Tithing — the practice of giving 10 percent of one's income to a church — is a difficult sell in the best of financial times. It's an even more challenging proposition in a struggling economy rife with rising food and gas prices.
But those hurdles haven't stopped religious leaders from encouraging the faithful to tithe.
For the Rev. Jane McDonnough, the pitch is always the same, regardless of the economic news du jour.
"Tithing is not just giving 10 percent of your income, but it really is about worshiping God," said McDonnough, pastor of Faith Life Church in Tampa. "Instead of having our financial well-being determined by the economy, we look to God. Tough times economically really do try our faith, but . . . God really is our source."
The majority of Americans are givers — some 84 percent donated money to churches or nonprofits in 2007. But most don't tithe, according to a study by the Barna Group, a Christian research firm based in Ventura, Calif. Last year, only 5 percent of all American adults tithed. The practice didn't fare much better among the religious. Only 24 percent of evangelical Christians — the group most likely to tithe — did so in 2007, the study showed.
Originally a Jewish practice, tithing traces its roots to the Old Testament. Some scholars cite the first mention of tithes as early as the book of Genesis, where Abraham gave a tenth of his possessions to the biblical king Melchizedek. One of the Scriptures cited most often to support tithing is found in the third chapter of Malachi, where the writer asks if man will rob God. Yes, "in tithes and offerings," according to the text. The passage also exhorts readers to bring their tithes into the "storehouse" and receive bountiful blessings from God.
Despite tithing's biblical beginnings, there is much debate among Christians about the practice and whether modern-day churches should participate. Some scholars argue that Abraham's offering to Melchizedek was not a tithe but was in keeping with the Arab tradition of dividing the spoils of war. Others say Old Testament tithing referred to food or was only intended for farmers and herdsman in Israel.
Among churches that teach tithing, reasons for adopting the practice vary. Some religious leaders stress that tithers will be blessed for their gifts, but say that those who do not tithe will face no punishment. More extreme teachers tell their followers that they will be cursed if they withhold tithes. That type of teaching gives way to the biggest criticism of tithing, that some religious leaders wield it over those who can least afford to pay.
"It's just such a convenient doctrine to just squeeze church members to give 10 percent, and the person who benefits the most from it is the preacher," said Russell Kelly, author of Should The Church Teach Tithing?, a book that argues that the modern church misinterprets the practice.
Kelly, a Southern Baptist turned Seventh-day Adventist turned Conservative Baptist, says he donates more than 10 percent to his church and believes most Christians can afford to do the same. But he refuses to call his monetary donations a tithe because he argues the modern church wrongly defines the word.
While some Bible scholars dispute Kelly's findings, they agree that some tithe teachers can go too far.
"Its application can be so woodenly done that it really can become a guilt trip for people who can't afford a tenth, and when that happens, it's dreadful," said Walter J. Harrelson, a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Scripture must always be applied with a scriptural mercy. . . . You don't want to use religion as a club."
Because of the discrepancies in tithe teaching, adherence varies widely among denominations and churches.
Catholics, for example, are among the least likely Christians to tithe, the Barna Group's study showed.
"There are parishes that put a big emphasis on tithes, but that's something that's inconsistent," said the Rev. Len Plazewski, director of vocations for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. "There are some individuals who tithe and have seen the beauty of that and what it means and others who say, 'That's a lot of money, and I don't know if I should be giving that much.' "
At St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg, the Rev. Chris Schuller recently challenged his members to tithe. He told members at a Wednesday night service that if they tried tithing and didn't realize any benefit, he would write them a refund check from his personal money market account. So far, no one has asked for a refund.
"It wasn't a fundraising effort," said Schuller, a longtime tither. "It's an opportunity to acknowledge what is already great joy in God and great faith in God. It's about relationship with God. It's not about the (finances) of the church, which are fine."
Organizations that track giving say it is too early to tell whether the struggling economy will affect tithing this year. But tithing may be insulated from economic uncertainty because committed tithers typically give in spite of hardships.
Andrea Long, a 19-year-old student at Hillsborough Community College, said the high price of gas has made her think twice about tithing.
"I'm very tempted not to tithe," said Long, who makes $11 an hour as a data entry clerk. "But when it really comes down to it, I have been greatly blessed because of tithing. A lot of people say you can't afford to tithe this month or this week. But I just look at it as I can't afford not to."
Whenever Debbie Carter gets paid, her tithe check is the first one she writes. It wasn't always that way. After her divorce in 2000, Carter, who lives in Temple Terrace, struggled to raise her two children alone. Sometimes she had to choose between paying tithes and covering her rent.
After three years of spotty tithing, Carter made a commitment to tithe regardless of her financial situation. Since then, she claims she has been the beneficiary of just what she needed when her funds were lacking. Sometimes someone gave her a free bag of groceries, said Carter, who works as an administrative assistant at Faith Life Church. Other times, a check mysteriously arrived in the mail.
"Provision was always there," said Carter, 53. "A lot of times there wasn't an abundance, but our needs were always met. I feel that it was just a direct result of being obedient to what God says about tithing."
Sherri Day can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.