By Marcia Shetler
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. Pastors and church attendees from across denominations and generations participated in the study. Ninety-six percent 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.
These 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 the disciples set them apart. In her book Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels describes it this way: “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.”
While the recent Barna study names differences in thoughts about generosity between denominations, generations, and vocations, I think there is a connecting thread between the centuries-old actions of the early Christians and the responses of the study participants. Christian generosity at its best is not just transactional: it is transformational. The early Christians were known by their care for the poor, the sick, and the grieving, possessing the characteristics named in the Barna study: attitudes and disciplines that in the spirit of Christ’s example 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.”
What connecting threads describe the 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, might it at least possibly be related to your attitudes and disciplines regarding generosity? Are the ways you are generous testimonies of your faith and blessings to the world?