Recently the Barna Group and Thrivent Financial partnered to produce a study called The Generosity Gap, which explores attitudes, understandings, and practices related to generosity and faith. Pastors and church attendees from across denominations and generations participated. Ninety-six percent (96%) said generosity is important to them, and that Christians should be generous to reflect God’s character by showing love to others, to give back in appreciation for God’s generosity toward us, and to become more like Christ. An attitude and a discipline were the words both groups used the most to describe generosity.
Survey participants seem to have a good understanding of what it means to be generous. Some might claim that a generous spirit is part of our nature as God’s creation. In their blog for Spirituality and Practice, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat note that generosity is a fundamental teaching in most, if not all, of the world’s religions.
According to Christian historian Tertullian, in the early days of Christianity the generosity of faithful disciples set them apart from the rest of the community. In her book Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels describes:
Unlike members of other clubs and societies that collected dues and fees to pay for feasts, members of the Christian ‘family’ contributed money voluntarily to a common fund to support orphans abandoned in the streets and garbage dumps. Christian groups brought food, medicine, and companionship to prisoners forced to work in mines, banished to prison islands, or held in jail. Christians even bought coffins and dug graves to bury the poor and criminals, whose corpses would otherwise lie unburied beyond the city gates…such generosity, which ordinarily could be expected only from one’s own family, attracted crowds of newcomers to Christian groups, despite the risks.
The recent Generosity Gap study names differences in thoughts about generosity between current denominations, generations, and vocations. In them you can see a connecting thread to the centuries-old actions of the early Christians. At its best, Christian generosity is not just transactional – it is transformational. The early Christians were known by their care for the poor, the sick, and the grieving. They possessed the characteristics named in the Barna study. In the spirit of Christ’s example, their attitudes and disciplines showed love to others in gratitude for the grace they had been given and continued to receive.
In the most recent issue of Giving Magazine, Rev. Stacy Emerson, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in West Hartford, Connecticut, describes how her congregation partnered with others in their community to establish “Welcome Home West Hartford” to provide hospitality for refugee families. Her comments echo the words of the Barna study and the actions of the early Christians:
What we have learned about generosity through our experience with welcoming refugee families is this: generosity is at its heart a love for our neighbors, the ones next door and the ones around the world. Generosity begins with what we believe: believing in God’s abundant provision, believing in God’s call for us to care for each other and the earth, believing God is generous and that we are created in the image of God. Generosity is also about our behavior and practice: how we respond to God’s blessing, how we answer God’s call, and how we can share in generosity as God has shared with us.
It’s so clear to see the transformational power of generosity and a reflection of God’s character in what’s happening at First Baptist Church and in the motivation of the Barna study respondents. Do you see these connecting threads and a web of generosity in your congregation? Do your invitations to give sound like collecting dues and paying fees to support your own internal feasts, or do members of your faith community understand that their giving helps the poor, the prisoner, the sad, and the lonely?
If your congregation is not attracting crowds of newcomers, it’s worth considering that it might be related to your attitudes and disciplines regarding generosity. It’s worth taking the time to consider whether the ways you are generous is a testimony of your faith and blessings to the world.