“But how are we going to pay for all this?”
It’s a typical question that resounds in my ears during church finance meetings and annual budgeting, and I would guess that I am not alone. Whether it’s a historical church, church plant, church restart, or even house church, the topic of giving to fund the mission is usually a constant and consistent source of concern. It merges and melds the spiritual with the practical. In particular within the Western world, money makes the activities of the Western church possible: It allows people to be paid, books to be bought, events to take place, and people to be helped.
Traditionally, the Protestant church has relied both on the tradition of tithing—receiving a consistent 10% of one’s income from its members to fund the budget and the mission of the local church—and on the spiritual practice of generosity. Pastors often state how Jesus spoke more about money than he talked about faith and prayer combined. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21) is a classic example of this within the teachings of Jesus. In this way, giving to a church is more than just an act of throwing some money to a cause you’d like to support; it is a discipline and reveals what someone values.
However, as many churches experience diminishing church attendance, more young people identify their religion as “none,” and significant increases in bills and building expenses pile up, church leaders are left wondering what will become of their budgets and even their existence in this season of disrupted giving. It’s enough to force a local church into panic mode—whether large or small, urban or rural, historic or a recent plant. Several churches I know of have turned to practices they know have “worked” in the past, such as capital campaigns, pledges, commitment Sundays, heavily teaching on tithing practices, or making a certain giving amount almost mandatory among members.
But is this the solution? Or is this merely forcing a technical solution on an adaptive challenge? Returning back to the essence of giving—is the issue a spiritual one or a practical one? Is it a matter of the practice or the heart, and must one be reenvisioned in order to renew the other? Perhaps the means of funding the mission of the local church in the future involves more the rediscovery, creativity, and renewal of our response to the leading of the Holy Spirit than merely replicating what we have done before.
Perhaps the means of funding the mission of the local church in the future involves more the rediscovery, creativity, and renewal of our response to the leading of the Holy Spirit than merely replicating what we have done before. Click To Tweet
Where We are Now: More than One Disruption
It’s important to first set the stage for what we are seeing when it comes to the disruption of giving. If I began driving my car one day, and it suddenly started steering to the right, it would be foolish of me to simply steer harder to the left in response and not stop to check out what could be causing the directional change. For example, was my right front tire losing air through a nail puncture? In a similar manner, we need to pause and seek the cause for our disrupted giving. It is not a singular issue but a multifaceted one, which means there are at least four factors at play:
- A disruption of numbers: From 1968 to 2019, both membership and giving as a percent of income to churches (mainline and evangelical Protestant) declined in the United States. Church membership in the US dropped below 50% for the first time in recorded history starting in 2020. An estimated 21% of Christians give 10% or more of their income to the church, with 25% not giving at all. However, in the same time period, per capita income increased.
- A disrupted understanding of tithing: A recent survey revealed that while 99% of pastors are familiar with tithing and its meaning, less than half (43%-44%) of both Christians in general and those who give to the local church can say decisively what a tithe is. One in five “practicing Christians” (22%) does not even recognize the term at all, let alone understand what it entails.
- A disrupted priority: In the same period of time that giving and tithing to the local church has decreased, overall donations to nonprofits and causes around the world have increased.
- A disrupted generational priority: The majority of local church populations are age 50 or above, with a high percentage of members over the age of 70. As these faithful members pass away, younger generations are not replacing them in the pews, nor do they display the priorities to local church giving held by the older generation. Two-thirds of young people born from 1995 to 2010 rated their trust of religious institutions at 5 or below on a scale of 10, with an overall mean score of 4.5 out of 10. This compares with an average score of 5.3 for banks! In addition, young adults in the church do not often share their parents’ or grandparents’ convictions about tithing. They are more likely to give to a cause or need that they know personally or follow online. In general, they are much more willing to give hours of time, skill, and service over their money.
Two-thirds of young people born from 1995 to 2010 rated their trust of religious institutions at 5 or below on a scale of 10, with an overall mean score of 4.5 out of 10. This compares with an average score of 5.3 for banks! Click To Tweet
In summary, an aggregate change in church giving seems to be connected to both heart (internal factors)and hands (external activity). Therefore, addressing one (e.g., introducing online giving or preaching a sermon about giving) may not truly impact the other. It may not be as simple as telling people to give 10% of their income to the church because “the Bible says so.”
Perhaps before experimenting with the “what,” we need to dig more into the “why.” It’s important to gain an understanding of where giving to the church, and specifically tithing, came from. Perhaps to look ahead, we need to look back. An aggregate change in church giving seems to be connected to both heart (internal factors) and hands (external activity). Click To Tweet
The Origins of Giving and Tithing: The Bible and History
Ask most pastors about the roots of tithing, and they will take you to the Hebrew Scriptures. The most well-known example is Malachi 3:10, which states “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” followed by a promise of blessing to those who obey. In Genesis 14:20, Abram wins the battle to retrieve his nephew Lot and thanks God by giving a tenth of all he had to the priest Melchizedek. Numbers 18:8-32 contains a lengthy section prescribing the tithe outlined in the Mosaic Law as a central source of provision for the Levitical priests in the Temple.
By contrast, in the New Testament Scriptures, we see no such command to tithe in a similar manner. When the New Testament Gospels and letters speak of or demonstrate giving, they mention generosity, responsibility, hospitality, sacrifice, and doing so out of love, not compulsion. Our giving reflects the self-giving love of God and God’s preferential care for the poor. Acts 2:44-45 describes how in the earliest life of the Church a critical formational practice was caring for the needs of one another through material support. There is simply little evidence that first-century Church tithed.
Historically, other religions and groups other than Christians and Jews participated in giving practices to please their gods. These included the Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians, as well as religions in the ancient regions of China and Arabia.
In the early Church, which did not yet have buildings nor full-time professional clergy, needs dictated giving. The Didache, the educational handbook of a Christian community written around the early second century, instructs the church: “Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, you shall take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if you have not a prophet, give it to the poor.”
A more formal and universal code of giving in the Church was not developed until after the time of Constantine in the sixth century at the Synod of Macan in 585. The Church looked to how Israel had provided for priests as a prefiguration of how to pay ministers. Not until this time, almost 550 years into the Church’s existence, was tithing finally made the expectation of every Christian in canon law.
Fast forward a millennium, and in 1545, after the proliferation of the Roman church, the Council of Trent declared that any Catholic found not to be tithing would be excommunicated. Even after the Reformation, Martin Luther approved the practice and enforcement of tithing for Protestant churches, but without the severe penalty of excommunication.
Anglican cleric John Wesley, who became the founder of the Methodist movement, sought to encourage the heart of giving in his famous sermon entitled “The Use of Money,” which emphasized three giving principles: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. Wesley made a particular note in 1789 that the Methodists of his day did well at the first two but were ignoring the third part of his sermon.
Please remember that this was an era of a combined church and state across Europe, in which post-Reformation governments imposed mandatory tithes on citizens as a property tax, which continued into the nineteenth and twentieth century until countries individually ended them. To this day, remnants of the tithe tax exist, including in Germany where citizens continue to pay a “church tax.”
In the various Protestant churches in the USA, tithing was never made an absolute requirement but rather became a highly encouraged voluntary practice. That’s not to say some churches haven’t made regular giving a requirement in order to be married and/or buried in the church or to enjoy a place in its membership rolls. While the Eastern Orthodox Church never accepted or practiced the idea of mandatory tithing, they turned to membership and service fees, much like the governance of the Jewish synagogue.
Reflecting on this history, four observations emerge:
- Tithing that is turned into a rule becomes little more than a tax.
- The core of Christian giving is a posture of heart turned into a practice of trust.
- At its best, the giving of the Church should supply for needs, support its leaders, and aid the poor.
- Giving isn’t just about money.
This means that giving in the Church is not going away, nor should it. Rather, the practice of giving and tithing deserves a reformation, one that starts with the heart of the matter.
Editorial Note: Part 2 of this article, subtitled “The Future of Giving,” was posted on Friday, November 25, traditionally known as “Black Friday,” the beginning of the holiday consumer season that pushes many businesses into “the black” (positive net income) for the year.
 “Adaptive leadership is not about finding the best known or most-available fix to a problem, but instead adapting to the changing environment or circumstances so that new possibilities arise for accurately seeing, understanding, and facing challenges with new actions.” Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains
 Revisiting the Tithe & Offering in the State of Generosity reports, George Barna 2022.
 The State of Religion and Young People 2020
 Examples of such passages: 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Luke 3:10, and Matthew 25:34-40.
 Greg Boyd, https://reknew.org/2008/01/are-christians-supposed-to-tithe/
 Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). “Ancient Diocese of Mâcon.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company
John Wesley, Sermon 50: The Use of Money (1872)