Giving is a lousy wealth buiding strategy

It’s become a rite of tax season at our house. My husband wraps up his prep work with the benediction, “If we didn’t give so much, we would have a lot more money.” I nod and we move on. There’s nothing to discuss.

Giving is a lousy wealth building strategy, regardless who you are. (Case in point, my post about Bill Gates’ fall from his perch as richest man in the world.) That said, generosity appears to be especially hazardous to the financial well-being of conservative Protestants.

Or so writes Lisa Keister, a sociology prof at Duke University.

Religion can influence wealth ownership directly by shaping the views that people use to make wealth and financial decisions. . . Conservative Protestants (CPs) have unique attitudes regarding sacrificial giving. . . CPs are more likely to support that the purpose of churches is giving money back to God, to feel they should give money to their church, to report that the church is the most significant charity, to agree that the church should encourage giving, and to report that they think a great deal about their responsibility toward the poor.

There’s a lot about Keister’s study with which I take exception, including her representation of CPs as mostly undereducated, politically conservative, and easily influenced by their pastors. Nonetheless, the numbers don’t lie. Giving does work against gaining. Just ask Bill Gates’ accountant.

Keister rightly notes that some Christians (including many beyond the CP fold, I would add) adhere to a different economic model. It’s a Kingdom model in which generous matters — a lot. It’s a model that seeks to balance earthly accumulation with treasure stored up in heaven.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not slamming Christians who are gifted at making money. However, for Christ-followers the goal is not to be rich simply for its own sake. The goal is to be rich toward God — regardless what the research says about the financial sense of our commitment.

That takes me back to tax season and my husband’s annual observation. If we didn’t give so much, we would have a lot more money. But we would also have a lot less joy. That’s why, for us, there’s nothing to discuss.


  1. If economics were only material exchange then perhaps giving reduces wealth. However, it can be argued that generosity builds up social capital I can draw on in times of extreme need. The Jewish expression of tzedekah has long held this. By acting righteously and not taking all the wealth I can take, there is a goodwill account available to me that a miserly, greedy person does not have.

    • Mark, Your comment about building up social capital reminds me of Jesus’ words about casting our bread on the water. It does come back to us when we are most in need of receiving.

  2. Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

    I think a major takeaway from this post is that the term “conservative Protestant” is a complete misnomer. Certainly these “conservative” Protestants are “conservative” when it comes to giving, considering reports like Keister’s.

    One of the things I try to do in my scholarship (historical, rather than sociological, of course) is to undermine terminology like “conservative Protestant.” Thanks for providing yet another vantage from which the “CP” phrase simply doesn’t work.

  3. What I don’t like is Keister’s blanket statements about CPs that equates being theologically conservative with also being uneducated, over-superstitious, and uncultured. We know that is not the case.

  4. Ann McKusick says:

    Congratulations on your new blog, Rebekah! It’s great to see that your passion and expertise continues! Ann

    • Thanks for taking a look, Ann. I’m enjoying the discipline that a blog entails and I hope Generous Matters will attract readers and comments. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a follow up to Growing Givers’ Hearts.

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