- Pastors tend to believe generosity is a matter of planning, discipline and sacrifice, while many younger Christians think spontaneity and compassion are essential to generosity.
- Christians whose parents were generous during their childhood are more likely to highly value generosity as adults.
- Pastors talk about serving more than they talk about giving— with unintended consequences.
- The people who are most likely to serve or volunteer also tend to give most financially.
As a rule, Christians and pastors have similar, but not identical, ideas about what characteristics make an act generous, or not. In general, most agree that generosity comes from an unselfish, sincere spirit, not from a sense of obligation or of self-interest. Compared with Christians, a larger percentage of pastors agree that generosity is always “a response to Christ’s love” (66% vs. 47% all Christian adults). Church leaders are also more likely to believe generosity is both an inward attitude and an outward discipline, and are less likely than Christians generally to say it has to do with either spontaneity or a sense of duty.
On the other hand, Christians are more likely than pastors to say generosity is always spur-of-the-moment and a result of compassion—beliefs that may indicate some romanticism attached to the notion of generosity. They are also more likely to say it is never or seldom “sacrificial” (16% vs. 5% pastors).
When it comes to generations, younger Christians are more likely than older adults to perceive generosity to be always or often a spontaneous response to the circumstances of the moment. Compared to Boomers (28% always + often) and Elders (15%), more Gen-Xers (37%) and Millennials (45%) say spontaneity is a core feature of generosity. Pastors, in contrast, are least likely among the groups surveyed to say so: Just one in five say generosity is always (2%) or often (18%) spur-of-the-moment.
The notion that generosity is best expressed on the spur of the moment indicates a different set of expectations among younger Christians that will likely lead to fundraising headwinds for churches and organizations that depend on routine, systematic or planned giving and volunteering.
Elders appear to have more cerebral, less circumstantial, ideals related to generosity, especially compared to Millennials. For example, adults over 70 are more likely to say generosity is a discipline (62% vs. 51% Millennials) and is planned (43% vs. 31%). This signals a transition from thinking to feeling in how people process their ideas and impulses related to generosity.
Can generosity turn sour? In other words, what do people think might change a potential act of generosity such that it is no longer truly generous? According to pastors, the attitude of the giver is the biggest factor. Pastors’ responses to an open-ended question fall into a handful of general categories, with nearly all focused on the giver’s motivations. One in four ministers offers an answer related to guilt or compulsion, and one in six says either selfishness or grudging unwillingness undermine potential generosity.
Interestingly, U.S. adults in the qualitative interviews—which included people of various religious backgrounds—were not as convinced as pastors about the importance of intentions. More than half told researchers that buying something for oneself at, for example, Warby Parker or Toms Shoes (“one-to-one” retailers that give away one product to someone in need for every one purchased) is still generous because the effect, regardless of the giver’s intent, is good.
Yet some acts of generosity are perceived to be more generous than others. Barna asked participants in the quantitative study to select, from a list of possibilities, the three acts they consider to be most generous. A majority in each generation believes taking care of a sick person is one of the most generous things one can do. Boomers are most likely to express this perception—which is notable because they are also most likely to be caring for aging parents.
Similarly, volunteering for an organization is considered highly generous by a large share of each age cohort—yet a significantly smaller percentage views volunteering for a person (for example, driving them to the airport or babysitting for free) to be exceptionally generous. Analysis suggests this disparity may have something to do with people’s perceptions of personal cost—that actions requiring more effort tend to be perceived as more generous. For example, volunteering for an organization often requires specialized training, adherence to a set of rules and expectations and a specific time commitment, compared to helping a friend or family member. A similar finding supports this insight: Many people consider giving $40 to a homeless person more generous than giving $40 to an organization or church. The dollar amount is the same in each case, but the cost of a personal encounter with a homeless teen or adult tends to be higher than tucking a check in the offering basket when it passes by.
When it comes to the most important reason for Christians to be generous, there are some gaps between pastors and parishioners.
For example, a plurality of pastors—more than two in five— say the most important reason is “to reflect God’s character by showing love to others.” More than one-third of Elders agrees with pastors, but the total of all Christians who select that answer is just 25 percent. Gen-Xers, for their part, are half as likely as pastors to say reflecting God’s character is the main reason.
On the other hand, more Gen-Xers and Boomers than pastors and Elders believe “to become more like Christ” is the most important reason for Christian generosity. And Elders are an outlier in their choice of giving back “in appreciation for God’s generosity toward us,” with one-third resonating with this option compared to one in six younger Christians and one in five pastors.
In short, while each of the options is biblically defensible and broadly orthodox, the spread of findings shows little consensus among Christians and their pastors on why, exactly, they should be generous.
But how do Christians actually become generous? Academic research has indicated that parental modeling is a major factor,4 and responses to this study appear to bolster those findings.
Christians’ perceptions of their parents’ generosity during their childhood correlate with generosity’s importance to them as adults.
Discipling for Generosity
The gap is immense between pastors and the average Christian on the question of whether it is acceptable for a church member to substitute volunteering for financial giving. Pastors, on the whole, disagree that these two forms of generosity are interchangeable. More than eight out of 10 disagree strongly (67%) or somewhat (18%) that “it is okay for a member who volunteers extensively not to give financially.” But just one in five Christians is on the same page with pastors (10% strongly, 11% somewhat disagree).
Ironically, some parishioners’ confusion on this question may come from pastors themselves. Only 39 percent of pastors say they or other leaders speak from the pulpit about tithing or giving to the church at least once a month (17% once per month, 22% multiple times per month). But more than six in 10 say they or other leaders speak from the pulpit at least once a month on the topic of volunteering (35% once, 27% multiple times). So, by their own estimates, pastors talk about volunteering much more often than they talk about financial giving. Thus, it’s no surprise that at least some of their congregants believe serving is an acceptable substitute for tithing.
Before church leaders cut back on the amount of time they spend talking about volunteerism and serving, however, it’s important to note that serving and financial giving appear to go hand in hand. (So consider talking more about giving rather than less about serving!) As the chart shows, Christians who give most are also most likely to say they have volunteered within the past week or month. The pattern also holds true for those who consider generosity extremely important.
Those who give more are most likely to spend time serving others—but they are also more likely to say generosity is a frequent topic of conversation in their family. (Modeling again!) Two-thirds of Christians who consider generosity to be extremely important say they talked with their spouse (67%) or children (64%) about generosity within the past week, compared to fewer than half of all others. It appears that generosity is developed at home—good news for churches structured to support families.
Generations & Generosity
Different generations gravitate to different kinds of generous acts. For example, half of all Elders,
the oldest adults, say volunteering or serving others is the most generous type of action. But Boomers, their middle-aged counterparts, are split on whether serving or offering emotional support is supremely generous, and Millennials are much more likely than all older adults to say showing hospitality epitomizes generosity. The challenge for church leaders is obvious: How do you create an intergenerational community of people who can’t even agree on how to be generous to each other? Here’s a breakdown by generation of the kinds of actions Christians think are most generous.