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Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money

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Passing the Plate shows that few American Christians donate generously to religious and charitable causes -- a parsimony that seriously undermines the work of churches and ministries. Far from the 10 percent of one's income that tithing requires, American Christians' financial giving typically amounts, by some measures, to less than one percent of annual earnings. And a st Passing the Plate shows that few American Christians donate generously to religious and charitable causes -- a parsimony that seriously undermines the work of churches and ministries. Far from the 10 percent of one's income that tithing requires, American Christians' financial giving typically amounts, by some measures, to less than one percent of annual earnings. And a startling one out of five self-identified Christians gives nothing at all. This eye-opening book explores the reasons behind such ungenerous giving, the potential world-changing benefits of greater financial giving, and what can be done to improve matters. If American Christians gave more generously, say the authors, any number of worthy projects -- from the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS to the promotion of inter-religious understanding to the upgrading of world missions -- could be funded at astounding levels. Analyzing a wide range of social surveys and government and denominational statistical datasets and drawing on in-depth interviews with Christian pastors and church members in seven different states, the book identifies a crucial set of factors that appear to depress religious financial support -- among them the powerful allure of a mass-consumerist culture and its impact on Americans' priorities, parishioners' suspicions of waste and abuse by nonprofit administrators, clergy's hesitations to boldly ask for money, and the lack of structure and routine in the way most American Christians give away money. In their conclusion, the authors suggest practical steps that clergy and lay leaders might take to counteract these tendencies and better educate their congregations about the transformative effects of generous giving. By illuminating the social and psychological forces that shape charitable giving, Passing the Plate is sure to spark a much-needed debate on a critical issue that is of much interest to church-goers, religious leaders, philanthropists, and social scientists.


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Passing the Plate shows that few American Christians donate generously to religious and charitable causes -- a parsimony that seriously undermines the work of churches and ministries. Far from the 10 percent of one's income that tithing requires, American Christians' financial giving typically amounts, by some measures, to less than one percent of annual earnings. And a st Passing the Plate shows that few American Christians donate generously to religious and charitable causes -- a parsimony that seriously undermines the work of churches and ministries. Far from the 10 percent of one's income that tithing requires, American Christians' financial giving typically amounts, by some measures, to less than one percent of annual earnings. And a startling one out of five self-identified Christians gives nothing at all. This eye-opening book explores the reasons behind such ungenerous giving, the potential world-changing benefits of greater financial giving, and what can be done to improve matters. If American Christians gave more generously, say the authors, any number of worthy projects -- from the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS to the promotion of inter-religious understanding to the upgrading of world missions -- could be funded at astounding levels. Analyzing a wide range of social surveys and government and denominational statistical datasets and drawing on in-depth interviews with Christian pastors and church members in seven different states, the book identifies a crucial set of factors that appear to depress religious financial support -- among them the powerful allure of a mass-consumerist culture and its impact on Americans' priorities, parishioners' suspicions of waste and abuse by nonprofit administrators, clergy's hesitations to boldly ask for money, and the lack of structure and routine in the way most American Christians give away money. In their conclusion, the authors suggest practical steps that clergy and lay leaders might take to counteract these tendencies and better educate their congregations about the transformative effects of generous giving. By illuminating the social and psychological forces that shape charitable giving, Passing the Plate is sure to spark a much-needed debate on a critical issue that is of much interest to church-goers, religious leaders, philanthropists, and social scientists.

30 review for Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jared

    Passing the Plate is a sobering sociological study of patterns of American Christian giving, built off prior studies as well as some original survey and interview work by the authors. In its essence, the key finding of the book is that the majority of American Christians barely give any money at all to churches and charities, especially when compared with their actual capacity to give. In fact, according to the authors' rather-conservative estimate, American Christians are currently capable of g Passing the Plate is a sobering sociological study of patterns of American Christian giving, built off prior studies as well as some original survey and interview work by the authors. In its essence, the key finding of the book is that the majority of American Christians barely give any money at all to churches and charities, especially when compared with their actual capacity to give. In fact, according to the authors' rather-conservative estimate, American Christians are currently capable of giving $1.334 BILLION to churches and charitable causes…in addition to their current giving. However, the goal of the study is not to estimate the American Christian generosity deficit but to explore the reasons why so many American Christians choose to give so far below their potential. It is here that the bad news becomes even worse. What becomes quite clear is that there is a clear and fundamental disconnect between church teaching, pastoral leadership, and lay commitment and action that spans denominations. (In that sense, especially, this study is sobering for many aspects of church teaching, say, for example, on the sanctity of human life and/or a biblical understanding of marriage.) Another equally disturbing finding is that many of the Christians who do not give faithfully at their full capacity clearly recognize that they can and should do better in this area, but simply choose not to. They live with what Wiman and Emerson call "comfortable guilt." They know that what they are doing is wrong, but that knowledge is not enough to cause them to change their ways. There are several things that I, as a non-sociologist and as a practicing church leader, appreciate. First, the opening chapter gives detailed lists of exactly how that untapped $100+ billion could be used across a broad spectrum of Christian missionary and humanitarian efforts; as you can imagine, the change it could affect is immense…"world-changing" in every meaningful sense of the term. Second, the authors' use of interviews (ch. 4) to give "faces to the figures" of the data-based chapters helps to clarify how these oft-contradictory attitudes about giving coexist within otherwise deeply-committed believers and those who lead them. Third, the authors offer up two very intriguing models (or perhaps patterns) in local congregations' approaches to the spiritual discipline of giving (end of ch. 4). The first (and inferior) model they describe as a "Pay the Bills" approach; the second (and superior) model they describe as a "Live the Vision" approach. In this "Live the Vision" approach, "Financial giving was cast as an important opportunity to live fully, to grow, to become who one truly is. Money was framed not as a necessary resource for organizational upkeep but as a crucial means of shaping one's values, vision, purpose, identity, and life direction." Fourth, and finally, the authors humbly offer some suggestions for church leaders to encourage their congregants. These range from the ideological (e.g., move away from the "Pay the Bills" to the "Live the Vision" approach to money) to the practical (e.g., enable online giving methods to "routinize" generosity). Though I am unable to comment on the validity of the methodology or the figures presented (I can only say there were a lot of 'em), I did get a distinct impression that this was carefully-done research that worked very hard not to overstate its claims, even when such claims were frankly astounding. Even though now about 10 years on from publication, I found the book an enlightening description of some of the challenging patterns I have observed in my own current congregational context. In fact, I think this would be a VERY good book for local pastors and elder boards to read together as a way to start this very important conversation. And if this book can for at least some churches and individuals shatter the stranglehold of "comfortable guilt" and motivate true and lasting change, then it will well repay the authors' efforts. And might even actually change the world.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Eugene Cowan

    Insightful read Love the sociological view of giving it makes you look at the underlying issues that makes one give to the church, non profit, or even to a cause. Our apprehension and convictions are look at from a systematic way.

  3. 5 out of 5

    M Christopher

    Another fine book by Christian Smith and team using surveys and statistics to get at some of the sociology of American religion. I'd previously enjoyed his "Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers." In this volume, Smith & co. take on the question of giving in American churches. Statistics show that American Christians (and American religious adherents of all kinds) don't come anywhere close to the Biblical standard of tithing (giving 10%) to charity in any form, Another fine book by Christian Smith and team using surveys and statistics to get at some of the sociology of American religion. I'd previously enjoyed his "Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers." In this volume, Smith & co. take on the question of giving in American churches. Statistics show that American Christians (and American religious adherents of all kinds) don't come anywhere close to the Biblical standard of tithing (giving 10%) to charity in any form, whether through their church or through a combination of gifts. In the richest country in the world, giving to charity is downright miserly. After proposing and examining several potential reasons, the authors arrive at the conclusion that the overriding American philosophy of consumerism has convinced us all that we must see to our own desires before we worry about anyone else's needs. It's a sad conclusion but there are ways to combat this generalized outbreak of "affluenza." Not an easy read -- as with "Soul Searching" it would better be summarized in a long article for non-technical readers -- but well-worth reading by clergy and lay leaders of congregations trying to unlock a new level of generosity in their group.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    My first interlibrary loan! And I am glad I did not purchase the book. I am not used to reading books with so many statistics, so it was hard to wade through at points. However, I learned a lot through the reading of this book. If all people who claim to attend church at least twice a month or that their faith is extremely important to them tithed there would be $120 billion annually. Holy cow - I can't even begin to fathom that number or imagine how much good could be done with the money. Also, My first interlibrary loan! And I am glad I did not purchase the book. I am not used to reading books with so many statistics, so it was hard to wade through at points. However, I learned a lot through the reading of this book. If all people who claim to attend church at least twice a month or that their faith is extremely important to them tithed there would be $120 billion annually. Holy cow - I can't even begin to fathom that number or imagine how much good could be done with the money. Also, that this same group of Christians, rather than tithing 10% give on average 0.62% of their income. That is pathetic. The book gave some ideas of how to increase giving, but after reading the book I look at it as an issue of a) Americans needing to be more fiscally responsible b) redefining priorities away from luxury items and towards helping others and c) moving people towards a closer relationship with Christ. I highly recommend this book, even if you just read the conclusion.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Denes House

    Wow. This is a book that pulls no punches, and contains no fat. Half of it is text, the other half supporting appendices filled with data. Some of this stuff will shock you, some will outrage you, some will make you weep. But it was tragically gripping all throughout, although with clear advice for churches charting out their future. Must-read.

  6. 4 out of 5

    J.E. Jr.

    I’ve grown a bit cold on statistically-based books-- or at least on ones presented like this one, where the bulk of the content is the statistical data itself. Still, this is an interesting book, and it is worth getting simply for the opening chapter, in which the writers dream of what the church could do if we only gave a bit more.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

    This is a great book on the stinginess of American Christian giving. The stats can be dry and off-putting to some, but I found the thoroughness fascinating.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    My initial review is kind of long: http://www.guynameddave.com/2008/12/r... This is a must-read book. My initial review is kind of long: http://www.guynameddave.com/2008/12/r... This is a must-read book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Justin Martin

  10. 5 out of 5

    Lynette Crase

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tim Howington

  12. 5 out of 5

    Dave

  13. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mark

  15. 5 out of 5

    Papaphilly

  16. 5 out of 5

    Brian

  17. 5 out of 5

    Anne Hokenstad

  18. 5 out of 5

    David

  19. 5 out of 5

    Dwayne

  20. 4 out of 5

    RBSProds

    Five ANALYTICAL Stars. “Passing the Plate” (Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money) is by authors Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson, with Patricia Snell and it gives valuable insight into the actual practice of “tithing” in the USA, the religious practice of giving 10% of a person’s income to their church. It covers the USA as of 2008 and includes an impressive amount of data on the philanthropic activities of various sources and groups and has many caveats, along the way. The “ Five ANALYTICAL Stars. “Passing the Plate” (Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money) is by authors Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson, with Patricia Snell and it gives valuable insight into the actual practice of “tithing” in the USA, the religious practice of giving 10% of a person’s income to their church. It covers the USA as of 2008 and includes an impressive amount of data on the philanthropic activities of various sources and groups and has many caveats, along the way. The “Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy Panel Study” provided a grant to the authors and specific funds from the University of North Carolina, the University of Notre Dame, and Rice University helped in funding the detailed analyses found in this book. It offers a rigorous and detailed analysis of charitable religious giving and the authors had to break out ‘religious giving’ data from various types of giving based on individual surveys on giving, as well as other sources such as church and IRS statistical information. The book comes, in one instance, to what some readers might find a series of ‘shocking conclusions’ based on population about ‘the intent and the extent’ in this area of concern, without moralizing. Then they reveal 6 more “facts” that are almost equally unbelievable. One of their estimations about how much money would be available, IF everyone hit the 10% target, is ‘jaw dropping’, indeed. Various hypotheses are examined to explain lack of giving. And as a comparison, the authors reveal how much money is spent on items like candy, tobacco, alcohol, lottery tickets, and other factors versus dealing with bills. But the book goes beyond ’over simplication’ in its conclusions, to goals such as education and hope and possibilities resulting from tithing. The author also give a sample of views of both the clergy and parishioners. For those who enjoy general and detailed statistics, it’s all here in abundance; and for those only interested in the conclusions, the reader can jump to the end of each chapter and then go backwards into the statistics of that chapter to see how the conclusions were reached. If those not tithing or otherwise not giving at all on their respective ‘holy days’ of the week could get to see and consider these results, they might (or may not) reconsider their individual giving. And we should recognize the fact that tithing is the wish of God who is the Source of the concept of tithing and Who loves a “cheerful giver”. Highly Recommended. Five PERPLEXING Stars. (Oxford University Press. 270 pages, including the 5 chapters, Conclusion, plus the 3 appendices, and a section of detailed notes by chapter.)

  21. 5 out of 5

    Casey Taylor

  22. 4 out of 5

    Cgensheer

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ronald Mcconico

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Brown

  25. 5 out of 5

    Michael Kocolowski

  26. 4 out of 5

    Scott MacIntyre

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kee Won Huh

  28. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Mendoza

  29. 4 out of 5

    Andrei Nanu

  30. 4 out of 5

    Philip

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