“State of the Plate”: Fascinating Look at Widespread Practice of Tithing

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May 15, 2013; Christianity Today

Did you know that 10 million people in the U.S. tithe—that is, give a tenth of their income to their churches? Brian Kluth, a pastor who labels himself “the Giving Guy,” conducts an annual “State of the Plate” research effort into religious giving and recently released the results of a survey of 4,413 tithers drawn from his surveys of religious givers during the past five years.

We cannot attest to Kluth’s methodology; the tithers in the survey are a large subset of his overall survey of church givers, with no indication that they are necessarily representative of all tithers in the country or that there aren’t some double-counted tithers in the list. Nonetheless, with those limitations, his findings still constitute a very interesting look into a small but dedicated part of the charitable giving community that supports religion and religious institutions. Some of Kluth’s more interesting findings are these:

  • Christian tithers are more likely to be debt-free, or at least mortgage- and car loan-free, than Christian non-tithers. Compare tithers and nontithers on assets and indebtedness, and it is clear that tithers are better off than their non-tithing peers. Consequently, what prevents non-tithers from tithing is the amount of debt they carry.
  • Seventy-seven percent of tithers actually give more than 10 percent of their income annually. Nine percent give one-fifth of their incomes.
  • While making tithing to their churches their top priority, almost one-fourth donated more money outside their churches than they gave as tithes. However, for tithers, the recipients of giving outside their churches were also largely religious, in rank order: “71 percent gave to missionaries/mission organizations; 52 percent donated to people they knew going on short-term missions trips; 31 percent helped an unemployed person they knew; 29 percent helped a homeless person/beggar; 29 percent gave to a rescue mission or ministry to the homeless; 29 percent gave to an evangelistic/evangelism ministry; 28 percent donated to crisis/natural disaster/relief ministry; 27 percent gave to a child/orphan/student sponsorship ministry; 25 percent donated to a pro-life or crisis pregnancy ministry; [and] 23 percent donated to Christian education (K-12, college, seminary)”
  • Seventy-one percent of tithers have a will or estate plan. Of those who plan bequests, “25 percent are leaving a bequest to their church; 11 percent to mission agencies; 10 percent to ministries; 9 percent to schools; 7 percent to charities/nonprofits; 5 percent to their denomination; [and] 0.5 percent to civic groups.” It would seem that, while tithers are generous to their churches and related religious functions, that is where the giving stays, not varying drifting much to other charities or secular causes. The notion that religious giving leads to other more ecumenical, or perhaps more secular, charitable giving in addition doesn’t seem to hold for religious tithers.

Kluth’s research on tithing is not accidental. He is a longtime advocate of tithing. In an article published on the 700 Club website, Kluth explains that “the surest long-term path to get out of debt and financial troubles is to make a decision to give 10 percent of your income to God first.” His State of the Plate research identifies the two top reasons that Christian non-tithers give for rejecting tithing as their perceptions that they “cannot afford to give” or that they carry too much debt. He told the 700 Club, however, that though tithers may encounter “[i]nstances…when it makes no financial sense to give to the Lord. Yet, God wants us to give at times with the realization that we are totally dependent on Him to meet our basic needs and desires.” He contends that, “[w]e should never ‘give to get,’ but we can trust that as we give, our God will meet our needs, sometimes in very special ways.”—Rick Cohen