What is generosity?
The answer, as it turns out, varies wildly according to how old you are.
A 78-year old might think that generosity translates to committing financial resources on a regular basis to a church or non-profit. A 45-year old might think that generosity means taking care of family. And a 29-year old might believe that generosity means inviting others over for dinner or small group.
A recent report published by The Barna Group dove deep into generational differences in generosity–including how we think about generosity, what compels us to be generous, and how we’re actually generous.
The report kicks off with a startling statistic: While 7% of elders (age 70+) donate 10% or more of their income to church, only 1% of millennials claim to do the same.
In other words, 7X more elders than millennials tithe, or give beyond tithing.
That’s not an insignificant difference. That difference in attitude–and action–may have an impact on the way churches and nonprofits can anticipate generosity in the future. It may also shape the way leaders talk about and model generosity to staff, church members, and even friends.
In the following article, we’ll take a closer look at generational differences in how we think about giving, as well as strategies for promoting a God-centered approach to giving at your church.
Is Generous Giving a Discipline?
Before looking at how different generations express generosity, let’s look at their attitudes behind generous giving.
Barna’s study found that 62% of adults over the age of 70 would say that generosity is a discipline, vs. 51% of millennials. Likewise, older generations are more likely to say that generosity is planned (43% of elders vs. 31% of millennials).
“Generosity is done voluntarily, but there is a bit of a plan,” says Bayliss, 78. “I give first to my family, but I also give something every week to a cause that I care about.”
“I’m less likely to give to someone who is fundraising on the street,” he continues.
Millennials, on the other hand, may be more likely to be spontaneous in their contributions. According to a 2015 article by CNBC, one of the primary ways that millennials demonstrate generosity is “by impulse, donating a dollar at the checkout counter or contributing to a Salvation Army bell ringer, for example.”
Their spontaneity in giving reflects the fact that millennials are more likely to be spontaneous in general, and are more driven by emotions.
But “spontaneous charity” may also be the result of teaching. Millennials may be more impacted by teachings that emphasize giving as an impulse, and not a practice.
Another key aspect of generosity is a person’s overall financial goals. Whether consciously expressed or not, every adult has an ultimate financial goal–and those goals vary widely from generation to generation.
For example, 31% of millennials said that providing for their families was their ultimate financial goal for life, vs. 18% of boomers, 18% of gen x-ers, and only 13% of elders.
On the other hand, only 10% of millennials said that serving God with their money was their ultimate financial goal, vs. 9% of gen x-ers, 11% of boomers, and 19% of elders.
Circumstances are partially responsible for this reality. More millennials are building families and raising young children right now than any other generation. They also entered the workforce at a time when saving cash was tough–and as a result, are playing “catchup” when it comes to accumulating wealth.
However, this statistic may also reflect a core difference in how generations view the importance of serving God with finances. While millennials are actually known for their generosity to charitable causes, only 23% of people who give to churches are under the age of 40.
Is Generosity a Financial Gift?
Next, we’ll take a look at how different generations in the church define generosity.
Is generosity defined by financial contribution–or by offering resources like time, kindness, and hospitality?
Barna surveyed Christians from among four generations on what constitutes the most generous thing a person can do. Here are the results:
- 52% of elders believe that service is the most generous action a person can take.
- 31% of millennials believe that providing emotional support is the most generous action a person can take.
- An even percentage of elders, boomers, and gen x-ers believe that giving financially is the most generous action a person can take (29%, 23%, and 26% respectively). However, only 13% of millennials believe the same.
- With the exception of 21% of millennials, very few people believe that demonstrating hospitality is the most generous thing a person can do (For example, 0% of elders believe this).
- A negligible amount of Christians believe that gift-giving is the most generous thing a person can do.
The conclusion? Millennials are more likely to express generosity through opening their doors to friends, coworkers, and family members. On the other hand, they are less likely to express generosity through tithing or financial giving to their church.
That reality can affect the way older generations view younger generations.
A boomer or elder may look at a millennial who doesn’t give financially as lacking in generosity. But the same millennial who doesn’t give may be inviting coworkers into their home frequently, making meals for others, and allowing friends to sleep on their couch or in their spare bedroom–rent-free.
One irony to this is that millennials are also more likely to see themselves as financially generous. According to the Barna report, 29% of millennials are likely to see themselves as “very generous” with their money, compared with only 18% of elders–despite the fact that elders were by far the most likely to give $2500+ annually, and millennials were the least.
The Millennial Difference
Millennials are certainly a unique generation. For more than a decade, their spending habits, professional tendencies, and belief systems have been examined and analyzed. And with good reason: These young adults play a powerful role in culture, the economy, and the political climate.
Millennials were the first generation to be able to leverage digital technology from a young age. They also came of age in a post-9/11 world, shaped by different expectations around safety and security and foreign policy. Finally–as mentioned above–many of them also entered the workforce during the economic recession of 2007-08.
As a result, millennials have grappled with different circumstances than previous generations. When many of them graduated college around the so-called Great Recession, they weren’t guaranteed good jobs. In fact, they weren’t guaranteed jobs at all; the unemployment rate for college graduates in 2008 was 6.8%. For young adults without degrees, unemployment was at 15.7%.
The effects of the recession on millennials have been long-lasting. According to an article by Yahoo Finance, “The dismal job market kicked off a cycle of unemployment, underemployment, lower wages, which can have lasting effects on careers. Ballooning student debt and rising real estate costs further squeezed millennials.”
Today, many millennials are ambitiously acquiring wealth through entrepreneurship, investment, and innovation. They’re also raising families, paying for private education, buying homes, and saving up for college for their children. The result? They may be less likely to write checks (or texting to give) to their churches.
Strategies for Teaching on Generosity to Every Generation
Generational differences are inevitable. There will always be differences in how people of different ages assign value to things like time, money, hospitality, and generosity. As Christians, however, we all have a mandate to love generously, love well, and reflect Christ to those around us.
2 Corinthians 9:6-8 says,
“Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”
In other words, we are all called to give generously–and to expect that we will be provided for in return. We are also called to give with “cheerful” hearts, and not with a spirit of reluctance or compulsion. Finally, we are to give knowing that God will bless us abundantly. These words apply to every believer in Christ–whether they’re 26 or 65.
1 Corinthians 1:10 says,
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
The way we view generosity is not meant to be a dividing factor between generations. Rather, believers in Christ are called to be “united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
In light of that, how should a pastor or church leader respond to differing views–and behaviors–with regards to generosity?
Well, it starts with good, Biblical teaching. But generosity is also taught through modeling, frequent communication, and opportunities to give.
Here are three strategies for promoting healthy Biblical generosity among every generation at your church.
There’s a gap between how pastors view generosity, and how all Christians view generosity. According to the Barna report. 66% of pastors see generosity as a response to Christ’s love, vs. 47% of all Christians. On the other hand, 18% of all Christians view generosity as being driven by duty, vs. only. 3% of pastors.
That being said, building vision for generosity is critical. Don’t assume that because you’re reading the same Bible, you and your congregation are on the same page! Think about how to creatively communicate a Biblically-centered vision for giving at your church. And don’t just reserve Sunday morning tithes and offerings for talking about generosity. You may want to give a whole sermon (or sermon series!) on giving.
Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. (Malachi 3:10)
The Bible gives specific teachings about financial giving. One reason there’s a “generosity gap,” is that there’s misunderstanding about what actually constitutes generosity. That being said, the Bible also speaks specifically to hospitality (Hebrews 13:2), generosity with material goods (1 John 13:7), and service to the poor (Matthew 25:35-40).
Whether you’re speaking to those who view generosity strictly as service, or to those who see it exclusively as a check, draw on the Bible for teaching truth on this topic.
(For 100 scriptures on generosity, read “Tithing in the Bible: 100+ Scriptures about Giving.”)
Provide tools for generosity.
If you’re teaching on financial generosity, make it easy for church members to respond.
Using a tool like Tithe.ly makes it simple and convenient for your congregants to tithe regularly or make one-time donations. Tithe.ly comes with six different options for giving, including text-to-give, giving on a mobile app, giving at a kiosk, writing a check, giving with cryptocurrency, and more. Plus, younger generations may be far more likely to give if they’re able to do it on their mobile phones–especially if all it takes is a text message.
To learn more about using Tithe.ly for free, click here.
A Culture of Generosity
When it comes to giving, there are always going to be differences in how people express and view generosity. Age isn’t the only factor. Personality, upbringing, income, and even gender play into how Christians give of their financial resources, time, and kindness.
Being aware of the stats on giving–and continuing to provide teaching that speaks to all generations on this topic–can help bridge the gap, bring unity, and advance the Kingdom with one of God’s most wonderful attributes: generosity.