

I speak and teach hundreds of times a year, and I couldn’t tell you how often I listen to sincerely anguished grumbling from older Christians about younger Christians—and vice versa. I’ll be honest: I’ve done it, too. The truth is, generational differences can be difficult to navigate even for those of us whose job is to draw reliable maps.

It’s an especially urgent task for Christian leaders who are trying to create and sustain intergenerational community.

One of the main stories we see in The Generosity Gap data is the generational divide surrounding generosity—specifically, how the generations ungenerously perceive each other. Older Christians almost uniformly believe that Millennials are, on the whole, lacking in generosity. And when we look at generational differences on what actions are most generous, it’s not hard to see why: Young adults tend to prioritize actions that require personal vulnerability and openness to others over financial giving. This priority is neither good nor bad in and of itself, but it is a source of real and dangerous tension in churches.

What can church leaders do to bring unhelpful stereotypes into the open so they don’t simmer under the surface? What can you do to help younger and older Christians in your church take themselves lightly and others seriously? How can you challenge people to abandon their preconceived notions in favor of relationships characterized by genuine respect and affectionate generosity?

Generosity of Soul

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read the story of Solomon’s early days as a leader that motivations matter. When God offered to grant Solomon anything he asked for, the king didn’t ask for wealth, riches or fame but for wisdom to govern his people well. God said to him, “Because your greatest desire is to help your people . . . I will also give you wealth, riches, and fame such as no other king has had before you or will ever have in the future” (2 Chron. 1:11–12). Solomon’s ultimate motivation was others-centered, not self-centered—much like the Givers in this study.

That motivations are of ultimate importance is no surprise. Why, then, do we sometimes make them of secondary importance when it comes to generosity? So often we focus our efforts on cultivating generous habits rather than on making generous disciples. Of course, the former is a vitally significant part of the accomplishing the latter; people are less to grow spiritually without concrete disciplines like practicing generosity. But the practices themselves are not the point. The point is who we become under the influence of our habits.

Keeping this front and center may be one key to inspiring habitual giving in those whose first inclination is spontaneity (even as we also offer opportunities to give occasionally and extravagantly!). When focus strays to the discipline itself for its own sake, giving can feel cerebral, dry and lacking passion. But when transformation is the target, generous habits are rightly understood as tools to shape Christlikeness in us. And it’s that orientation—toward Jesus—that closes the Soul Gap.

What are some practical ways you can help people major on the major of motivations?

Generosity of Strength

Chances are good that you have at least one Facebook friend who is into CrossFit®. The first time you scrolled past their list of exercises labeled “WOD,” you may have had to Google it (“Workout of the Day”), at which time you discovered an entire CrossFitter vocabulary and swore never again to Google a mysterious abbreviation posted by your phenomenally strong friend.

Maybe that’s just me.

Whatever your feelings about CrossFit, churches could benefit from a similar approach to generosity fitness. The objective for practitioners of CrossFit is all-around, multi-dimensional strength and conditioning—not jaw-dropping biceps or a fourminute mile, but overall, top-to-bottom, from-the-inside-out fitness that stretches the limits of their physical capabilities.

The chief implication of The Generosity Gap data is that the four areas—mind, heart, soul and strength—are deeply interconnected. And that when we attend to the condition of our minds, hearts and souls, the limits of our generosity are stretched and our giving capabilities strengthened.

The place to start, I think, is with a holistic assessment of generosity in your church. How do you communicate about what it is and the many ways to do it? Does your community celebrate those who volunteer and those who practice hospitality? Do you hear from people who are generous in different ways, and offer opportunities for generosity in various shapes and sizes (not just the offering plate)?

Perhaps even more importantly, are you thinking and praying together with members of your church family from different generations? My friend Chris Kopka likes to ask, “Are we doing church to Millennials or with Millennials?” Any internal generosity review your church undertakes must include the input of both younger and older Christians.

Only together can you find an answer to the question, How can we help each other and our church grow strong?


An Invitation

from Thrivent Financial

Congratulations! The fact that you are now reading this suggests that you’ve made your way through this entire report and consumed its text, statistics and infographics. Well done!

And yet in life every finish line can also be seen as a starting line. So I’m compelled to ask you, “Now what?” What are your next steps in creating a healthier, more generous church?

As seeds require planting and nurture to bear fruit, ideas require commitment and action to yield results. My hope and prayer is that we don’t simply absorb The Generosity Gap as information to enlarge our personal trivia collections. So what’s a next step worth taking? What is at least one thing you will do to make a positive difference in the lives of the people attending your church as it relates to generosity?

I’m not positioned to answer that question for you, though I do have an invitation for you to consider. If you’d like to join with other church leaders to actively ideate and discuss next steps and best practices connected to the topics in The Generosity Gap, I’d love to have you participate in our soon-to-be-launched digital community.

Our concept, in a nutshell, is that real church leaders doing real ministry with real people will share ideas and encouragement.

That might be a great next step for you. Or perhaps you’ll prayerfully discern a different next step. Whatever paths forward you choose, may God bless you in your work!

Christopher J. Kopka
President, Thrivent Church Solutions Group

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05 Appendix - Notes

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