Charitable Giving Habits of Americans

Living abroad for many years, one of the things which I came to realize and be impressed with, is how much American citizens give to charitable causes.

I was living in Hungary when the monster earthquake hit Haiti, and Hungarians were blown away to hear that average people in the United States were giving generously to help provide aid and relief for people they had never met in some faraway country. They were used to governments giving aid to regions with humanitarian crises, but for regular people to do such a thing was surprising to them.

It could be because people in the United States have more expendable income than people in most parts of the world, and that our currency is strong and goes further than other currencies. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that there is a culture here in the United States of using what we have to do good for other people.

Perhaps it comes from our history: having been a nation of immigrants, whose ancestors moved here to seek a better life or to escape poverty, and so it is built into our collective psyche, to use what we have to help others, knowing that we have experienced divine providential fortune to live in this country.

It also can’t be ignored, that a great number of Americans identify as ‘religious’. Part of the Judeo-Christian ethic is that, like Abraham, if we have been blessed, it is so we might be a blessing to others – that God wants to bless other people through us (Genesis 12:2).

The Sacramento Bee published an article last month, showing the Adjusted Gross Income of every county in the US compared to how much was given in that county to charitable causes, non-profits and churches.

Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, it was the poorer counties which gave more per capita than the richer ones. One of the major factors in how much people in a given county gave to charity seems to be religious affiliation; places with more people who attend religious services saw higher rates of charitable giving.

The idea that people who have less tend to give more may not be surprising to everyone. Jesus drew the attention of his disciples to a woman in the temple who gave her last 2 mites – all that she had, whereas other people who had more gave less of what they had. Preachers have long cited statistics which show the same thing: ironically, the more one accrues, the more miserly they tend to become with it.

How about Boulder County, Colorado, where yours truly is located? 2.6% of income was given to charity. That’s pretty low, and pretty ironic, because people in Boulder County, in my experience, talk a lot about being “locally minded and globally conscious” and caring about the well-being of other people, even if most of them are not Christian or attend religious services of any kind.

Neighboring Weld County was not much better at 2.7%, Larimer County came in at 3.2% (there are quite a few more church-going folks up there).

Here is the map with each county’s income versus charitable giving:

http://public.tableau.com/javascripts/api/viz_v1.js

Dashboard 1

 
Do you give charitably? The Bible recommends 10% of one’s income. The only places that came close to that number were the heavily Mormon populated counties of Utah.

Where do you direct your giving towards?

 

Should I Tithe if I’m in Debt?

One of the questions I am frequently asked as a pastor is whether people who are in debt should tithe to their church, or if they should rather dedicate that money to paying off their debt.

UPDATE: Since this post was written, my wife and I have paid off our debt. More about that in this post: Debt Free!

First of all, I should say that the New Testamnet does not require that a person give a tithe (10% of their income donated to the congregation where they worship) per se. Although this requirement did exist in the Old Testament for the nation of Israel, the New Testament teaches that we are to give unto the Lord not out of obligation but from a cheerful heart, to contribute to the work of the Lord and the community of faith. Many, however, including myself, believe that the Old Testament standard of a tithe, although not required by the New Testament, is a good guideline for giving.

According to Business Insider, the average American household is $6,500 in debt – that’s consumer debt not related to their mortgage.

The average American household carries $6,500 of consumer debt

There is a good chance that MOST people in any given church in America are in thousands of dollars of debt. That means that there are multitudes of faithful Christians who desire to honor God with their money by giving to Him of their first fruits and investing in building His Kingdom and spreading the Gospel – who wonder if giving a few hundred dollars in tithe to their church every month should rather be directed towards paying off their debt.

The short answer? Yes, I think you should regularly give tithes and offerings, even if you are in debt.

I know that some people will not agree with that – but please understand that I do not say that lightly at all. I too am in debt, and yet I tithe. I don’t want to be in debt, in fact, I’m working very hard to get out of debt. Last year we had some unexpected expenses which we deemed worthy of going into debt for. So, I say this as one who is in the same boat – carrying debt and struggling with whether to give a tithe or offering to my church or use that money to help pay off our debt.

I too am in debt, and yet I tithe

Here is why I tithe even though I have debt:

The tithe is not God’s way of raising money, it’s God’s way of raising kids.

I tithe because it is a values issue, and it trains my heart. By making the first check I write every month my tithe check, I am making a clear statement of my priorities and values. And it sends a message to my heart, that for us, we would rather invest in the Kingdom of God and the furtherance of the Gospel than just buying more stuff.

‘But, wait’ – you might say: ‘You wouldn’t be using that money to buy more stuff, you would be using that money to pay off your debt for the stuff you already bought.’ That’s nice in theory, but in practice, most people, with a few hundred more dollars in their pocket, won’t regularly devote that money to aggressively paying off their debt, it will just be a cushion on their budget.

The key to getting out of debt for many people is changing your lifestyle, not having a little more money – and tithing helps you change your lifestyle.

People who have more money – guess what they do? They spend more money. I watched a documentary on Netflix the other day about how an astonishing number of professional athletes go broke within just a few years of retirement. They had a lot of money and they spent a lot of money. What we need is a lifestyle change, not just more money. I have found that letting go of some of my money and giving it to God as the first thing I do when I get paid releases me from the grip of money – and helps me to change my lifestyle.

I have found then when I tithe vs when I don’t tithe, I don’t really end up with more money in my pocket, or get ahead with getting out of debt.

A sacrifice is only a sacrifice if it hurts.

David said, I will not sacrifice to the Lord that which cost me nothing (2 Samuel 24:24)  The woman who gave 2 mites – it was a relatively insignificant amount to the rest of us, but for her IT HURT. And Jesus publicly commended her for giving in a sacrificial way, although she could have just as well used that money to buy milk or bread which she probably had need of. She gave sacrificially, and Jesus not only commended her for it – God made sure it was recorded for all time so that generation after generation could learn from her example.

Worship and sacrifice are very closely related. We all sacrifice for what we worship. If we don’t sacrifice as an act of worship, well just put some thought into what that says about who you worship…

God is looking for vessels He can pour into, who will then pour back out what He has given them in ways that He desires. If we show ourselves faithful stewards with little, he will entrust us with more. I believe that God honors those who step out in faith and give radically and generously – because He is a God who also gives radically and generously, and when we do that, it aligns us in a greater way with His heart.

Is this a hard, fast rule? No. It’s a principle. But yet, it is the one principle, which God challenges us to test him on (see Malachi 3:10).

God loves a joyful giver. He doesn’t want people to give out of a sense of coercion or obligation. But this is a principle of which God says: “If you want to live the full life that I have designed for you, if you want to experience joy, then walk in this way,” – ‘the way everlasting’.