By Cynthia Woolever
What influences worshipers’ decisions about giving to their church? It depends on (a) the personal characteristics of the worshiper, (b) his or her level of involvement, and (c) the congregation’s denominational affiliation. We think of giving as an individual decision but the church context also plays a role in what an individual might give.
Jack Marcum, coordinator of Research Services, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), presented his research on the relationship between individual giving and the giving pattern for an entire congregation at the recent Religious Research Association meeting. He wanted to take into account the church context—the denomination or faith group and overall giving levels in the church where the individual worships. He hypothesized that a number of individual attributes (demographics, level of involvement) as well as features of the congregation itself relate to how much a worshiper decides to contribute. In turn, the collective decisions of all worshipers alter the overall giving patterns for the church. This in turn affects the overall financial take for the entire church. Here are a few highlights from his presentation.
The U.S. Congregational Life Survey asked worshipers how much several factors influence their financial contributions to their church. It was clear that how they responded was related to their church’s denominational affiliation.
Denomination is Relevant
For conservative Protestant worshipers, the majority said these three were a major influence in their giving decisions:
- A sense of gratitude for God’s love and goodness (70%)
- The Bible’s teaching on giving (58%)
- Wanting to contribute to God’s work in the world (51%)
How did mainline Protestant worshipers respond? No single factor was named by a majority of these worshipers as a major influence on their church giving. However, the top three factors—cited by the highest percentage of worshipers as a major giving influence were:
- A sense of gratitude for God’s love and goodness (43%)
- Wanting to contribute to God’s work in the world (36%)
- A sense of religious duty to give (34%)
At most, only about four out of ten Catholic worshipers were inspired to give by the factors included in the survey, citing any one reason as a major influence. The largest numbers of Catholics said these three were a major influence on their giving:
- A sense of gratitude for God’s love and goodness (44%)
- A sense of religious duty to give (34%)
- Wanting to contribute to God’s work in the world (33%)
What Other Worshipers Do Is (Mostly) Irrelevant
Marcum also examined whether the giving level of the entire congregation was related to how much an individual worshiper in that same congregation would decide to give. He divided all congregations into high, medium, and low giving churches based on the median overall levels of giving. But, as it turned out, once he controlled for other factors (such as denominational family) this contextual element was not relevant to overall church giving levels. That is, an individual worshiper’s giving is about the same whether most worshipers give larger percentages or smaller percentages to the church.
Increasing the Congregational Average: Dollar Amount or Percentage Giving?
Only one factor remained important for understanding the overall level of financial contributions—how individuals make decisions around financial contributions to the church. When many worshipers decide on an annual dollar figure, the total amount given to the church is less. Mainline Protestant worshipers were most likely to indicate that they make a decision based on an annual figure (29%). In contrast, only 8% of conservative Protestant and 9% of Catholic worshipers choose an annual dollar figure as the bases for their church giving.
Conservative Protestant worshipers tend to give financially larger shares of their income to their congregation and are more likely to worship in a church with higher giving levels overall. These worshipers say they decide on a percent of their income annually (29% do) rather than a dollar figure. Catholic worshipers, who tend to give less on average than other worshipers do, say they typically decide on a weekly dollar amount (42% do) rather than an annual amount or a percentage of income.
What’s the best advice for your church’s stewardship message? First, consider the most effective strategies for encouraging higher giving in your denomination. In general, when many worshipers decide how much to give based on a weekly or annual dollar amount, this results in smaller contributions overall. Instead, encourage worshipers to consider percentage giving and emphasize that they grow that percentage over time. Second, stress that worshipers give out of gratitude for God’s love and goodness.
Check out earlier posts about what influences individual giving levels: http://presbyterian.typepad.com/beyondordinary/2010/03/ten-reasons-why-we-give.html