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Clueless Givers?

Study finds most churchgoers think they contribute way more in offerings than they really do.

A new national study suggests that the overwhelming majority of church contributors overestimate the amount they give to their local congregation.

The analysis conducted jointly by Grey Matter Research of Phoenix and Opinions 4 Good of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, found 88 percent of 1,000 charitable donors across the U.S. believe they are giving a higher percentage of income than they really are contributing. The average donor quoted a figure 331 percent higher than actuality.

The Donor Mindset Study tracked offerings to congregations over a 12-month period. While the typical American gives 3.2 percent of household income to charitable causes (including 1.9 percent of that to church), the average contributor estimated his or her individual payments at 8.4 percent. Although just 4 percent of households tithe in reality, 38 percent claim they give one-tenth of income. 

The donor study also noted a disconnect from reality in that 60 percent of donors thought they gave more than the average contributor.

“I think there is some unintentional lying going on,” Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, told PE News. “There is a lot of cluelessness, a lack of awareness, about what is actually given.”

Sellers explains that the survey asked people to estimate how much they had contributed to churches and to other benevolent causes in the past 12 months. In a different part of the questionnaire, respondents listed what portion of their income they thought they gave to church and charity in the yearlong period. Over and over, the results showed a perceived gap of reality versus perception.

“For many Christians, the tithe is the target, a common goal if not a mandate,” Sellers says. “And many people think they give close to 10 percent. But when we looked at the actual dollars, giving is closer to 2 or 3 percent.”

The Assemblies of God encourages tithing. This study didn’t delineate giving by Pentecostals. However, the research found that women, Catholics, young people, and those who give little had the widest gap between real and perceived giving.

The Donor Mindset Study reveals that while 60 percent actually gave less than 1 percent of their income to charities, the proportion who believe they gave that little is just 7 percent. One-third of people overestimate their contributions by 50 to 90 percent, while another third overestimate donations by more than 90 percent.

“The issue isn’t that people are a few decimal points off in their estimates — it’s that they are usually way off,” the report states. “All this adds up to a picture of donors who truly believe they’re doing far more than they’re actually doing.”

Earlier studies have uncovered the same phenomenon regarding weekend worship. For instance, a 2014 Public Religion Research Institute study, I Know What You Did Last Sunday, indicated American Christians vastly overestimate the frequency of church attendance.

Sellers has seen similar results in earlier Grey Matter research.

“Someone who goes to church sporadically, maybe once every other month, feels like they should go and indeed they intend to go, so they respond that, yes, they go regularly,” Sellers says. “In their mind, they are trying to justify their lack of desirable behavior.”

However, Assemblies of God General Treasurer Doug Clay points to the recent Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability Generosity Project summary that found overall, evangelical donors are generous because they believe they are blessed. The report also indicates millennials feel hopeful about giving, and they donate in traditional ways.

Clay also says a variety of ministries, from Speed the Light to Aged Ministers Assistance, benefit from the bigheartedness of Assemblies of God churchgoers.

“Historically and currently, the Assemblies of God has had an incredible culture of generosity, from young and old,” Clay told PE News.

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.