William Lobdell's recent book Losing My Religion chronicles his conversion to Christianity-and his subsequent rejection of Christianity after a decade of covering religion for the Los Angeles Times. Many of those stories had to do with Christians and the way they handled money.
"Evangelicals don't give anywhere near 10 percent of their income to charity," Lobdell said. "Only a very few, often on the fringes of mainstream or evangelical Christianity, behave with their money as if they believe the Gospel is actually true."
The data suggest that Lobdell is only half-right. Studies by Syracuse University and others make a compelling case for the generosity of theologically conservative Christians. Philanthropy expert Arthur C. Brooks said that the most important predictor of charitable giving is religious commitment. But even Brooks admits that "very few" Americans practice the biblical tithe.
That's a shame, according to Randy Alcorn, whose books on giving include The Treasure Principle and a book on Christian giving that some consider to be a classic: Money, Possessions, and Eternity. In an interview with WORLD, Alcorn says that giving is a "powerful witness of the gospel" that he calls the "greatest form of evangelism." According to Alcorn, "the words charity and grace come from the same Greek word, charis. When we give, we are both experiencing and sharing God's grace. God's grace is the lightning. Our giving is the thunder. Thunder is both a result and a testimony of the lightning."
Alcorn said that giving in tough economic times is particularly important for the Christian. "For one thing, in tough times Christian charity is needed all the more," he said. "For another, the testimony of that giving is even more profound. Giving in tough times tells the world that it is God's providence, not a large checking account, that is the source of our sustenance and security."
Alcorn lives these principles. All the royalties from more than a dozen books he has written go to charity. He said that in 2008 that amounted to about $750,000, and since he began the practice more than a decade ago, the total exceeds $4 million.
It's possible that Christians are getting this message. According to Philanthropy Journal, arts and cultural organizations have seen giving declines. And high-profile ministries such as Focus on the Family have announced layoffs and budget shortfalls. But the nation's largest Christian relief organizations-including World Vision, Compassion International, and Samaritan's Purse-all report 2008 giving increases.
So, if Christians were giving sacrificially, would that make a difference for atheists, agnostics, and skeptics such as Lobdell? "If you get outside of the Christian bubble," Lobdell said, "you find a lot of people who want to believe, and perhaps even did believe, but who are disillusioned. What they read in the Gospels is not what they see in the church."
He added: "Would seeing Christians give sacrificially make a difference with me? I'm not sure. Would it make a difference with those disillusioned? I think it might."
Even as the economy slips into recession, the nation's biggest givers keep on giving. According to Philanthropy Journal, at least 16 people made gifts of more than $100 million in 2008. That's the largest number of such gifts since the magazine started tracking these mega-gifts more than a decade ago. The total amount of these 16 gifts exceeded $8 billion, a record amount.
That's the good news. The rest of the story is this: The biggest gift on the 2008 list was a single $4.5 billion bequest from James LeVoy Sorenson, an inventor and investor who left the money to his family foundation in Salt Lake City. If you take out that single gift, 2008 was down slightly from 2007.
Also, some question whether giving to a foundation set up and largely controlled by the giver is really giving. Al Mueller of the Christian group Excellence in Giving said, "Why do you consider a gift to your own foundation a 'gift'? Until someone besides you benefits, it is a gift in the eyes of Uncle Sam only."