“Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor,” the Gospel of Mark reports Jesus said to a would-be disciple. Over the millennia, however, despite at least 99 other biblical verses encouraging generosity, the vast majority of Christians historically have fallen far short of that ideal.
So why don’t Christians follow this teaching more faithfully? The discrepancy between stated belief and behavior intrigues Notre Dame sociologist of religion Christian Smith and led him, with Michael Emerson and Patricia Snell, to explore the phenomenon. They write about it in their recent book, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give More.
It also has spawned a $5 million research initiative funded by the Templeton Foundation and led by Smith to investigate, with other scholars, the origins, expressions and effects of generosity. Smith defines that as “the spirit and practice of giving good things to others freely and abundantly.” The effort will unify research across a broad array of disciplines.
With regard to why Christians aren’t more generous, Smith cites several reasons in his book. Part of the blame, he says, rests with church leaders who are self-conscious and uncomfortable in their preaching on the topic. “They feel like they’re raising their own salaries,” Smith says. “They know that people criticize churches for always asking for money, and they’re reluctant to do that.”
Another explanation is that the appeal too often is framed as “‘Our school needs a new furnace. We have these bills, and we need to pay them,’” the director of ND’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society says. “So rather than framing it as being part of what it means to be a Christian, as how the community can do good things in the world, it’s presented merely as paying the bills, and people find that far less inspiring.”
Also, Smith says some folks don’t give because they don’t trust where the money is going. “It’s not a huge segment, but there have been enough scandals [such as evangelist Richard Roberts’ alleged misuse of Oral Roberts University funds in 2007] to make some people wary. To put the best spin on it, they’re trying to be good stewards by not giving money to what they see as problematic causes.”
Finally, the ND sociologist says many people treat charitable giving as a discretionary purchase rather than a basic budgetary commitment, and that lessens their generosity. “They get committed to other expenses like mortgages, car payments, and so when the plate comes around on Sunday they fish around in their wallet and give the two dollars they find there.
“The evidence is very clear that people who make principled decisions ahead of time and set up routine systems, whether it’s envelopes or having the bank send them a check regularly from their account for giving are more likely to be generous,” the Notre Dame sociologist says.
Smith argues that it is important for children to see their parents being generous. “If children don’t see that behavior, they are far less likely to be generous themselves later as adults.”
John Monczunski is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.