When I would go home for Thanksgiving during seminary, my Uncle Steve used to love to joke with me about my classes. He especially loved to crack one particular joke over and over:
“When are you going to take that one class?” he would ask.
“What class is that, Uncle Steve?”
“You know, ‘Dig a Little Deeper’.”
His wry smile would expand just a bit every time he cracked that joke.
All kidding aside, you can hardly blame lay people for wondering if the whole of seminary education – preaching, New Testament studies, etc. – was designed to convince people to give more. Morrissey once sang, “The church — all they want is your money,” and while I disagree with this sentiment, I certainly understand it. The fear of sending that message has caused countless preachers to swing completely in the other direction, refusing to even discuss the topic of money from the pulpit (much less to know who gives and what they give). This, despite the fact that nearly half of Jesus’s parables were about money.
The church’s job is praising God and embodying God’s love for the world, but practically speaking, that job usually takes money. To raise that money, churches across the United States have stewardship drives (often in the fall) to figure out how much money they will have for next year’s budget. And every year, one question looms large in church leaders’ minds: “How could we increase giving in the new year?” Sometimes, this question is asked for the cynical reason that more is always better. In my experience, though, churches genuinely want to increase giving in order to more fully disciple their members and serve the community in the new year.
Like Jesus himself, churches acknowledge and appreciate “the widow’s mite” — i.e. the small gift that, to the humble giver, is a big sacrifice. Still, the reality of modern American churches is that we need those who give to increase their giving over time just to maintain our income. This past year, for example, the church I serve lost only a handful of members to death and transfers of membership. Even so, our outgoing chair of stewardship estimated that we would need about $20,000 of new income just to make up for those losses. While some new pledgers walk in with four-figure gifts, most new members give much less, if they pledge at all. And our congregation faces far fewer challenges than many churches across the country, as we are in a high-income, low-unemployment area of the country. Many of you don’t have to imagine the stress of being a pastor or a church leader trying to just stay afloat financially; you are living it right now.
One report took a deep dive into that question. In doing so, the researchers identified three findings that are particular to religious givers. First, the donors most willing to support an unproven organization generally are those who are most engaged in religious communities. Second, donors with high levels of religious connection, as well as donors with lower household incomes, tend to be much more concerned with an organizations trustworthiness than they are with its success record. Third, donors who self-identify as political liberals are considerably more willing than moderates and conservatives to contribute to unproven organizations.
Robert Putnam and David Campbell published a book examining this phenomenon, as well. In it, they track recent patterns of religious giving. Their research found that people who participate in faith communities continue to give generously. The reason for that giving, however, was not necessarily about the beliefs in those communities:
Rather than religious beliefs, we found that the ‘secret ingredient’ for charitable giving among religious Americans is the social networks formed within religious congregations. The more friends someone has within a religious congregation, the more likely that person is to give time, money, or both, to charitable causes. In fact, even non-religious people who have friends within a religious congregation (typically, because their spouse is a believer) are highly charitable—more so than strong believers who have few social ties within a congregation.
If they’re findings are correct, then perhaps we foster stewardship most effectively not by preaching or teaching about specific scriptures in the fall, but by cultivating community on an ongoing basis.
As a regular preacher, I find this humbling. Every year, I sweat about how to preach about generosity, whether to teach a class about stewardship, and so on. It is humbling, but also freeing, to know that there may be more effective ways to drive pledging in a congregation. That way, preaching and teaching could focus on the spiritual formation of people, not on the nuts and bolts of trying to persuade folks to pledge.
Strange as it may seem, the most high-impact way to increase long-term stewardship in your congregation might not be snazzier brochures, the latest programs, and more sermons about pledging. It might just be creating more opportunities for your people to get to know each other, whether a potluck dinner here or a small group ministry there. According to Putnam and Campbell, building relationships among your church members will lead them to “dig a little deeper” on their own. And in this increasingly fractured world — where social isolation is now killing people — helping your church members feel more connected to a community might just be the best thing for their soul right now.
Rev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.