This American Tithe
What is tithing? And do most Christians practice it in the correct way? Journalist Douglas LeBlanc traveled across the country to speak to people about the spiritual discipline of financial giving, and how today’s churches get it right — and wrong.
Churchgoers know it’s time to dig a little deeper into their pockets when the pastor announces his annual series on stewardship or starts to extend his offertory prayers. The “offering” has become an important part of Christian worship, but many of us don’t understand the difference between tithing and charitable giving. In his new book, Tithing: Test Me in This, journalist Douglas LeBlanc sheds light on the ancient practice of Christian giving by taking readers on a pilgrimage across the United States to meet a variety of people who have made tithing an central part of their spiritual lives. Though some debate the validity of the concept of tithing, and whether it was strictly an Old Testament practice, LeBlanc was more interested in showing how this spiritual discipline of deliberate giving can transform ordinary lives. He recently spoke to UrbanFaith about the subject of his book.
URBAN FAITH: Very simply, what is tithing?
DOUGLAS LEBLANC: To my mind, tithing is giving 10 percent of your income to the church where you worship God week after week. Some people like to count donations to all nonprofits as part of their tithe. That’s a more easily achievable definition of tithing, but it’s better than not giving away 10 percent of your income. The one thing I resist strenuously is referring to anything other than giving 10 percent as tithing: “I’m tithing 4 percent of my income this year.” Words matter, and that’s an abuse of a perfectly clear word.
Does what we do in our churches each week during offering time resemble anything that happened in the early church? How has the practice of corporate giving evolved through the years?
I’m afraid my book does not explore the evolution of giving, other than through a few quotations from the early church. Consider this from the Didache, which may have been written before A.D. 150 and is quoted by leaders in the fourth century:
Do not be one who stretches out the hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving. If you earn something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins. You shall not hesitate to give, nor shall you grumble when giving, for you will know who is the good paymaster of the reward.
What we have in most churches today is a formal opportunity to give. Some pastors whom I spoke to for the book, such as Jerald January of Vernon Park Church of God on the South Side of Chicago, have done away with a designated time for collecting offerings. I think it’s outstanding if a congregation supports the church without a formal offering, but I am not bothered by churches that collect the offering with more ritual. In my church, the choir sings some of its loveliest hymns during the offertory.
What are some of the most fascinating stats or findings about tithing in American churches that you discovered during your research?
What’s most fascinating to me is how low the level of giving is. Read any of the annual surveys by empty tomb, inc., and you’ll have to fight away sadness with a baseball bat. The founders of empty tomb, inc., John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, drove it home for me when I visited them in Champaign, Illinois. John Ronsvalle has calculated that a serious work of world evangelism would cost $182 million, which translates to about 2 cents per day from churches that clearly identify themselves as evangelical. Are we anywhere near achieving that goal? No.
I once heard a youth leader point out that the average congregation spends more on air conditioning than on youth ministry. I think you could replace “youth ministry” with any number of categories and still make that statement. I love air conditioning as much as the next guy — probably more, being a son of southern Louisiana — but surely we can do better than this in our church budgets.
More personally, when I take an honest look at what I spend on cable TV, books, broadband access, magazines, two pet cats, travel, and computers, my stewardship begins to look paltry. I try to remind myself regularly that, by the terms of history or the terms of how most people live in this world, I am among the remarkably wealthy by virtue of living in the United States. I try to let that inspire more generosity rather than guilt and self-loathing.
You interviewed various pastors and Christian leaders regarding the practices of tithing and giving. What were the most surprising things that you discovered as you spoke to different people?
What I greatly enjoyed was meeting several people on the Christian left who tithe. I’ve been a cultural and theological conservative for most of my adult life, and I’ll admit to making many glib assumptions about people on the other side of the aisle. As I traveled to various states to interview people, I saw just how much the basic discipline of tithing transcends so many political differences. Tithing even cuts across vast differences in theology. Tithing becomes a quiet rallying point for people who realize that serious Christian faith makes demands of you. Jesus does not settle for whatever kindness that comes naturally to us.
I also loved the drama of interviewing Randy Alcorn, who considers tithing as the training wheels one uses on the way toward real giving. Randy is a full-throttle Christian, and I find it humbling to spend time with people who submit so much more of their lives to God than I manage on so many days.
What is typically the trend with giving in the church during tough economic periods like the one we’re currently experiencing? Have you observed anything unique about this latest economic crisis?
Based only on my own observations, I believe many of us see giving to our church as part of our discretionary income, something that we would cut sooner than other outlets of discretionary income, such as dining out, entertainment, or vacations. I am horrified, more often than not, at how self-indulgent I can be on any given day, so I’m not arguing that tithing is the line of demarcation between holiness and sin. For those of us who do not struggle with much economic uncertainty, tithing is the beginning of Christian stewardship, rather than some Mt. Everest that only a select few would think of scaling.
Still, I also strive to remember the deeply pastoral perspective I heard from Ron and Arbutus Sider, two of the great champions of living more simply. “It’s an Old Testament principle that makes enormous sense, and it’s a great starting point,” Ron told me. “I wouldn’t say to a desperately poor single mom, ‘You’ve got to tithe or you’re disobeying God.'” Arbutus added: “It’s perfectly fine for impoverished people to give 2 or 3 or 5 percent.”
A recurring question that you hear a lot about tithing is whether it’s 10 percent off your gross or net income. What have you come to believe about that one?
I like the cleanness of tithing off my gross income, because income is income, even if it is taxed or allotted to a medical savings account before I receive a pay stub. Still, a tithe from a net income is better than no tithe at all. I think the biblical principle of giving with a cheerful heart should inform that choice.
There are so many perspectives and theologies out there about Christian giving, everything from prosperity teaching to pooling your resources and living in an intentional community.
I consider prosperity theology entirely bad news. It helps us confuse what we need and what we want. Worse, it tries to conceal carnal materialism in pious clothing. It turns prosperity into a sick measure of God’s favor, or of the authenticity of a person’s Christian faith.
Of course God does not want people living in poverty, but throughout Scripture the emphasis is not on blaming people for their afflictions. If anything, Scripture indicts those of us who are healthy and wealthy if we do not try to share what we have with those who have less. If a prosperity theologian had told Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man would rebuke Lazarus for not having sufficient faith to claim the riches that are his as a King’s Kid.
Living in an intentional community is a noble sacrifice, and I have great affection for people who do it, especially long term. One thing is also clear: Living in community is exceptionally difficult, and many communities simply fall apart over time because they cannot resolve the conflicts that arise when people live in that sort of emotional and spiritual hothouse. Few people are truly called to that life, and still fewer can make it work over many years. God bless those who can do it. Those few who argue that all true Christians should live such a life will soon enough find their idealism challenged by hard experience.
So, what do you think is the most biblical approach for Christians to take?
I consider the tithe my starting point. After that, there’s no shortage of other opportunities to give: natural disasters in impoverished nations; a friend or relative in an emergency; sponsoring a child through a relief and development agency; volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. As a shy person, I find it too easy to write a check rather than making myself vulnerable among the poor. I struggle against that, though, and when I relax enough, God sends moments of grace.
I once encountered a poor woman in Minneapolis and we spent about an hour together, talking and walking on a chilly day. She told me about being kicked out of her house by a heartless son. I bought her coffee and a piece of pie. She helped me find a better corner for catching a taxi to the airport. I prayed with her before we separated. I told her that our encounter reminded me of Hebrews 13 (“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it”). As I paraphrased it, she completed the sentence with me. It was eerie and I spent the rest of the trip home feeling unduly blessed.
I don’t see any one perspective on giving as the most biblical, except perhaps that Jesus calls us to be generous because generosity is at the heart of the Holy Trinity. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent the most extravagant act of generosity in all of history.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that American Christians have about giving?
Many Americans seem to believe we are somehow doing God a favor by giving even token money to the church by tossing $5 or $10 into the collection plate every week or two. God does not need our money, but he wants our hearts and souls. If our love for God does not lead us to a greater generosity with our time, talent and treasure, perhaps it’s time to stoke the fires of that love again.
And what are we generally doing right?
My sense, and perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on my part, is that thousands of churches are doing exceptionally creative works of mercy and hospitality with the resources they have, whether they’re storefronts or megachurches. It’s easy to take shots at Willow Creek or Saddleback, but both of those churches are deliberate about helping struggling people, whether they’re on the West Side of Chicago or across the world in Rwanda.
One of the sweetest films I’ve ever seen is a PBS documentary, Let the Church Say Amen, which depicts the small, struggling World Missions for Christ in Washington, D.C. I had never heard of this church before, and I doubt that it ever will be known widely. The film left me with an abiding sense of God’s presence, because Pastor Bobby Perkins Sr. was there to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. I expect there are far more churches like that throughout the country, both in inner cities and in tiny towns.