The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal is perhaps best remembered for devising one of the most famous divine bets. He reasoned in choosing between belief and unbelief, the safest gamble was to believe in God to gain a possible heaven than to risk the perils of a possible hell. The odds weren’t bad at all. Now a recent trend among evangelicals is poised to popularize an even bolder wager with God—the Money Back Guarantee.
Churches across America are calling it the 90-Day Tithing Challenge. It is a stewardship campaign doubling as a financial pact between congregants and God. If they will agree to tithe their full 10% over 90 days, the church promises that if the believer does not think that God has recompensed them for their efforts that they will refund 100% of their tithe. No questions asked.
The 90-Day Tithing Challenges has been touted from the pulpits of some of the country’s largest megachurches (see Baptist wunderkind Ed Young) to local Latter Day Saints branch presidents looking for new language to motivate tithing settlements. It’s catchy because it seems to reinvigorate old commitments (Pay your tithes! Give to the church!) in a nation that donates only about 3% of its income to charity. But it does so with some distinctive twists.
First, it borrows revivalist pentecostal language from the early 1960s about “proving” God through financial agreements—creating new “signs and wonders” for an economically hungry age. In a sea of theological superlatives, the argument goes that no one can outgive the Giver. When you give, God returns what is due as part of the divine economy. More begets more.
Second, the 90-Day Tithing Challenge simplifies what I call “soft prosperity.” Soft prosperity reasons that good Christians will be rewarded in the here-and-now for their spiritual efforts, without the immediacy of some of the prosperity gospel’s hard causal language. Evangelical audiences comfortable with theological certainties but shy about guaranteeing financial promises can think about their tithing obligations with a greater sense of concrete expectations and rewards.
With a generation of incredible scholarship on religion and marketplace still unfolding, we should continue to expect that consumerist language will shape the categories by which believers choose to identify and carry out their spiritual commitments. But whether these savvy spiritual shoppers will ultimately ask for their money back remains to be seen.