Liberality is about giving good things to others freely and abundantly. If you give a stipend to your child, a good tip to the porter, or a donation to the beggar, you would most probably be considered a person of great liberality. For the purpose of this article, we view liberality as the application of the systematic benevolence plan comprising three elements: tithing, proportional offerings, and donations (Ellen G. White, Counsels on Stewardship, pp. 80, 81).
This article discusses the how and why of religious giving, and then proposes a model to help local churches to grow in liberality.
Facts and Factors Influencing Religious Giving
Several factors have an impact on religious giving. At the end of a stewardship lecture, a pastor once asked me, “What is the one thing that I should do for my congregation to help them to become generous?” Unfortunately, or fortunately, there is no single answer. However, one key idea emerges from studies on this subject: religious giving is a rational behavior; it can be explained, affected, and changed.
Smith and others (2008) reveal some interesting facts about religious giving. It appears that 20 percent of all U.S. Christians give nothing to the church, and those who do, give very little. A majority of a church’s money comes from a minority of its members: 20 percent of membership provides 75 percent of the financial resources. Paradoxically, those with higher incomes give less as a percentage than those with lower incomes. Religious giving is inversely proportional to growth in income; when income grows, religious giving declines. There’s also a growing tendency among Christians to give exclusively to their own local communities of faith.
We have to admit that there are few studies done in the Seventh-day Adventist Church on religious giving. It seems that our primary interest is more in the accounting and less in uncovering the profile of givers and factors influencing giving. One Adventist-based study on this subject carried out by Mclver (2016), involving churches in five continents, reveals that the absolute dollar amount returned as tithe has increased, but the percentage of income given has fallen (pp. 22, 23) over the past 40 years. This situation, coupled with the decline in offerings, represents a threat to mission, especially to our commitment to a worldwide mission.
Determinants of religious giving are many; it would be unwise to zero in on one single factor. Individuals who have strong faith, with a conservative theology (Iannaccone, 1994; Hoge et al. 1996; Olson & Perl, 2001) and intense church involvement and attendance (Hoge & Fenggang, 1994) are more likely to give at a higher level. Good management of personal finances comprising planning and pledging impacts religious giving (Smith & Emerson, 2008). Another positive determinant is adequate emphasis by the local church on the value of religious giving (Smith & al., 2008). Finally, a commitment to wise and transparent financial management on the part of the church or religious organization also has a strong influence on giving (Peifer, 2010). Mclver (2016) observes that some motives, beliefs, and attitudes correlate strongly to tithing behavior among Seventh-day Adventists (p. 29).
The Growing Liberality Model
Our approach to growing the level of liberality rests on some key assumptions: the church is a living organism; liberality does not happen in a vacuum; humans can partner with God to create the conditions for the emergence of faithfulness and liberality; the local church is the place to grow liberality. The model articulates around three main components: empowering members, mainstreaming the stewardship message, and creating a conducive church culture.
The thrust here is to help members to grow in all aspects of their lives (3 John 1:2). And the focus is on both spiritual and financial empowerment.
Spiritual empowerment implies that members are encouraged to establish and maintain a daily connection with God. It is founded on the principle that contemplation creates transformation (2 Cor. 3: 18). The interactions with the greatest Giver of all is the surest means to transform self-oriented individuals. While studying the tithing practices among Adventists, Mclver (2016) observes that people who pray regularly, study the Bible daily, study the Sabbath School lesson, and attend church services are more likely to be faithful tithers. In the same perspective, the certainty that the particular teachings of one’s own faith are true (Olson & Perl, 2005, p.126), a strong sense of mission (Mundey et al., 2011), and the practice of giving as a spiritual discipline (Smith & al., 2008) are strong predictors of liberality. The association between spirituality and liberality is undeniable.
Some local initiatives can contribute toward the spiritual empowerment of members:
- Help members to follow a plan for daily devotion. The Believe His Prophets initiative could be an interesting option.
- Explore means for more members to study their Sabbath School lesson and attend Sabbath School.
- Make the weekly prayer meeting appealing and accessible to members.
- Work to increase the number of members who are reading the Spirit of Prophecy
Financial empowerment is the process during which a member develops his or her potential to generate and manage personal financial resources. Ellen White speaks about the alarming situation prevailing in the area of financial literacy: “Many lack wise management and economy. They do not weigh matters well, and move cautiously” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 224). As a result of that situation, “when there is a call made for the advancement of the work in home and foreign missions, they have nothing to give, or even have overdrawn their account” (Review and Herald, Dec. 19, 1893). Many sincere believers fail to partner in God’s mission because their finances are in disarray.
Some areas of financial empowerment need special attention. First, members should develop the right mindset about financial resources: God is the Provider, and He gives the power to generate wealth. Hence, our pockets are not empty. Second, all need to develop wise spending habits, resisting the appeal of commercials that drive us to spend by appealing to our senses. Jesus instructs His followers to “sit down and calculate the cost” (Luke 14:28). Third, believers need to understand the implications of indebtedness. How can one avoid using others’ money, and if already in debt, how does one get out of it? Fourth, the importance of savings should be clarified, and members should be knowledgeable about the best practices. Fifth, teach and challenge members to experience the principle “Whatever He receives, He multiplies” by the practice of returning tithing, and giving offerings and donations. Last—but highly correlated to religious giving—explain and appeal to members to pledge a percentage-based offering.
Mainstreaming the Stewardship Message
The next component of the model ensures that the stewardship message reaches all segments of the church membership. New members and the children learn about liberality through both example and intentional teaching (Rom. 10:14; Ps. 78:5, 6). Stewardship is both caught and taught.
However, evidences reveal the existence of a blatant normative ignorance in regard to religious giving. Liberality does not stand as a primary expression of discipleship in the mind of many Christians. Many lack awareness of the teaching of 10 percent tithing and sacrificial, proportionate financial giving as the norm of Christian stewardship. What could be the reasons for such ignorance? One cause could be the dichotomy that often exists between evangelism and stewardship. When we introduce people to the Advent message, we hesitate to instruct them in matters of giving. Ellen White warns about this omission:
“Some refuse to accept the tithing system; they turn away, and no longer walk with those who believe and love the truth. When other lines are opened before them, they answer, ‘It was not so taught us,’ and they hesitate to move forward” (Counsels on Stewardship, p.105).
Another factor related to normative ignorance is the phenomenon of “reluctant stewards” of church finances. Conway (2002) describes the clergy as being uncomfortable to talk about finances. They do not want to give the impression that they are pleading for their own income. It has happened to me. In a few instances, I have received an invitation to give a stewardship talk or seminar with the recommendation from the leadership not to discuss finances. As a result, financial stewardship becomes one of the subjects that is the least often addressed in the church context.
One effective way to share the stewardship message is to adopt an undercover strategy. This consists of including the stewardship message in already existing programs and initiatives of the church. This approach is usually less costly and not taxing to the church schedule. Some “undercover” initiatives could effectively bring the stewardship message to the various segments of the church:
- Revitalizing the mission story and the call to tithe and offerings during the Sabbath service.
- Helping Adventurers and Pathfinders to earn the Wise Steward Award and Stewardship Honor, respectively.
- Instructing prospective members about stewardship during evangelistic campaigns and Bible studies.
- Nurturing members in stewardship through systematic home-visitation programs.
- Preaching a stewardship-related sermon once every quarter in the local church.
Creating Conducive Culture
This component of the model focuses on the characteristics of the recipient of giving, the church. Eckel & Grossman (1996) speak about the “deservingness” of the recipient: Is the church context encouraging the liberality of its members?
Peifer (2010, p.1583) observes that people who consider that “budget is appropriate,” have “trust in leadership,” and are “enthusiastic about programs” usually elevate their giving rate by 8 to 11 percent. Nine percent of nongivers mentioned trust in financial management as their most important reason for not giving (Smith & Emerson, 2008). It appears clearly that issues related to congregational spending, expenses, disbursements, and financial conflict have an influence on members’ giving, and trust is a major contributive factor.
The Scriptures provide some hints about how the apostle Paul invested in creating the right church culture to encourage giving. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul not only encouraged planned and proportional giving but elaborated on the responsibility of the church as the recipient of the giving. All conditions were put in place for givers to have full confidence.
Some actions can improve the deservingness of the local church:
- To have an effective internal control system known by members.
- To assess and improve the quality of programs and services.
- To prioritize investment in mission.
A growth in liberality is the result of how we do church. Teaching the theology of tithe and offerings is important, but it has a limited impact unless we empower the believer and increase the deservingness of the church.
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