If you want to view fuller survey results, you can access them here.
For this research, we carried out a small anonymous survey of church members we’ve known down the years from a wide variety of different churches. We didn’t know in advance how financially generous these people were, instead we picked people who we knew to be mature believers in other areas of life. We assumed their generosity with their time and energy would have worked its way into their bank statement, but we genuinely didn’t know if that was the case. We deliberately picked a group that represented a range of ages and stages of life. 50 households (individuals/couples) were emailed, and we received 29 responses.
Note from church staff - we deliberately didn’t pick anyone employed by a church because the equivalent 'pre-tax income' of church workers is hard to calculate. This is because church staff packages often include housing (& the significant tax benefits of being 'paid' in this way). If you want to compare, one London-based curate calculated he would need a pre-tax income in the secular world of over £65,000 to have the same salary after housing.
We didn’t want to know which of our friends was giving what, so we only asked for the broadest details - e.g. whether they’re supporting a family or single, whether they’re paying lots in rent or already fully own their home.
Notice we're using pre-tax income, not take-home pay. The percentages would be even more striking if we’d been thinking about after tax.
We’ve used £100,000 household income as a point of division not because that’s marks someone as being rich or poor– most of us will think someone earning £80,000 a year is pretty rich! £100,000 puts you in the top 10% of UK households. But we're using £100,000 because in these responses it marked an increase in the percentage people were actually giving away (In other words, people with £60,000 income were giving twice as much money as those with £30,000 income, but it was still a similar percentage).
Where do people give?
All but one of the people surveyed gave more of their money to organisations aimed primarily at telling people the good news of Jesus rather than organisations aimed primarily at practical help. The vast majority of those surveyed gave the vast majority of their money to that goal (80->100%).
While that might seem surprising or even frustrating if you’re not a Christian, at the least you would probably concede it was consistent. The talkative half of the Comedy duo Penn and Teller, Penn Jillette, who is an atheist said: ‘If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and that people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life… How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?'
We know whether people really believe something by the cost they are willing to pay. Christians are ready to endure the social awkwardness of trying to tell others about Jesus and these Christians are ready to put their money where their mouth is. They go without so that others can hear about Jesus.
That said, they don’t give exclusively to that goal. They live by the motto that they want to love everybody in every way they need, but especially in the light of eternity.
For local church leaders it’s worth noting that the percentage of their giving that goes to their local church varies significantly - from 5% to 100% (averaging 63%).
All of them hold to the biblical responsibility that ‘the worker deserves his wages’ and ensure they give something to covering the costs of the ministry they benefit from. But clearly not all of them are persuaded their own churches represent the best 'gospel bang for their buck'.
We believe the bible gives freedom as to where Christians should give, beyond the one command to ‘give the worker his wages’ and would encourage Christians that there are some wonderful individuals and para-church organisations that they should rejoice to support.
Local churches should also be aware that their mission committees can act as a healthy and helpful conduit for Christian giving. They should also ensure they are not seen to be wasteful with the money they are given. It won’t stop mature Christians giving, but it will stop them giving as much to them.
What about Tithing?
One interesting point to note from the survey is that these figures chart LIVES of generosity. Young families normally have less to give than the retired. The amount the 5 lower income, higher cost households spend on personal luxuries could well be lower than that of the retired, even though their percentage giving is lower. They're just asking the question - 'how can I be generous with what God has given me at this time?'
In their retirement, they may well look more financially generous on paper once there are fewer other financial burdens God has given them to be responsible for.
Of course, there’s always more growing in the grace of giving we could do, but there are fundamental financial realities of different life stages that can’t be avoided and shouldn’t cause unnecessary guilt.
This is one of the reasons why I don’t think the New Testament commands the Old Testament practice of Tithing for believers. 10% is a big burden in some circumstances and much more manageable in others.
The Old Testament ideas of giving 'first to God' and giving out of our ‘firstfruits’ has a good deal of carryover, but outside of the agrarian Theocracy of Israel, the New Testament calls us to freely pursue a life of radical sacrificial generosity even as we meet our God-given responsibilities to our family, church workers and the state.