[Part 2] Why People Don't Give to Church: Storytelling

[Part 2] Why People Don't Give to Church: Storytelling

Statistics show that only 20 percent of regular church attendees regularly give financial support. Why are the other 80 percent getting lost? There are lots of possible answers to that question, so we’re giving them time and consideration in this 4-part series. In Part 1, we considered the barrier of simplicity, and today, we’re considering how the 80 percent need a deeper connection to the story of giving.

Possibly the understatement of the century is that storytelling is important. Storytelling is in the DNA of Christian Theology. Our “Storytelling brains” fill in the gaps between facts with narrative naturally—so filling in the gaps between facts with a story is a powerful way to reach people. It’s been natural to tie financial giving to a narrative of some kind:

  • You can sponsor a child
  • Give a micro-loan
  • Give a goat or pig to a third-world family
  • Buy a well
  • Build an orphanage
  • Contribute to the building fund
  • Buy a pew or a brick for the courtyard with your name on it.

This type of narrative giving is as old as the church itself.

A Personal Story: The last time I gave using cash

The last time I put cash in an offering bucket (like most of my generation, I prefer to give online), there was a personal connection. I was attending a special event at a local church (which just so happens to be a Pushpay client!) where a college friend of mine was speaking. As the offering buckets were passed, the pastor said the gifts were being collected to thank Tina and her husband for their time and investment.

I knew the church had put on the event for free for their community. The staff had planned and pulled off a classy and professional event, including a food truck “happy hour” dinner. They even invited me, an unplanned guest, to the green room for a beautifully prepared and presented volunteer-made dinner after the event. I knew that Tina had worked and sweated over her teaching material. I felt good about putting my money in that offering bucket.

When I donated at the event, I knew where it was going—I understood a sense of the value I had been given, and, in a way, my gift was really the return of a grateful heart. It was a gift of thanks.

This is a perfect example of giving prompted by the story. But what about the other side of the argument: Why do we need storytelling? Shouldn’t giving be about obedience?

The Flip Side: Shouldn’t giving be about obedience more than storytelling?

As Bruce Wydick puts it in an article for Christianity Today, Jesus was clear with the Pharisee who hosted him for dinner that gifts should not always depend entirely on a value exchange, or even on understanding:

Then Jesus said to his host [a prominent Pharisee], “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14, NIV)

Sometimes giving is about the heart-act of obedience, and knowing an exact outcome (or story, in this case) is not required.

Why then is it important to build a giving story around your church’s finances?

Are the 80 percent simply in need of some basic obedience training? Shouldn’t they be giving to church with or without a story?

Proverbs 29:18 says: “If people can’t see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves; but when they attend to what he reveals, they are most blessed” (MSG).

This popular verse is often used in reference to church mission statements, but it applies to finances as well. Casting a vision of ministry impact, tying tithing to an outcome, managing and creating special projects for additional giving opportunities; these storytelling practices paint a picture of the work God is doing and extend an invitation to be a part of it.

Non-profit groups implicitly understand the importance of casting a vision. Rather than relying on obedience, they paint a picture and tell a story. In fact, keeping the impact front and center is now a best practice used by many companies in a category called Social Business or Social Enterprise. These companies recognize a need in the world, understand money is required to solve the need, and find a business model to create money and solve the problem simultaneously.

One such social business is 1:Face, a charity watch company that donates money by selling different color watches.

The story here is that giving accomplishes something of value in the world. Gifts of time, talent, money, and resources are ways to solve problems, reach people, and answer needs. Your church has the same story.

What lessons can churches learn about storytelling from Social Enterprises like 1:Face?

  1. Ministry becomes more effective with financial resources
  2. Millennials, in particular, love transparency with their gifts
  3. We all want to feel that our gifts are effective, that we’re making the world a better place
  4. Storytelling doesn’t have to be at odds with the principle of obedience

While scripture is clear that God asks each of us to give out of obedience, we, as churches, need not fear the use of story to help spark that obedience. Just as money, time, talent, and resources are tools to enact change in the world, storytelling and vision are ways to invite the 80 percent into the joy and connection of giving.

Jana Gering
Jana Gering

Jana Gering is freelance writer with extensive experience in the non-profit and faith based sectors. She's passionate about using content as a means to develop community.