Christian Smith on Why Americans Give So Little Financially

Chris —  October 1, 2015

Christian Smith, who coined the term “moralistic therapeutic deism,” is one of the foremost sociologists in the world. In a book he wrote with Michael Emerson and Patricia Snell, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money, Smith summarized why Americans give so little. He breaks his conclusions down into six points (p. 175-179):

  1. Materialistic consumption has become a nearly inescapable way of life in the United States . . . The first and perhaps most formidable rival to generous voluntary giving of American Christians, then, aiding and abetting any of their natural human tendencies toward selfishness and stinginess, is America’s institutionalized mass consumerism.
  2. A lot of pastors appear to be uncomfortable with the issue of money in their churches . . . Many are also afraid of being branded by the money-grubbing stereotype. The net result seems to us to be a lot of pastors out there who have made peace with low expectations, tolerance for chronic paltry giving by many of their members, and the use of money collection procedures oriented as much to minimize problems and conflicts as to effectively build their churches and the spiritual faithfulness of their members.
  3. More than a few American Christians seem to be at least somewhat uninformed or confused about the meanings, expectations, and purposes of faithful Christian financial giving. . . a lack of clarity among American Christians about the expectations for giving by their faith traditions and church leaders.
  4. Some Christians mistrust organizations to which they would give money. . . The good of financial responsibility, when tainted by distrust, thus comes to serve the bad of miserly giving.
  5. No Americans seem to talk with anyone else about the question of voluntary financial giving . . . The de facto practice is: every person for themselves. And that does little to facilitate generous financial giving.
  6. Many American Christians appear to avoid adopting systematic, routinized methods for carrying out their financial giving. Instead, they want to give in an unplanned, situational, almost impulsive manner.

“Put all these factors together and we may conclude it is a wonder that American Christians give away as much money as they do. As best we can tell, numerous powerful cultural, organizational, interpersonal, and institutional influences work together against generous financial giving. In the face of these dynamics, it would seem to require the truly highly committed, deeply involved, well-taught, very organized, culturally critical, and confidently led Christian to faithfully give away, say, 10 percent of his or her income. Such Christians do exist in American churches. But they are a distinct minority. And so, the actual financial giving of American Christians as a whole turns out to be . . . [ungenerous].” (page 179)

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