Young Evangelicals & Financial Giving: Is There Hope for the Future of Missions?

by Lynn O. Cooper, Drew Melby, Adam Mowery, and Rachael Burlingame

One study of undergraduate students shows that financial giving is alive and well among young evangelicals.

Christians worldwide are generous with both their time and money. More narrowly, not only do Americans give more generously to charity than citizens of other advanced industrial nations, but the religious give more generously than the non-religious (Brooks 2006). However, other work using government statistics, sociological data, denominational records, and in-depth interviews suggests this generosity may be overstated (Smith and Emerson 2008). In this view, American Christians actually give away little money, despite the personal means, positive attitudes, and church norms for doing so.

In an effort to understand more about attitudes and behaviors concerning generosity emerging in the next generation, undergraduate students at one Christian liberal arts college were asked about their patterns of giving. The findings suggest that students do care about stewardship and tithing, and that despite financial limitations, giving is alive and well among these young evangelical students.

A Profile of Generosity in America
Public policy expert Arthur Brooks maintains that charity is essential to our nation’s health, happiness, and prosperity. He sees this ethic reproduced in volunteerism as well as the giving away of money, a greater tolerance and compassion for others, and a sense of duty to give to those less fortunate. Citing charitable contributions over the past fifty years that have averaged between 1.5-2% of the gross domestic product, Brooks underscores Americans as a generous people (Brooks 2006, 21). He further claims this worldview and lifestyle is usually more in sync with religious faith and political conservatism than not.   

In contrast, Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s work is a sociological analysis. They note that far from the idealized 10% tithe, one out of five American Christians gives nothing to any church, parachurch, or non-religious charity, and that the typical American Christian gives less than 1% of his or her income (Smith and Emerson 2008, 29-43).

Moreover, giving is not uniform; a small Christian minority contributes most of the “Christian” dollars. Higher income-earning American Christians—like Americans generally—give little to no more than their lower income counterparts. Despite a massive growth of real per capita income over the twentieth century, the average percentage share of income given actually declined slightly (Hoge, Zech, McNamara, and Donahue 1996). Significantly, the vast majority of money given to religious charities is for local communities of faith, as compared to missions, relief efforts, or other activities that benefit people other than the givers themselves.

A recent project sponsored by Maximum Generosity and Christianity Today International shows the current economic crisis is affecting financial giving (Kluth 2010). Close to one-third of respondents reported lower-than-anticipated collections for December, a month that traditionally helps many churches meet budget.  

The Barna Group’s report cites that only 7% of adults reported donating at least a tenth of their income in 2010, although giving at least 10% of one’s income has stayed relatively consistent for the last decade (Barna Group 2010). Tithing levels, which include both church and other charitable giving, were highest among evangelicals (24%), non-mainline Protestants (13%), churchgoers (11%), and those over the age of 45 (9%). The Barna Group’s report confirms that tithing is unrelated to income level: 11% of those with a household income under $20,000 said they tithed, compared to 9% of more prosperous households.   

Accurate giving habits are difficult to determine from IRS reports, household surveys, government records, or denominational receipts, since family financial matters such as personal income are private matters. Even the information given can omit things or be misrepresented, and money is not the whole measure of Christian commitment to charity (Smith and Emerson 2008, 231-247). However, evidence suggests that American Christians are not reaching their potential for influence and change in proportion to their economic means to do so.

Charity Begins at Home
While generosity levels are disputed, there is one clear area of agreement among those who study charitable giving: generous parents tend to have generous children (Brooks 2006, 99-102; Smith and Emerson 2008, 186).

That is, charitable giving is something children learn to do. As parents tell their children how and why they give, they encourage their development into adults who will generously give later. This practice also helps parents to think about their own practices, commitments, and values concerning generosity. Christian Smith and Patricia Snell (2009) explain that religious beliefs and practices relate to larger worldviews and lived experiences. Parental commitment, socialization, and expectation powerfully shape the motivation to give financially.  

While many young people leave home at age 18 or 19, most do not marry, become parents, or find a long-term job until their late twenties. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett (2004, 3-26) uses the term “emerging adult” to identify people in their late teens and early twenties who represent a new life stage for people living in industrialized societies.

In terms of giving, emerging adults perceive themselves to be in a tight financial situation. Those who work have jobs at lower pay levels, rather than the careers to which they aspire. When asked about voluntarily giving money to worthy causes, most will say they don’t have money to give; service through volunteering and giving is seen in terms of “someday” or “maybe.”

Emerging adults are not apathetic toward the plight of others, but they perceive themselves to have no significant time or money to bring to the table. Emerging adults also share a culturally relativistic view (Smith and Snell 2009, 51-72). They have met different people, and many have seen something of the world. There is enough information available for them to know they were raised differently from others.

Patterns of Giving among Emerging Evangelical Adults
The objectives of this study were to identify factors that might influence giving as well as determine where and how these emerging adults preferred to give. The researchers were also curious about what kind of donor care was needed for this population.  

Participants were asked to complete an online survey. One-third of the undergraduates (839 students) did so. Respondents closely resembled the campus population by class, religious affiliation, major area of study, and ethnicity, although slightly more females than males responded to the survey.

In order to reveal the desire and willingness to give, students were asked how important tithing was to them. Significantly, as seen on Table 1, most students said tithing was important. More than 40% indicated it was “very important”; the rest indicated it was “somewhat important.”

Table 1. How important is tithing to you?

41% 31% 19% 7% 2%

Table 2 shows the correlation between student tithes and their parents’ giving habits. In terms of how regularly they tithed (tithing defined as giving at least 10% of their income to their church), the response was uniform: 24% are in the habit of tithing, 21% “often,” “sometimes,” or “occasionally” tithe; only 13% never tithe. To determine if there was any correlation between student tithes and their parents’ giving habits, the survey asked how often their parents tithed. The response showed a clear family norm, as students reported their parents “always” (80%) or “often” (10%) tithed. Less than 2% of the students claimed their parents never tithed.

Table 2. How regularly is money tithed to your church?

  Always Often Sometimes Occasionally Never Don’t Know
My Parents regularly
tithe money
80% 10% 3% 2% 2% 4%
I regularly
tithe money
24% 21% 21% 21% 13%

To determine the scope of their giving, students were asked whether they give to organizations outside of their church. Less than half do. When asked how often they gave to non-church organizations, most said they gave monthly, which may reflect involvement in a specific giving program such as sponsoring a child. Almost one-third of the respondents gave annually, perhaps indicative of a one-time gift. While some gave quarterly or biannually, few reported more frequent giving. Table 3 illustrates how frequently students gave money to organizations outside the church.

Table 3. How frequently do you give money outside your church?

Weekly Biweekly Monthly Bimonthly Quarterly Biannually Annually
2% 2% 37% 3% 14% 13% 29%

Students were asked where they would prefer to give their money by indicating their level of interest in nine types of causes. Table 4 indicates areas of interest. Students showed the highest level of interest in church and mission organizations; only 5% were “not interested” in these groups. Other areas of high interest in order of importance included giving to immediate aid/relief, social justice causes, public health efforts, and education. Non-profit organizations dealing with the arts, environmental protection, economic development, and science and research were least interesting to the majority of students.

Table 4. If you did give money, how interested would you be in giving to the following causes?

2 3 4 Not
Church/missions 37% 34% 15% 8% 6%
Immediate relief aid 34% 34% 21% 7% 4%
Social justice 32% 30% 23% 10% 5%
Public health 21% 35% 25% 13% 6%
Education 9% 31% 29% 21% 10%
Science/research 9% 22% 32% 25% 12%
Economic development 8% 20% 30% 26% 16%
Environmental protection 8% 17% 26% 29% 20%
The Arts/Museums 6% 8% 17% 25% 44%

There were no differences between male and female students regarding the frequency or commitment to tithing, or giving to outside organizations. However, there were differences by sex and age. Female students demonstrated greater interest in giving to social justice, immediate aid/relief, public health, environmental protection, and science and research organizations than male students. Male students exhibited greater interest in economic development.

Male and female students responded with equal levels of interest regarding the arts, mission or church-based organizations, and education. Finally, seniors were found to be much more likely to give to organizations outside of their church than freshmen. This may indicate an increased desire to support other organizations as students become more aware of them, or as they develop specific connections to causes.  

The Ties that Bind
In order to understand future giving, students were asked to rate a list of reasons for giving to an organization they knew well—namely, the college they were attending. Table 5 illustrates what was perceived as important in students’ decision to give money. The most popular reason to give was agreement with the mission of the organization, which was important to most of the students. Another highly-rated reason was so others could benefit as the student had.  

Table 5. What’s important in your decision to give or not give money to the college you attend?

The mission of
the organization
5.3% 29% 13% 4% 1%
Others having a
good education
47% 35% 13% 4% 1%
Stay connected
to the school
14% 22% 27% 24% 13%
School needs
10% 23% 31% 24% 12%
To promote
specific change
10% 18% 27% 29% 16%
A feeling of responsibility 8% 21% 25% 28% 18%
Preference to
give elsewhere
18% 31% 30% 14% 7%
Friends or family
work there
3% 6% 13% 19% 59%
Friends or family
who give
3% 8% 16% 22% 51%
Can’t spare the
21% 25% 31% 13% 10%
Belief that tuition
is enough
19% 27% 27%

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