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How pastors & church members view generosity differently

2 Corinthians 9:7 says it best: “God loves a cheerful giver.” And it’s no secret that pastors do, too.

As a Christian leader, you strive to create a culture of generosity among your people. But doing so successfully can be difficult. Many of us feel called to be generous. So how can you help those you lead put their values into action?

Research commissioned by Thrivent with the Barna Group* suggests the best way to start is to get on the same page about what generosity looks like. With pastors and U.S. Christians approaching it differently, these key takeaways and perspectives can help you expand your own thinking, eliminate misconceptions and communicate more effectively about giving. Which, in turn, can help foster that generous culture.

There are 5 main ways people express and receive generosity

To lay a framework for interpreting how people think about generosity, the survey first considered the different forms generosity can take and identified five distinct categories:

Monetary support
Donating financial resources
Icon of hand with present
Sharing tangible gifts
Helping through unpaid labor
Welcoming & accepting others
Emotional / relational support
Showing compassion, encouragement & understanding

1. Monetary support

Donating money to people or causes, such as a church member who's facing hard times or a global nonprofit devoted to child development. 

2. Gifting

Supporting others with tangible items other than money (i.e., supplying presents for a holiday toy drive, growing vegetables for a food bank, donating property for a nonprofit's auction). 

3. Volunteering

Performing acts of service to benefit others, such as building houses through Habitat for Humanity or picking up trash at the park. 

4. Hospitality

Welcoming others with unqualified acceptance and kindness. (Think of your church's fellowship team hosting newcomer and member events to build a sense of community, or people opening their homes to foster children.) 

5. Emotional/relational support

Being there for people by listening to and encouraging them. Youth mentoring, visiting residents at a care facility, or accompanying someone during a tough task are just some of the possibilities. 

Once these five categories were determined, they were then grouped into two broader concepts. Monetary support and gifting can be thought of as "the giving of things," while volunteering, hospitality and emotional/relational support are "the giving of self."

Pastors and Christians define generosity similarly

When asked which type of giving pastors and Christians most closely associate with generosity, the majority of both groups agree: the giving of things. More specifically, seven in 10 pastors define generosity as monetary support or gifting. And five in 10 Christians say the same thing. Of course, there are some exceptions.

Generational differences may affect how generosity is viewed

Certain generations of Christians seem to share church leaders’ viewpoints on generosity more than others. For example, Christians born between 1946 and 1964—often referred to as Baby Boomers—most strongly align with pastors who associate generosity with the giving of the things, especially monetary support through tithing and giving of resources. Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) seem to think that way, too.

But younger generations deviate from pastoral perspectives by thinking of generosity more as a giving of self. Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Zers (born between 1997 and 2012) are more likely to value hospitality as an expression of generosity than pastors and older generations. And Gen Zers flip the script completely—ranking emotional/relational support first and monetary support dead-last.

In addition to these insights, passages in Scripture like the Parable of the Good Samaritan reflect the importance of giving time, talents and self. Keep both the Word and the data in mind as you build a culture of generosity that includes and attracts members of all ages.

There’s some conflict between giving vs. getting

Because many Christians relate generosity with money or gifts, it’s no surprise that “giving financially to an important cause” is the type of giving they feel they are best at. But when on the receiving end of generosity, few actually prefer to get this type of support most. In the survey, one question asks, “Today, if someone wants to be generous to you, which example of generosity would be most meaningful for you to receive?”

The top answer is surprising. 33% of Christians say receiving emotional/relational support would be most meaningful to them. 25% say hospitality and 10% pick volunteering. This is compared with money and gift-giving at only 21% and 11%, respectively.

This discrepancy highlights the main challenge at play: Even though pastors and many Christians define generosity as a giving of things, their opinions differ greatly when they feel the giving of self would make a truer difference in their own lives and communities. Perhaps Gen Zers are more attune to this and therefore weigh it with such importance.

You may want to keep this in mind when you're preparing your next sermon or brainstorming with other church leaders about a charitable cause. Your congregation or ministry members may be more inspired to act when presented with different ways to be generous while still working toward the same goal. Let's say your community has a large population of recent immigrants who need help adjusting to their new environment. A giving campaign that creates opportunities for donating money, supplying clothing, teaching English and welcoming visitors to the church might generate more participation than one that only asks for money.

Pastors feel more comfortable 'framing' than 'naming' generosity

When it comes to generosity, Christians don't necessarily view their pastors as thought leaders or sources of wisdom on the topic, the survey found. And pastors are quick to admit this shortcoming. One in three say they don't feel confident in their ability to preach or teach on generosity. And almost half are concerned that preaching on generosity creates the impression that they're asking for donations.

Yet, nine in 10 pastors feel a strong responsibility to guide their congregations toward a biblical understanding of generosity, and nearly eight in 10 feel a strong responsibility to model generosity for others. These duties can be thought of as ways of framing generosity.

But far fewer pastors in the survey feel responsible for naming generosity—that is, specifically advising their congregations on how much money to give, where to give it and how. It’s possible more Christians would consider their pastors sources of wisdom on generosity if they were to more actively name it. You can put this into practice by identifying more specific (monetary and non-monetary) giving opportunities that church members can act on. And consider emphasizing the emotional/relational support that Christians say they desire most.

It’s crucial to continue the conversation

Regardless of the discrepancies between how pastors and Christians think about generosity, both groups want the same thing: To give in a way that honors and serves God. And while a church certainly needs solid finances to operate, an open line of communication between you and your members can help them explore all the expressions of generosity, and feel more empowered to give in the context of their church, community and everyday lives.

On the basis of generosity, conversation and culture go hand in hand. You can lead both—and in doing so, lead your people, too.

*Research conducted by the Barna Group (2022).