Talking about generosity in the church is always a balancing act between faithful theological and pastoral instruction on the one hand and practical, applied communication on the other. You’ve got to look at the subject from 40,000 feet while keeping your boots firmly planted on the ground.
In Giving Up, I’ve tried to walk this line, outlining generosity as the heart of the gospel while providing leaders with practical wisdom from my years of communicating with a congregation. Both of these perspectives are necessary, especially considering the huge range of age and experience represented in the pews. Such generational gaps don’t just steer our preference for music, television, or movies. When we were born, and when we became adults, guides our attitudes and habits when it comes to giving. Knowing how the generations give will enable us to lead them into God’s generous kingdom.
Everything printed below can be found in more detail in Giving Up, but I encourage you to consider what it will take to share a renewed vision of generosity with four generations: Millennials, Generation X, Boomers, and Olders.
Let’s start with the group mentioned in so many headlines today: The Millennials.
Involve the Millennials
The Millennials (born after 1981) came of age in an online world. As of 2015, this age cohort is nearly the largest living generation in the history of the United States. They may not have available resources right now; many of them struggle with college debt, underemployment, and bad spending habits. But just wait. Things are going to change. Along with their slightly younger counterparts, this cohort is set to inherit over $40 trillion dollars (not a typo: TRILLION) in the near future. Even so, if you pass an offering plate down their pew, they might snap a picture of it and post it on Instagram (#BrassPlate), but they will not (generally speaking) put much of anything in it. Why is that?
Don’t dismiss the Millennials too quickly, though. It’s not that they are simply self-obsessed or stingy. Millennials value support over subsidy. They want to be involved in the work they give to. Boomers like me have a strong confidence in the institutions inherited from our parents—a belief that people can be ‘deputized’ or ‘appointed’ to represent the interests and ministries of the larger culture. But the millennial generation thinks very differently. While we (Boomers) believe in ‘representative government,’ they believe in ‘participatory government.’ This leads them to give like they read, chat, pray, date, flirt and play: online, without relying on ‘middlemen’ to act for them. (Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon are good examples of this belief put into practice.)
In short, then, how do churches reach them? INVOLVE THEM.
Inform the X’ers
Generation X (born 1965 – 1980) represents about 20 percent of the total giving population that live in the United States, while their total base is about 25% of the entire population. People from this generation are more established and can give larger amounts to the churches and causes that they support. The distinguishing mark of Generation X is their desire for results.
X’ers want ‘bang’ for every buck they donate. They want facts and transparent accounting. They came of age during the information boom, social media, and the mobile computing. They ask themselves, “Where will my money go, and what will it do for the cause I am supporting?” If a Gen Xer is passionately giving to a ministry or group, then that group is likely telling its supporters exactly what their donations are accomplishing.
Like Millennials, this group is not known for its support of institutions. They will support a ministry. But they really want to know what the ministry is doing and how it is making a difference. Today, many of these people have children who might be impacted by Sunday School programs or youth ministries. But you might have to stand in line with the other (many) activities and opportunities for involvement that this generation wants for their children.
Will they give? Yes, of course! But that demographic is going to ask for some accountability for what they give. So how does the church reach them? INFORM THEM.
Inspire the Boomers
Now for the Boomers, who are objectively the most awesome generation ever. (Just kidding…) Boomers (born 1946 – 1964) might actually have a decent argument when it comes to giving. They punch above their weight in donations by giving about 43 percent of all dollars given while making up only a third of the population. They appear to actually read written updates and they are at ease with making month-by-month commitments. Like I’ve already mentioned, they tend to trust historic and traditional institutions.
Boomers will probably sign a pledge card; their youngsters, on the other hand, will probably not. Whether or not they give, in the end, will depend on whether they believe the cause that they’re giving to is a worthy one. So long as they have that belief, you’ll probably find something or other in the collection plate.
Boomers are comfortable with organizational boards, hierarchies, and representative leadership. Every pastor can see this on church committees and governing groups. When a Boomer is involved, they talk about defining a ‘strategic purpose’ or ‘organizational alignment’. They speak the language of commercials and the corporate world. It’s about a big picture and a clear vision.
In other words, how do churches reach them? INSPIRE THEM.
Include the Olders
Last, but absolutely and in no way the least, are the Olders, who tend to make up the senior membership in many churches. This group is sometimes called the ‘ Silent Generation.’
The Olders (born before 1946) are the group that needs some help in learning how to give online or respond to an Internet appeal. They write and mail checks, and they send thank-you notes. They may not crave involvement or activity in your church, but do not let that fool you; many of them, sadly, are living out their lives in isolation.
In fact, I think this generation might love to have a lot more fellowship than they receive at a church. But often times a church is so ‘enraptured’ by the idea of attracting young people that this group may tend to feel ignored. They have made their mark on the world, and now some just really want to make a difference…somehow and somewhere. They want to feel like valued members, and sometimes that’s as simple as acknowledging them.
Most of them, given their unfamiliarity with the digital world, only check their email about once a day. In contrast, they would love a personalized visit, letter, or appeal. The latter would be an intimate touch that helps them feel relevant, that they can still make valuable contributions to common life, even now.
How are churches, then, to reach them? INCLUDE THEM.
So, let’s recap.
- When it comes to Millennials, we need to INVOLVE them in the transformative aspects of giving, to let them see and feel that they personally are helping others.
- For the Gen X’ers , INFORM them about the ways in which their donations are making a concrete, real-world impact.
- The Boomers are ready and eager to get involved, and are just waiting for someone to INSPIRE them with a cause or vision to work toward.
- Finally, the Olders deeply want others to INCLUDE them in the giving process, so that they can feel for themselves the value that they have to offer.
Whatever the generational differences, though, remember: a truly generous heart is inspired by, and dedicated to, love for God and neighbor. No matter a person’s age, and no matter the approach, we must always appeal for giving with a spirit that embodies Christ and His kingdom. With that in mind, we will always know that the generations in the Church are bound to one another, each filled with adopted sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. We may give in different ways, but it is always with a common purpose—to advance God’s purpose for His creation, and to share the love that guides and unites the whole body of Christ.
For more information about generosity and stewardship, check out my book, Giving Up: How Giving to God Renews Hearts, Changes Minds, and Empowers Ministry.
Portions of this article have been excerpted from David Roseberry’s book Giving Up: How Giving to God Renews Hearts, Changes Minds, and Empowers Ministry.
Canon David has over 35 years of local congregational ministry, diocesan and national involvement, leadership, and ministry experience and is the founder of Leaderworks. He was the founding Rector/Pastor, Christ Church, Plano and currently serves as the Strategic Leader and Dean, Diocese of C4SO.