Helping Twentysomethings Participate in the Privilege of Giving
People don’t go into ministry because they like asking for money. Men and women with a burning desire to teach, counsel and form relationships often relish fundraising as much as they do picking gum off their shoe. Financial support is crucial, however, to the survival of any organization. The charitable “causes” are not the only things that require cash. Meeting space, Bibles, salaries, vans, utilities, pizza, computers, paper for the church bulletin and the youth pastor’s health insurance are only a few of the necessities that someone has to pay for. “God will provide” means that God will provide money or, more accurately, that God will provide people willing to give money.
Those willing to give substantially are few. Only 3 to 5 percent of American Protestants tithe, said George Barna in his book How to Increase Giving in Your Church (Regal Books). It’s worse for twentysomething Christians, of whom only three out of 10 donate anything to their church, much less tithe. This can result from resistance to “settling down” in a church. “People in their mid-20s are so transient … their desire to put down roots is weak,” says Hillary Rose, former college and young adult leader of New Song in San Dimas, Calif. “Most of them still feel connections to former churches or feel like observers.” Working with a young “seeker” congregation creates more of a challenge. In a 2002 news release from World Vision “Survey Finds Americans More Generous Last Year,” George Barna, of The Barna Group, reported that giving increases with the level of spiritual intensity and commitment to Christ. Thus, someone with fresh student loans trying to figure out their relationship with Jesus and the Church isn’t the best candidate for tithing.
This generation of young adults is also suspicious of institutions and people in authority who ask for cash. They’ve seen excess, waste and greed in and out of church. They grew up with Enron, Robert Tilton and churches with more multimedia equipment than a U2 concert. If they suspect that their money will be squandered, they’re more likely to “donate” at Starbucks or Urban Outfitters on Sunday.
But there’s good news—young adults, especially this generation, have an increased sense of social justice and a desire for community. The relational, cooperative style of emergent-styled congregations can result in a greater sense of responsibility. Many churches are abandoning hierarchical models in favor of a communal approach where everyone plays an important role. This can result in young, financially strapped Christians giving more to their church.
Most twentysomethings will give with the right type of encouragement and a sense of involvement. Below are some principles for helping young adults make giving part of their spiritual formation.
Provide a vision and a mission.
In The Spirituality of Fundraising, Henri Nouwen wrote, “[Fundraising] is a way of announcing our vision and inviting other people into our mission. Vision and mission are so central to the life of God’s people that without vision we perish and without vision we lose our way.” Motivating people to donate money can be onerous. Motivating them to have a vision and take on a mission can be a joy. People get excited about accomplishing something. Meeting a demonstrable need inspires them. Many who normally snooze through stewardship sermons will wake up when they hear that the single mothers in their church need a childcare program.
The church leaders interviewed for this article emphasized the importance of providing a specific mission. Pastors say that it’s hard to get younger members to tithe or buy into denominational support, but they’re often the first to respond to particular needs. “They enjoy giving to things that matter,” says Mark Upton, pastor of Hope Community Church in Charlotte, N.C. “They don’t want to be pressured to give or guilted into it, but they do want to know when the church has a need and what the money is going toward.” Tom Bolling, student minister of First Baptist Church in Lake Park, Fla., agrees. “It is more effective to present a specific and personal need, and when that is done … the younger set seems to respond,” he says. Personal needs spark the most enthusiasm from twentysomethings. They might be reticent to donate to the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund, but happy to pay for counseling for a struggling couple or support someone during a job search.
Treat it as an opportunity.
Asking for financial support provides people an opportunity to obey God and participate in a spiritual discipline. It’s not about badgering people for money; it’s “giving God opportunity to work in people’s hearts and move them forward to respond to Him with their finances,” says Grace Kim, education pastor at Walnut Church of the Nazarene in Walnut, Calif. It gives everyone a chance to serve God and feel included. This can be especially true for those who can’t participate in “hands-on” ministry. They get to join their brothers and sisters in doing the work of Christ. If churches were financially self-sustained, members might feel more like patients in a hospital than members of a community. Giving provides a sense of identity and function within the body of Christ. As Pastor Mark Upton puts it, you’re “doing them a favor because it’s a privilege to be part of what God’s doing, no matter how [they] get involved.”
Being an active participant is more exciting than being a passive donor. If the community forms the vision and executes the mission, they will become as anxious as their leaders when money is short. They will want the ministry to succeed because it’s theirs, not just the pastor’s. The real success comes, however, in working together as the body of Christ. Relationships will grow as people work together. Meeting goals is only a by-product.
It’s important, especially with younger congregations, to expand the definition of “giving.” One pastor of a young congregation encourages people to tithe their time. Church members can help clean up after meetings, volunteer with the youth, help design the website, serve communion or save the church from buying a van by lending their car once a week. These “soft” contributions save the church money while allowing everyone to participate in the vision and mission.
Make giving practical.
People in their 20s and early 30s often lack the organization and rhythm of those who are more “settled.” They might lack the financial resources to save and plan ahead. Some don’t know how much money they’ll have from month to month. They pay bills at the last minute, only go to the ATM after spending their last buck and keep no more than a couple of stamps on hand for the occasional bill they can’t pay online. They don’t have the long-term perspective and deep pockets that make for consistent giving.
Church leaders need to find out what will make giving simple and convenient for their congregation. One way is to set up automatic withdrawals from bank accounts. Another is to keep a donation box available at all times, so people can give whenever it’s convenient. Many times, people just need a reminder and an easy way to give. An email reminder with a link to a website where they can pay by credit card might help many twentysomethings incorporate giving into their hectic lifestyles. Sometimes, increasing giving requires no more than rethinking the logistics.
Be financially transparent.
In order to feel like active participants, the whole community needs to know what’s happening with the money. This is harder than it sounds. It takes more than flinging open the financial books at quarterly business meetings. Detailed accounting of a church’s spending can be confusing. “The paperwork and numbers are available to everyone, but people don’t understand all the spreadsheets,” says Pastor Johnny Johnston of Sierra Madre Congregational Church in Sierra Madre, Calif. “Maybe that’s why it’s easier to get people to give to something like … [a] building project because they know exactly where their money is going.”
Send brief, easy-to-comprehend spending summaries to everyone (not just the lay leaders) and have the spreadsheets available for those who want details. Admit mistakes and explain how you’re going to correct them. Answer questions, seek feedback and be open to everyone’s ideas. This can be tough when someone suggests that you cut your salary and live in the church basement. However, if your community sees that you have nothing to hide and welcome them into the decision-making process, they’ll be less resistant and more invested over the long run.
You must be inspired if you want to inspire your congregation. Any ambivalence you feel about fundraising will show. One church leader said, “It’s difficult for me to challenge the church to give sacrificially when I am not convinced the focus of our ministry is at the forefront or when I don’t feel the money is being spent wisely.” If you don’t believe in the importance of what you’re doing, it will be difficult to get others to reach for their wallet. If you’re raising money for something that seems secondary, try to see it in context. An increased budget for the church website can enable you to reach those who are looking for churches online. Seemingly inconsequential needs become important when seen as elements of your vision and mission.
You don’t need arrogance or blind ambition, but a quiet assurance that God supports your work. For whatever reason, God wants you raising money right now. Even if God called you to ministry because you’re a compelling speaker and play a mean campfire guitar, He has other plans at the moment. It doesn’t matter to Him that you’ve never done so much as sell Girl Scout cookies. God has appointed you to further His work by raising money. Treat it as an honor. With confidence in your gifts and God’s provision, you can approach fundraising as a privilege. Both those who ask and those who give should be thankful that God has chosen them.
This sort of confidence fortifies you against hard feelings when requests are denied. They didn’t say no to you—they missed a chance to participate in God’s work. Rather than feeling resentful, you can pray that God will give them another opportunity.
Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth … But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 24, 33, NRSV). Though money is central to ministry, it’s not at the core. It’s not the purpose driving you or your community. Growing closer to Christ and each other while serving God is what brings Christians together. While raising money should be seen as a divine opportunity rather than a nuisance, it’s not what we should seek first. If we seek God, hungering and thirsting for His love, grace and power to be realized in our lives, God will take care of the rest. We must be intentional and work hard to raise money while trusting that God has a plan and a purpose that’s much greater than meeting our financial needs. God is not glorified through money; He’s glorified in our lives and relationships. Fundraising is just one more opportunity for the body of Christ to show their love for God and each other. Remembering that can make passing the offering plate a little easier.
For a thoughtful, inspirational and free resource on fundraising, order a copy Henri Nouwen’s The Spirituality of Fundraising at www.henrinouwen.org.
Stephen W. Simpson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, writer, speaker and an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is co-author of What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Sex (Baker Books), releasing in April 2007.