The motivations for generosity are manifold and often complex. What drives this deeply spiritual act differs from one person to the next, particularly when comparing pastors with their congregants. According to The Generosity Gap, a new Barna report produced in partnership with Thrivent Financial, there is little consensus on why people should be generous, what counts as generosity in the first place and what kinds of acts require the most effort.
Generosity: Spur-Of-The-Moment or Planned?
As a rule, Christians and pastors have similar, but not identical, ideas about what characteristics make an act generous, or not. In general, most agree that generosity comes from an unselfish, sincere spirit, not from a sense of obligation or of self-interest. Compared with Christians, a larger percentage of pastors agree that generosity is always “a response to Christ’s love” (66% vs. 47% all Christian adults). Church leaders are also more likely to believe generosity is both an inward attitude and an outward discipline, and are less likely than Christians generally to say it has to do with either spontaneity or a sense of duty.
On the other hand, Christians have a slightly more romantic view of giving. They are more likely than pastors to say generosity is always spur-of-the-moment and a result of compassion. Pastors, are least likely among the groups surveyed to say so: Just one in five say generosity is always (2%) or often (18%) spur-of-the-moment. They are also more likely to say it is never or seldom “sacrificial” (16% vs. 5% pastors).Christians are more likely than pastors to say generosity is always spur-of-the-moment. Click To Tweet
Younger Christians are more likely than their elders to perceive generosity as always or often a spontaneous response to the circumstances of the moment. Compared to Boomers (28% always + often) and Elders (15%), more Gen-Xers (37%) and Millennials (45%) say spontaneity is a core feature of generosity.
Elders appear to have more cerebral (thinking), less circumstantial (feeling) ideals and impulses related to generosity, especially compared to Millennials. For example, adults over 70 are more likely to say generosity is a discipline (62% vs. 51% Millennials) and is planned (43% vs. 31%).
Generosity: Do Attitudes Matter?
Can generosity turn sour? What do people think might change a potential act of generosity such that it is no longer truly generous? According to pastors, the attitude of the giver is the biggest factor. Pastors’ responses to an open-ended question fall into a handful of general categories, with nearly all focused on the giver’s motivations. One in four ministers offers an answer related to guilt or compulsion, and one in six says either selfishness or grudging unwillingness undermine potential generosity.
Interestingly, American adults in the qualitative interviews—which included people of various religious backgrounds—were not as convinced as pastors about the importance of intentions. More than half told researchers that buying something for oneself at, for example, Warby Parker or Toms Shoes (“one-to-one” retailers that give away one product to someone in need for every one purchased) is still generous because the effect, regardless of the giver’s intent, is good.
Yet some acts of generosity are perceived to be more generous than others. Barna asked participants in the quantitative study to select, from a list of possibilities, the three acts they consider to be most generous. A majority in each generation believes taking care of a sick person is one of the most generous things one can do. Boomers are most likely to express this perception—which is notable because they are also most likely to be caring for aging parents.
Similarly, volunteering for an organization is considered highly generous by a large share of each age cohort—yet a significantly smaller percentage views volunteering for a person (for example, driving them to the airport or babysitting for free) to be exceptionally generous.
Generosity: What Are the Right Motivations?
When it comes to the most important reason for Christians to be generous, there are some gaps between pastors and parishioners.
For example, a plurality of pastors—more than two in five—say the most important reason is “to reflect God’s character by showing love to others.” More than one-third of Elders agree with pastors, but the total of all Christians who select that answer is just 25 percent. Gen-Xers, for their part, are half as likely as pastors to say reflecting God’s character is the main reason.A plurality of pastors say the most important reason to be generous is to reflect God’s character. Click To Tweet
On the other hand, more Gen-Xers and Boomers than pastors and Elders believe “to become more like Christ” is the most important reason for Christian generosity. And Elders are an outlier in their choice of giving back “in appreciation for God’s generosity toward us,” with one-third resonating with this option compared to one in six younger Christians and one in five pastors.
Generosity: Does Volunteering Count?
The gap is immense between pastors and the average Christian on the question of whether it is acceptable for a church member to substitute volunteering for financial giving. Pastors, on the whole, disagree that these two forms of generosity are interchangeable. More than eight out of 10 disagree strongly (67%) or somewhat (18%) that “it is okay for a member who volunteers extensively not to give financially.” But just one in five Christians is on the same page with pastors (10% strongly, 11% somewhat disagree).
Ironically, some parishioners’ confusion on this question may come from pastors themselves. Only 39 percent of pastors say they or other leaders speak from the pulpit about tithing or giving to the church at least once a month (17% once per month, 22% multiple times per month). But more than six in 10 say they or other leaders speak from the pulpit at least once a month on the topic of volunteering (35% once, 27% multiple times). So, by their own estimates, pastors talk about volunteering much more often than they talk about financial giving. Thus, it’s no surprise that at least some of their congregants believe serving is an acceptable substitute for tithing.
Before church leaders cut back on the amount of time they spend talking about volunteerism and serving, however, it’s important to note that serving and financial giving appear to go hand in hand. As the chart shows, Christians who give most are also most likely to say they have volunteered within the past week or month. The pattern also holds true for those who consider generosity extremely important.
Those who give more are most likely to spend time serving others—but they are also more likely to say generosity is a frequent topic of conversation in their family. Two-thirds of Christians who consider generosity to be extremely important say they talked with their spouse (67%) or children (64%) about generosity within the past week, compared to fewer than half of all others. It appears that generosity is developed at home—good news for churches structured to support families.
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.
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