Passing the Plate, by sociologists Christian Smith, Michael O Emerson and Patricia Snell, is likely to become a landmark book. Oxford University Press is known for high-quality, well-researched books. This 240-page volume, which includes a number of graphs and tables, meets that criteria, but is also highly readable.
The book asks why giving rates are so low for those who call themselves followers of Christ in light of so many denominations’ emphasis on tithing and on giving sacrificially and generously. The facts are painful: 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. A startling one out of five self-identified Christians gives nothing at all. The authors’ extensive survey data plus citations from various studies of Christian philanthropy show that Catholics are the worst, with many Protestant groups in the middle and Mormons (whom this study regards as “non-Christian religious believers”) at the top.
The authors suggest that perhaps sociology can help explain the “giving riddle” as they call it. They identify 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.
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. 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.
For a sample chapter click here.
Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 19 books on various aspects of church health and innovation.