“Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8, NIV).
These words are part of Jesus’s instructions as he sends his twelve disciples into the world “to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matthew 10:1). I hear these words most Sundays as our pastor calls the congregation to respond to the proclamation of the gospel with our tithes and offerings.
My very German grandfather, Opa, did not like this. Having grown up in a German church, he never was comfortable at the local Lutheran church outside Buffalo, NY, because the pastor was always asking for money.
Unlike what Opa had experienced in Germany, churches here in the U.S. are not state-supported. Thus, many ministry leaders must solicit donations. The grace of God is always freely given, but the building, staff, programs, and outreach require financial support.
So today, I want to ask what the scientific study of generosity can offer the church.
A Virtue Cycle
For many churches, stewardship season is in the fall. We talk about money a lot this time of year—both pledges for the coming year and reminders to help meet the current year’s budget. This regularly overlaps with Thanksgiving, when we offer thanks for all that God is doing in and through our communities of faith. There is wisdom in linking gratitude and generosity in this way, even if it is not always intentional.
Why? “Because gratitude and generosity are part of a cycle,” this helpful article from the Greater Good Science Center tells us.
It’s easy to understand why we are grateful to those who have been generous to us. Gratitude flows in response to the goodness we receive each day from God through both neighbor and nature.
What’s less obvious is how gratitude reinforces generosity. As Stanford psychologist, William Damon, writes in The Path to Purpose, “From gratitude springs not only an enhanced appreciation for our own blessings but also a desire to pass such blessings along to others—the heart and soul of purpose.”
The urge to pay forward the blessings we have received is confirmed in study after study. One such study revealed that “people who think about gratitude daily donate more money and volunteer more hours per year.” Another found that people who kept a gratitude journal were more likely to help and offer emotional support to another person than those who didn’t take time to record their blessings, or who journaled about neutral events. Overall, grateful people have been shown, on average, to be more kind, helpful, supportive, and altruistic than those who don’t prioritize gratitude.
Even evolutionary theorists suggest a link between gratitude and generosity. One individual’s generosity can inspire others to act out of gratitude. This prosocial cycle of gratitude and generosity then confers survival benefits on cooperative social groups. (For a nice short summary of these connections, see page 2 of this paper.)
Once again, the Bible and science agree. It is the cycle Jesus succinctly summarized in Matthew 10:8–freely we receive, so much so, that out of gratitude we are inspired to freely give.
...The benefits of being generous are many and come both from financial giving and volunteering.
...According to this neuroscientist, the connection between gratitude and giving shows up in the brain.
...Giving money away generally makes us happy, but research shows few of us give more than 2% of our income.
...While large gifts can be life-giving to any ministry, research also shows that people who have less generally give more. Why? It seems they tend to be more empathetic and attentive to the most immediate needs.
...If you want to take a deeper dive into the scientific study of generosity, check out this white paper.
...Last year, Greg shared the story of Jim, a truck driver, who lived out this connection between gratitude and generosity.
...Greater Good has collated a nice list of ways to promote gratitude.
...Here are seven tips for cultivating generosity—not surprising, giving thanks makes the list.
What About the Annual Budget?
While there are remarkable stories of generosity to the church and other non-profits over the past 20 months, many of us remain concerned about how our local ministries will make budget. The data bear this out, as overall giving increased in 2020, but giving to religious organizations did so only slightly.
So what do we do? Do we simply repeat our most successful stewardship strategies and continue to ask week after week that the faithful remain generous? Perhaps that will work in some cases. Another approach would be to leverage the virtuous cycle between giving and thanksgiving and focus on cultivating your community’s sense of gratitude.
Within the psychological study of virtues like hope, generosity, purpose, resilience, and humility, some of the best-established methods for fostering virtue feature gratitude practices. A key step in becoming more grateful is to increase our capacity to take notice of the many reasons we have to be thankful (as Greg encouraged last week). Or as Paul exhorts in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, we can learn how to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Specific practices include a gratitude journal (a daily gratitude prayer would likely have similar effect); expressing gratitude in person or via a note to those past or present who have blessed us; and even finding ways to make lemonade out of life’s lemons. A grateful person is good at finding the silver lining in difficult situations.
When gratitude is cultivated and communicated, it enhances our relationships and our community. We want to be part of a group whose members are thankful for one another. Moreover, grateful communities are ones in which generosity can flourish.
Most of the churches I have been a part of struggle to make their budgets through pledged giving and regular offerings. Yet every few years, a saint or two makes a larger gift—often with no strings attached—that, when added to everyone else’s generosity, is more than enough to meet the church’s financial needs.
Saints who offer gifts large and small understand the giving in thanksgiving. Grateful for an abundance of blessings received in the church, they are moved to incredible generosity. Freely they have received; freely they give.
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Strengthening the church through engaging with science
We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.