A Bleak Future for Christian Philanthropy?

Shrewd Stewardship in the “Negative World”

I remember being awestruck to learn some years ago that when we look up at the night sky, what we see is a snapshot of many different moments in time. Digging deeper, though, it makes sense. The farther away a star is, the further back in time our snapshot is, because even light travels only so fast. I’ll leave the philosophical ramifications of this to wiser minds, but it serves a useful reminder that what we observe as an indivisible present often hides a far more complex story. In what follows, I contend that the current state of Christian nonprofit institutions hides just such a story.

In his recent First Things essay “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” Aaron Renn supplies a useful framework for understanding “the story of American secularization.” Before 1994, American society had a broadly positive view of Christianity. In the Positive World, it was beneficial to be known as a person of faith, and society was for the most part governed by Christian ethical norms. Beginning in 1994, American society adopted a neutral view of Christianity. Being a Christian ceased to be an unequivocal positive in the Neutral World, but vestiges of Christian mores remained. Then, around 2014, American society began to take a negative view toward Christianity. In our present Negative World, faith is now a hindrance, especially in elite circles. The Christian ethical framework is attacked as antiquated and bigoted. Et cetera, et cetera. You might draw the lines in different places, but you would be hard-pressed to find a Christian who does not affirm this basic trajectory.

Our primary “snapshot” of the broader culture today is of the present: cancelations, threats against Christian bakers, calls for the tax-exempt status of churches and Christian nonprofits to be revoked. The “snapshot” we observe of Christian nonprofit institutions is decidedly not; indeed, it’s around a generation behind.

According to research from Double the Donation, the average age of a charitable giver today is 64 years old. Think about this person in terms of Renn’s framework. He entered the workforce around 1980. His career continued to progress, to the point where he was able to begin investing and acquiring wealth. Even now, it’s not 1994 yet: he’s still in the Positive World. Then, during his prime earning years, America entered the Neutral World – different culturally, but no great detriment to his professional prospects or wealth accrual. By 2014 – the onset of the Negative World – he’s probably considering retirement. If not, he’s established enough that, unless he’s in a particularly prominent role, the Negative World isn’t a significant professional encumbrance. This is who is sustaining our Christian institutions today: older Christians who were formed and able to operate professionally in the Positive World.

Now consider tomorrow’s adult. He comes of age in the Negative World. Every life-stage he reaches and encounter he has with American culture is tinged with this reality. He graduates college, and already certain doors are closed to him. He advances in his field, and still more doors close. Or, to be more precise, each door represents a choice: he can risk compromising his values to advance or stand firm in faith. This picture is oversimplified, of course. There will always be Christians who are materially and professionally successful without compromising their faith. Yet, extrapolated to the societal level, it seems clear that Christians – and Christian institutions – will have far fewer resources at their disposal in the generation to come. Today’s charitable givers accrued most of their wealth in the Positive and Neutral Worlds; tomorrow’s will face a much steeper climb. If the trend continues, there will be fewer and generally less affluent Christian donors to sustain our institutions, let alone grow them. In short, we are perhaps at – or past – our peak giving capacity as people of faith. If we rely on today’s “snapshot,” we risk being unprepared for what’s to come.

So, what can be done?

First, pastors and other Christian leaders must exhort Christians to be more generous. While Christians are reliably the most charitable demographic group on the whole, multiple studies peg the percentage of Christians who tithe consistently at less than 5%. Anecdotally, I’ve found great hesitancy among leaders, especially pastors, in raising this issue. Yet the biblical imperative is strong and consistent. I was struck in reading Exodus earlier this month how God asked Moses to organize what was in essence a capital campaign on behalf of the tabernacle (Exodus 25). In this exhortation, we already see the principles that Paul will expound centuries later: giving that is cheerful, grateful, and voluntary. Christian leaders have a responsibility to underscore these biblical truths.

Christian leaders should also think strategically about how to maximize this window of opportunity and prepare for what could be leaner years ahead. Is now the time to establish an endowment? Should we put more focus into our legacy giving program? Can we afford to invest in additional development capacity? It can be difficult to look beyond this week, let alone the year. But we must prepare for what could be coming.

For individual Christians, the advice is simple: give more and more effectively. Those Christians who did inhabit the Positive and Neutral Worlds should think seriously about how they can use their estate to advance God’s Kingdom, and whether they can give more in the present. They should also consider narrowing their giving scope. Your alma mater whose values continue to diverge more severely from your own? Remove them from your support list. That ministry you haven’t heard from in a while? It would be worth checking in with them to ensure your gifts are being stewarded well. For younger Christians, now is the time to cultivate generous habits. You may only have a widow’s mite, but you can still advance God’s Kingdom through your giving. These habits will also serve you well later, especially if God does bless you with material prosperity.

There is far more that can be said here. There is also a limit to social scientific analysis. After all, the God we serve is the same God who created each star in the night sky, along with everything else. Perhaps America is moments from the start of another Great Awakening, for as Scripture declares, the Spirit of God is like the wind that blows where it wishes. Indeed, one wonders what social science would have said in the year 4 B.C.! We all know what happened next.

Even as we pray that the Lord would return soon, let us make the most with the time he has given us, being wise stewards of the resources he has bestowed upon us to advance his Kingdom.

*Image Credit: Wunderstock

Carter Skeel

Carter Skeel

Carter Skeel is director of development at the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

3 thoughts on “A Bleak Future for Christian Philanthropy?

  1. While I agree with the overall thesis, the solution to the problem could be honed. Millennials and younger may not give because they are acutely aware of the ridiculous bureaucracies of some of the Christian institutions that have lived on the backs of philanthropists. But those institutions and bureaucracies are not going to preserve Truth. The preservation of Truth begins in the hyper local (the home) and then out to the local church, and then the local community. Local Churches MUST be on the frontlines of philanthropy. Of helping the family without gas money, or the member struggling with medical bills. This is the call of the Church.

  2. I wonder what the giving would be in churches and other ministries if they lost their tax exempt status? Once America has embraced the social credit system (as China has) Christians could be punished for giving to causes- or giving to the wrong causes. Maranatha!

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