When asked to identify their ultimate financial goal for life, half of Christians first think of others—not themselves—according to The Generosity Gap, a new Barna report produced in partnership with Thrivent Financial. On the other hand, about one-third of Christians are self-focused in their priorities. In studying the drivers of Christian generosity, Barna categorized and analyzed these two groups as Givers and Keepers.
- Givers are motivated by “others-focused” goals: to provide for their family (43%), to give charitably (23%) to serve God with their money (20%) or to leave a legacy for others (14%). Fifty percent of Christians are Givers.
- Keepers are motivated by “self-focused” goals: to support the lifestyle they want (42% of Keepers), to be content (37%), to be debt-free (16%) or to earn enough to show how hard they work (5%). Thirty-five percent of Christians are Keepers.
How do these financial attitudes impact financial behaviors? Christians with giving goals give a lot, and Christians with keeping goals give less or not at all. In short: Motivations matter.Christians with giving goals give a lot, and Christians with keeping goals give less or not at all. Click To Tweet
Let’s get to know these two groups.
Who They Are
Millennials are more likely than other generations, by a significant margin, to prioritize providing for a family above other financial goals (31% vs. 18% Gen-Xers and Boomers, 13% Elders). Elders, by contrast, are most likely to say serving God with their money is their ultimate goal (19% vs. ~10% all others). These percentages push more Millennials and Elders into the Giver category than their middle-aged counterparts.
When it comes to household income, Givers are not giving more because they make more. In fact, Keepers tend to be somewhat more financially comfortable than Givers: 45 percent earn more than $75,000 per year compared to 39 percent of Givers. Some of this disparity may be due to the fact that Keepers (37%) are more likely than Givers (30%) to live in a city, where incomes are sometimes higher to cover steeper living expenses. Relatedly, Christians in the Northeast are more likely than those in other regions to prioritize keeping goals; Keepers (44%) actually out-number Givers (42%) among Christians in that region.
There is no significant difference between Givers and Keepers on educational attainment, but marital status is a different story: Givers are more likely than Keepers to be married (65% compared to 51%). It’s also slightly more common for Givers to have children under 18 living at home (47% vs. 41%). It appears that, at least in the U.S. where increasing numbers of people do not marry or have children, the family remains a crucible where self-focus can be transmuted to putting others’ needs first.
Last in the realm of demographics, a Christian’s faith tradition appears to influence whether they are a Giver or a Keeper. Protestants overall, and especially non-mainline Protestants—a category that includes denominations often identified as “evangelical”—are more likely to be Givers, while Catholics are about evenly split between Givers and Keepers.
What They Practice and Believe
Regarding faith practices, regular church attendance strongly correlates with giving goals. Nearly six in 10 Christians who attended a worship service within the past week are Givers (57%), compared to 45 percent of Christians who did not. There is virtually no daylight between those who attended within the past month (44% are Givers) and those for whom it has been longer than six months (45%); only weekly church involvement appears to make a significant difference.
With regard to religious beliefs, Christians who report orthodox beliefs are more likely to be Givers than Keepers (23% compared to 8%). (It’s unclear whether financial goals or religious beliefs are causal.) Givers are also more likely to say their faith is very important in their life and to say they sense God actively involved in their day-to-day life.
One in three Givers says they donated $500 or more last year to their church or other nonprofits (33%), compared to about one in five Keepers (22%); they are nearly twice as likely to report donating $2,500 or more (14% vs. 8%). Plus, they are more likely to report setting their own giving at 10 percent or more of their income (25% vs. 13%).
What They Say About Generosity
Not surprisingly, Givers are more apt to say generosity is extremely important to them (33% vs. 24% Keepers) and to believe generosity is always a discipline (26% vs. 18%) and a response to Christ’s love (53% vs. 43%).
Givers are also more convinced than Keepers of how important it is for Christians to support their home church: 42 percent strongly agree that “every member should give some amount,” versus 30 percent of Keepers. Additionally, they are more likely to specify that Christians should give their church 10 percent or more of their income (30% vs. 22%).
When it comes to what category of actions they most strongly associate with generosity, one in five among both Givers (20%) and Keepers (21%) choose giving money. However, Keepers are more likely than Givers to associate generosity with emotional or relational support (37% vs. 24% Givers) while Givers more often choose serving (36% vs. 27%) and, to a lesser extent, hospitality (15% vs. 8%).
Drilling down to specific actions, scenarios that involve a mediating organization may be more appealing for Keepers than for Givers, such as volunteering for a nonprofit (58% Keepers vs. 53% Givers) or donating money to an organization or cause (24% vs. 16%). Keepers are more likely than Givers to say they put emphasis on an organization’s expertise when deciding to donate.
More than one-third of Keepers, however, says emotional or relational support is their go-to mode of generosity (38%) compared to three in 10 Givers (29%)—but they are less inclined than Givers to view more demanding relational acts, such as teaching Sunday school, as supremely generous. Further research is needed to discover what’s behind this apparent dissonance.
What the Research Means
“That motivations are of ultimate importance is no surprise,” David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, says. “Why, then, do church leaders sometimes make them of secondary importance when it comes to generosity? So often we focus our efforts on cultivating generous habits rather than on making generous disciples. Of course, the former is a vitally significant part of the accomplishing the latter; people are less likely to grow spiritually without concrete disciplines like practicing generosity. But the practices themselves are not the point. The point is who we become under the influence of our habits.
“The place to start, I think, is with a holistic assessment of generosity in your church,” Kinnaman continues. “How do you communicate about what it is and the many ways to do it? Does your community celebrate those who volunteer and those who practice hospitality? Do you hear from people who are generous in different ways, and offer opportunities for generosity in various shapes and sizes (not just the offering plate)?”
“When we attend to the condition of our minds, hearts and souls, the limits of our generosity are stretched and our giving capabilities strengthened.”We often focus our efforts on cultivating generous habits rather than on making generous disciples. Click To Tweet
About the Research
The Generosity Gap research consists of data and analysis based on three phases of study. First, in February 2016, Barna conducted 81 qualitative, or open-ended, surveys with U.S. adults ages 18 to 69. These participants were recruited through a national consumer panel that is representative by age, gender, ethnicity, region and socioeconomic level. However, these results are not intended to be representative of, or projected to, the adult population. Also as part of the qualitative phase, 21 Protestant pastors completed open-ended surveys in March 2016 through Barna’s PastorPanel. These pastors are broadly distributed across denominations, church size and region, but again, not intended to be nationally representative.
Second, quantitative research was conducted with 1,556 self-identified Christians who have attended church at some point in the past year and who agree, or are neutral, that their faith is very important in their life. These adults represent a range of denominations, including Catholic, mainline and non-mainline Protestant. Participants for this “interested Christians” sample were recruited from a national consumer panel in July and September 2016. The total number of respondents included an oversample of 747 Millennials to enable more robust analysis of this generation, but the total sample was then weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by age, gender, ethnicity, region and socioeconomic grade. The sampling error on this survey is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.
Third, researchers designed a quantitative survey for U.S. Protestant pastors; 606 completed the survey in June 2016. Participants were recruited through Barna’s PastorPanel, publicly available lists and email invitations. Data were minimally weighted to be nationally representative of Protestant churches by denomination, church size and region. The sampling error on the pastor survey is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.
Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.