Passing the Plate

Paul Harvey

A quick new-Monday-of-the-economic-crisis note on a new book of interest from Oxford University Press, about Americans' relatively low church and charitable giving. It comes from the eminent sociologists of religion Michael Emerson, Christian Smith, and Patricia Snell:

Passing the Plate shows that few American Christians donate generously to religious and charitable causes -- a parsimony that seriously undermines the work of churches and ministries. 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. And a startling one out of five self-identified Christians gives nothing at all.This eye-opening book explores the reasons behind such ungenerous giving, the potential world-changing benefits of greater financial giving, and what can be done to improve matters. 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. Analyzing a wide range of social surveys and government and denominational statistical datasets and drawing on in-depth interviews with Christian pastors and church members in seven different states, the book identifies 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.

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.
Ron Sider has recently recommended the book is Books and Culture, and the book comes with positive responses from Robert Wuthnow and Mark Noll as well. Anyone who has examined the book, feel free to respond here.


Luke Harlow said…
Hey Paul,

I think you neglected to mention the authors: this is the latest from leading sociologists of religion Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell. With those folks behind it, I'm eager to see the work.
Anonymous said…
Smith and Emerson are incredible. When trying to come up with new historical questions, I often turn to their stuff. I'm not familiar with any of Snell's work, but I can't wait to read this book (and figure out how in the hell anyone actually tithes 10%, let alone 1%)
Phil said…
Agreed; this looks like a fantastic book. I'm eager to read how they trace the argument out historically.

And I'd put my money on these authors any day--of course only if there's anything left after tithing.
DEG said…
I read James Hudnut-Beumler's In Pursuit of the Almighty Dollar last year, and if memory serves, I believe he provides a nice bit of historical context for how and why Protestants have (and haven't) contributed financially to the growth of their churches.

Given that, in all honesty, tithing works like a self-imposed regressive tax, it wouldn't surprise me that folks down the economic strata can't or don't give more to their churches. That they do give - and often more proportionally than their wealthier brothers and sisters - is one of the questions that I hope this book helps me answer.

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