Stewardship Lessons from the Orthodontist

When I was growing up you didn’t get braces until your teeth had all come in.  But today the approach is to do braces much younger, often at age 8 or so.  That way they come in straight rather than trying to correct them later. 

Many churches equate stewardship with dentistry (getting our members to give is like pulling teeth) but maybe that’s because we don’t take our lead from the orthodontist. 

But View from the Pew research shows that Christian adults who tithe a full ten percent of their income learned that lesson early.  More than one in four (27%) started as a child or teen and and a third (33%) started in their 20s.   By age 30, 60% of those who are now tithing had already started to do so.  They give generously and sacrificially as adults because they were taught to do so early in life.

But in my stewardship work I have seen that these groups are often given a “free pass” when it comes to stewardship.  We don’t want to turn them off.  We don’t want to make church all about money.  We want them to come to church and feel comfortable, they’ll give when they are ready.

But, according to this study, we have already missed that window with 60% of those who may tithe. 

Folks, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

At age 5 your young charges may not be ready to hear about sacrificial giving.  But they will understand that a collection is taken every week during Sunday School.  Or they may understand that during the children’s sermon money put in the jar is used to buy nets so kids in Africa don’t die from being bitten by a mosquito.

How about your confirmation process?  As you talk about church membership is there the expectation that these youngest members of your church will support it financially?

If you look at middle class suburbs you would probably find that the group with the greatest discretionary income is empty nesters.  But I bet teenagers aren’t all that far behind. 

Do you know who the youngest self-made millionaires are in the history of America?  It’s not a teen-aged computer prodigy with a dot com fortune.  It’s Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, who starred in Full House as infants and went on to rule the elementary school book and video industry.

OK, so you don’t have the Olsens attending your church but the depth of the pockets in your youth room are deeper than you give them credit for.

In 2004 Magazine Publishers of America’s research showed that by age 16 and 17 teens have nearly $4,500 in discretionary income a year.   If they were to tithe, their $450 annual support of the church would exceed many adults in your congregation.

In my stewardship work I talk with many adults who say they truly want to tithe but the combination of family expenses, consumer debt, unsure job situations and other “grown up” issues make it, in their eyes, impossible to do so.  But most teens don’t have these kinds of financial issues, so I believe that now really is the time to get them started on tithing.

If we wait until they’re 30, the window has closed for nearly two-thirds of future tithers.

So how do we make this happen?

  1. Set the expectation.  The United Methodist church doesn’t have classes or categories of members, teenagers aren’t student members or associate members.  They’re real, live members.  As such they should be part of the fall stewardship campaign and should certainly receive envelopes and other appeals as other members of the church do.
  2. Set a goal for them.  Have your youth group or youth Sunday School class set a financial goal for the year.  You’ve heard me talk about how people don’t get excited about supporting the copier contract or the pastor’s health care expenses, but what if you challenged them to cover a chunk of the district apportionments that go to missions or enough to cover all of the expenses of the children’s education program.
  3. Give them a leadership role.  While you may not want to turn the finance committee over to a bunch of teenagers (or maybe you do), give them a job to do.  If you’re participating in the Five Star Stewardship Program, put them in charge of item 2G, the mission project for children and youth.
  4. Invite them to give in bites they can connect with.   Some kids may buy into the tithe but for others ask them to give the equivalent of a movie ticket and popcorn every month or the cost of a Starbucks every week.  At Christmas ask them to take the ten gift cards they receive and donate one of them to a shelter.
  5. Don’t let them be self-centered, but I know this is tough for teenagers.  Many youth groups raise more money than they give.  (By the way I have no problem with that.  If the whole congregation did as much mission work as the youth, our United Methodist movement would be a whole lot stronger, but that’s a sermon for another day.)  They often have needs for the youth mission trip or the retreat at Wanake.  Make sure they’re raising money for the church and not just for their own purposes.  Sacrificial giving really isn’t sacrificial if it all comes back to you, is it?

Let’s get children and youth started on the right foot rather than waiting until they’re in the their 30s and try to shift their giving after their philanthropic teeth are already set.

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