An Interview with Ron Sellers

An Interview with Ron Sellers

The following is an email interview with Ron Sellers of Grey Matter Research & Consulting about their newly released study, The Generosity Factor: Evangelicals and Giving. I asked Ron a few questions about the study.

Mark:  My initial reaction reading this report was that this doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Evangelical giving when 19% of evangelicals don’t give anything to the church. Did your findings surprise you, or have your studies consistently shown this?

Ron:  This is consistent with what we have found before. Keep in mind that around one out of ten evangelical Protestants does not attend church – and if you don’t attend, what would motivate you to give? So, around half of those who don’t give to church are not attending.

Mark:  I found this statement revealing, “Evangelicals may be united by their core beliefs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are united in practice.” Can you comment further on this?

Ron: The way we (and the NAE and Lifeway Research) define evangelicals, they share four core beliefs. First, they believe that the Bible is the highest authority for what they believe. Next, they believe it is important for them to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior. They believe that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of our sin. And finally, they believe that only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation. This is what makes them evangelicals. Beyond that, there is considerable variation in spiritual practices – frequency of Bible readership, worship attendance, small group attendance, Bible study, prayer, giving (not just whether they give, but where and how much), etc.

Mark:  I also found it revealing that evangelicals feel they are more generous than they are. Why do you think this is so?

Ron:  We all like to think better of ourselves than we really are – it’s human nature. For example, ask people how much time they spend watching TV or on social media, and they’ll typically underestimate the amount of time significantly. Christendom has a fairly well-understood “goal” or “standard,” which is the tithe. Even among those who do not feel we are under a command to tithe, 10% is still a well-known figure, so people will assume, hope, or believe they give closer to that than they actually do. This is also exacerbated by the tithe using a calculation (percentage) that we don’t use for our daily finances. Most people can tell us their monthly rent or mortgage, how much money they give to church, or even reasonable estimates of how much they spend on groceries or gas. But we think of these things as dollar amounts, not as proportions of our income. You may be able to tell me your monthly mortgage; how easily can you tell me what proportion of your income that represents? So, in surveying people, we always ask for dollar figures, not percentages, because that’s how people think and keep records. I’ve seen some recent research on how many Christians supposedly tithe, but that research asked people to estimate percentages. It’s demonstrably off base.

Mark:  One question I keep thinking about when I read reports like this is what this will mean for the future of churches. Can you give some thought to that? What challenges will this attitude present for future generations?

Ron:  The decline in giving has been going on for years. It’s not like churchgoers were tithing back in 1990 or 1970. A much bigger challenge for the Church is not the proportion of people who are giving but the proportion of people who are going.

Mark:  What should pastors and churches do to reverse this trend practically? What is the path forward for churches?

Ron: It does strike me that with all the attention paid to stewardship, few believers are giving at a high level, so I would suggest current methods of encouraging stewardship may not be highly effective. We see that people with a higher level of spiritual engagement – more frequent Bible readership, regular worship attendance, etc. – are more generous givers. Maybe churches need to work on spiritual engagement and discipleship, with stewardship being a natural outgrowth of higher engagement, rather than concentrating separately on stewardship.

To get the full report, you can email Ron at

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