The majority of churches in America receive the bulk of their giving from members of the Baby Boomer generation. Every day, 10,000 Boomers turn 65 hastening the day of their retirement. With our largest donor base aging, the question we have been asking at the Journal is, how can we raise up the next generation of faithful stewards? One key is understanding what motivates younger generations to give.
The Generation Gap: Evangelical Giving Preferences is a newly released report by Grey Matter Research and Infinity Concepts that reveals surprising results about how different generations view and respond to generosity and giving. Their study found that the giving gap is real, particularly in the giving preferences of younger evangelical donors. We thought it would be good to reach out to the primary author of this study, Ron Sellers, to get his input on the findings and how they impact churches.
The Journal: Ron, thanks for taking the time to share with our readers about the new study you were a part of. Many of our readers might not have heard of your organization. What can you share with us about the focus of Grey Matter Research and Infinity Concepts?
Ron Sellers: Thanks for the opportunity to share with your readers. We’re two separate companies that often serve in the same space. Grey Matter Research is a consumer insights and market research company. While we’ve worked with many secular companies such as General Motors and Cancer Treatment Centers of America, we specialize in serving donor-supported organizations such as Paralyzed Veterans of America, Make-A-Wish, and The American Legion. In particular, we focus on faith-based organizations such as Focus on the Family, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, World Vision, and Missouri Baptist Convention. Infinity Concepts is a brand communication agency with almost twenty years of experience that inspires people of faith to action through consulting, branding, fundraising, public relations, creative, traditional media, and digital media.
The Journal: What led you to do the research behind the publication of The Generation Gap: Evangelical Giving Preferences?
Ron Sellers: Both Grey Matter and Infinity Concepts serve the Church. Research like this serves three purposes. First, it helps give leaders information they need to make wiser strategic decisions. Second, it helps us understand better how to serve our clients and make wiser strategic decisions. Finally, it helps bring awareness to the work we do, and to both of our companies, in a way that’s much more valuable to people than advertising or promotion.
The Journal: One of the biggest takeaways was how different younger evangelical donors were from older donors. The report states, “While there are many differences among younger evangelical donors, what stands out, even more, is how different younger donors are from older donors.” Would you share with us what those major differences were?
Ron Sellers: Younger evangelical donors crave variety in their giving. They’re more spur-of-the-moment, with less research or planning, but ironically, they are also significantly less trusting of organizations. They also have a less local, more global focus than older donors.
The Journal: What did you find drives that difference?
Ron Sellers: There are most likely many contributing factors. Younger people are typically more open to new experiences than older people, who often have more substantial experience as donors and have come to value supporting a smaller number of organizations and causes, even though they’re often giving more money. That applies to many things beyond giving. Younger people have grown up with everything being questioned: scandals in government, big business, the Church, the military – even something as American-and-apple-pie as the Boy Scouts is embroiled in nasty lawsuits regarding abuse. So, they tend to be less trusting of institutions. Those are just two issues that logically impact some of their perceptions.
The Journal: How will this generational gap impact the giving future for churches?
Ron Sellers: The unknown to me is whether younger people will change and become more like older donors as they age into core donors for many organizations, or whether their differences will remain when they’re the core donors. If it’s the latter, ministries are in for a very different fundraising situation in the coming years.
The Journal: The bottom line for pastors is often how this impacts my church, and what can I do about it? What word would you have for Missouri Baptist pastors regarding the generation gap?
Ron Sellers: This study was about giving to organizations outside of churches. But some of these things still apply, like the desire for variety. This may mean not going back to the same messaging about giving over and over but mixing up those messages. This may mean younger donors don’t automatically assume the church will use their money wisely – they may need to see more demonstration of wise use and discussion about it. As younger donors are more likely to give spur of the moment, it may mean emotion will play a larger role in giving decisions (particularly one-time gifts for special needs, such as missions offerings or a building fund). So, our messaging, including sermons, may need to contain more stories and testimonies rather than facts and figures.
The Journal: Your organization of late has been producing several studies on giving patterns. How does, The Generation Gap compare with the other studies you have done? Are there patterns you are seeing, and what does that mean for giving to churches both now and in the future?
Ron Sellers: We’re consistently seeing two things over and over again. One, which we touched on here, is that adults under 40 are very different from older evangelicals, and not just related to giving. If those differences remain as they age, things will be very different for churches and ministries in the coming years. The other pattern we’re consistently seeing is that the more spiritually engaged evangelicals are, the more they behave and think in a way that is positive for ministry, such as giving more money and having a more biblical worldview. We see enormous gaps between frequent and infrequent Bible readers, regular and infrequent churchgoers, and those who do or do not participate in a small group. For instance, giving remains relatively low among evangelicals even though many churches teach on stewardship (even to the point of running entire programs on this subject), and several ministries are dedicated to this topic. But it’s much higher – although still not particularly high – among the more spiritually engaged. So, maybe churches need to spend less time trying to change behaviors on certain specific topics, like stewardship, and more time getting people spiritually engaged and aware of what the Bible says in general.
The Journal: What can a pastor do to address the issues these studies reveal?
Ron Sellers: That depends so much on the individual issue. An example is The Ripple Effect, which covers the online church experience. Pastors need to decide whether online is a positive thing which should be facilitated and encouraged, in that it may mean reaching more people, reaching beyond their community, reaching the disabled or mobility-impaired, and keeping people in the flock who might miss in-person attendance for various reasons. Or, is online church is a negative thing and people need to be encouraged to return to in-person services, with concerns about giving people an easy out rather than challenging them to come to in-person services, removing kids and teens from in-person programs, negatively impacting fellowship and corporate prayer and worship, and harming the development of true community. How churches handle this issue will be critical given how many evangelicals now want to incorporate online services into their regular church routine rather than returning exclusively to in-person services.
The Journal: Thanks for this great insight, Ron, and thank you for the research you and your team are doing.
Details on the various studies are available at https://greymatterresearch.com/articles-studies/. For a free copy of The Generation Gap or any of the other studies, email Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org.