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Pouring into Ministry

Understanding how age and faith affect giving habits.

The fascination with and study of generation has occupied people's mind for many years. Tom Brokaw's book, The Greatest Generation (Random House, 2004), was a hit.

The blockbuster having Private Ryan gave us a startling glimpse of what our fathers and grandfathers endured in World War II. And nostalgia albums and cancer on public television are common.

There are reasons for this fascination. Generational differences affect the way we look at life, create priorities, and give. As I've studied generational giving for several years, it has been interesting to observe these differences as they relate to giving in the church, to parachurch organizations, and specifically to rescue missions.

We now have even more information to understand the relationship between giving and donors' ages. Campbell & Company commissioned a related study at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana Univesity. The results, published in May 2008, offer a valuable insight and challenges for the future of donor relations. Key Findings

The study was primarily an online survey, but researchers also conducted phone interviews to ensure technology did not impede a thorough sampling. Researchers related giving to a number of key factors. The study and following analysis produced several important findings:

  • Generational differences in giving exist mostly between the great (born before 1929) and siIent generations (also called builders; born between 1929 and 1945), and boomer (1946-1964) and younger generations.

  • The amount of individual's giving differs mostly because of factors other than generations, including education, frequency of religious attendance, and income.

  • No generational difference exists in total giving by household, after controls for income, marital status, race, education, age of youngest child, region of country, and religious attendance are removed.

  • Giving motivation vary by income, race, education, region of country, and religious attendance. but vary little by generation, after controls for these other factors.

  • The great and builder generation are more likely to give to religious causes than the boomer generation.

  • Millennials (also called mosaics; born after 1981) are motivated to give mostly by a desire to make the world a better place.

  • After controls, religious attendance was linked to motivation to make the world a better place for those who occasionally attend religious services.

  • Among people who attend religious services more than once a week, making the world a better place was not a high motivation for giving.

Changing Church

In my work, I have studied and experienced the trend. Different generations view giving, generosity, and-most importantly to rescue missions-biblical stewardship in various ways.

One caution: A key finding in the Campbell & Company study is that when researchers remove the cultural issue of income, race, and involvement in religious activities, there is very little difference in giving by generations. Of course there isn't! The researchers are saying that if we removed the very fabric of culture and its influence on people, we would all give in similar fashion.

This disregard of culture isn't reality. Each recent generation has brought major social, economic, and spiritual changes to the world, shifting values and priorities. Each group of people even has its own vocabulary. (Remember when being called gay was a personality compliment?)

In the same way, each generation of Christians views and defines faith – a fundamental part of their lives – and stewardship differently.

In the faith community, we have seen incredible change in how people view stewardship and generosity. The tithe, the annual stewardship talk, the capital campaign, and the "giving kiosk" have evolved through the year.

Through research for my doctorate of ministry program, I have learned that the lack of stewardship education in seminaries has resulted in a dumbing down of American churches in this area. Many leaders have – intentionally or not – limited the definition of stewardship to mean simply giving money toward the church budget, leading younger generations to place less emphasis on this important spiritual component of the Christian life.

We are reaping what we have sown in our younger generations regarding giving and stewardship, and how they view their responsibility to support ministries and nonprofit organizations. They have received more training from secular nonprofits in giving than they have from the church.

Rescue missions and other ministries must compete with secular organizations that have effective strategies in place to build relationships with and obtain funds from donors.

Key Relationships

While researchers may have overlooked some implications for the faith community, I believe the stated and implied outcomes of this study are correct. It is critical to look beyond age when considering how much people give, what they give to, and what motivates them to give.

This is very important to rescue missions' development department… For a long season, missions have looked at most of their donors through a direct mail filter. Ministry leaders consider what appeal(s) each gives to, and how often he or she contributes during the year.

This surface evaluation of a donor relationship is no longer enough. As donors get more sophisticated, involved, and informed, they expect the ministries to which they donate to be increasingly informative and connected.

Instilling Faith

To strengthen our development efforts, we must also recognize the difference in two major giving motivations: faith, or to make the world a better place.

As Christians, our faith gives us both an earthly and eternal motivation for the work we do. We believe Jesus gives us the power to help change lives and break the bonds of addiction in this world. We also believe Christ grams eternal life to those who accept Him as Savior.

This faith-based motivation is a foundational part of many a builder generation individual's life. The boomer believes this as well, but he or she also wants the world to be a better place. The buster and millennial generations are more motivated by helping people now in this world than by eternal purposes.

This research is consistent with what we see in the American church. Books such as Revolution (Barna Books, 2005) and unChristian (Baker Books, 2007) confirm this alarming trend among younger generations.

If churches and parachurch groups continue to avoid teaching on generosity and stewardship – key indicators of spiritual maturity – we will continue to see these downward trends in giving and spiritual motivations.

Rescue missions must help donors see the immediate and the eternal significance of their involvement in ministry, helping them to recognize that they are a key component of Gods plan to rescue the least, the lost, and the lonely in Jesus' name .•