Despite all the exhortations, though, it seems that relatively few Christians—even those who give regularly—have followed church teachings on exactly how much to give. Most American Christians belong to churches that promote tithing—giving 10 percent of income to the church. Tithing's roots extend back to the Old Testament commandment to give one-tenth of agricultural produce as a sacred offering. Though it's often associated with conservative and evangelical Protestant churches, tithing is also taught, for example, in the more liberal Episcopal Church, which teaches members "to practice tithing as a minimum standard of giving." Yet fewer than one in 10 Christians gives as much as a tithe of their income. The 2.9 percent of income given by the average Christian may seem reasonably generous, but it falls significantly short of what many Christian churches desire.
If tithing is so widely taught, why is it so seldom practiced? In his history In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar, James Hudnut-Beumler argues that preaching tithing was one of a series of rhetorical strategies pastors developed in the 19th century—a "rhetoric of righteousness" that aimed to inspire and compel giving by believers. But then and now, most Christians have been unmoved by the command to tithe. Some reject the practice as legalistic or coercive or based on a flawed understanding of the Bible. Smith, Emerson, and Snell report that 76 percent of churchgoing Christians in one study said they wouldn't tithe even if required to by their church. Fifty-nine percent thought that a church has no right to ask its members to give specific amounts of money.
The resistance to tithing is just one indication of the distance between pulpit and pew on financial matters. According to Passing the Plate, one reason Christians don't give more is that "they lack a complete confidence in the trustworthiness of the churches" to which they donate. In one study, more than half of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, and Baptists said that they lacked confidence in the "handling and allocation of funds" by leaders of their denomination.
They might have more confidence if they had more say in how those funds are spent. Directing churchgoers' donations toward maintaining their own church buildings may be part of the problem. Paying the heating bill may be necessary, but it's not the sort of cause likely to inspire great generosity. On the other hand, the Chicago Tribune recently reported on one congregation that pledges to direct all the money it collects at church services to charitable causes—sponsors cover basic church expenses. The church's Web site even solicits suggestions on how the congregation's money should be spent. Part of what makes that approach intriguing is that it allows churchgoers to follow the money they put in the collection plate and focuses their giving on the world beyond the church walls. It's more about inspiring giving than requiring giving.
American churches have always had a talent for innovating new ways to open wallets, to yoke the material to the sacred. Eighteenth-century evangelist George Whitefield was called a "peddler of divinity" by one of his contemporaries. Never more than in a consumerist society, making the case for giving puts pastors and preachers in something like a salesman's role. But the numbers suggest that too many of the people in the pews aren't buying the pitch. Maybe today's stingy Christians are really just dissatisfied customers.