Young Adults & Stewardship: What Gives?

Does Christian stewardship look different for millennials who grew up in our increasingly post-Christian world replete with Facebook, Justin Bieber, and legalized marijuana? Is the sky blue? Is North Dakota cold in winter?

The good folks at Luther Seminary’s Center for Stewardship Leadership and I have been in some conversations recently about young adults and stewardship. I confess, I hadn’t thought much about this particular connection before they inquired. Though Roger Nishioka broached the theme in Presbyterians Today last year, and Carol Howard Merritt nibbles on the edges often in her insightful posts (e.g.), there isn’t a whole lot out there on the confluence of young adults and stewardship–at least, there’s not a fancy program you can buy and easily (with theological depth) make the cash fly. But, here’s the deal: that’s a good thing.

The same old church stewardship campaign will not connect with your average young adults, and that’s good news. The world is changing; the church must change with it and our old stewardship campaign wasn’t that good to begin with, certainly not good enough to speak compellingly to those outside the church. 

My guess is that the word “stewardship,” means pretty little to most young adults other than those that take it as code for “we want your money.”

Of course, a robust theology of stewardship is about so much more than finances, but that complex understanding has been long lost in the culture. So, we get to take it back! To do so will require new language, cultural awareness, and smarts.

Yes, some generational issues do particularly affect young adults — student loans are ridiculously burdensome, housing is expensive, the down economy will hurt recent graduates for many years to come — and yet, young adults still spend a ton of money. Those iPhones don’t grow on trees. Funky glasses and hair gel cost money. Craft beer, even at happy hour, adds up.

After thinking a bit on such matters, I’ve come up with a few ideas for churches to kick around when it comes to stewardship and young adults. They’re only a start — mostly thinking out-loud — and a small one at that. So, please, add your comments and wisdom in the comments.

What Young Adults Have to Offer the Church When it Comes to Stewardship

Environmental Concern: 20/30-somethings haven’t known a world without global warming as a going concern. Though I wish it were even more intense, many young adults care deeply about the earth, buy “green,” factor the environment into their life choices, etc. Science Daily cites a 2011 UN study that sounds well on the way to a robust theology of stewardship:

“What emerges from the research is that young adults in the [surveyed cities] share the dream of a better-balanced way of life, inspired by more just and humane values and distinguished by fulfilling work, family and social lives.” 

A Willingness to Give to Specific Causes, Cutting Out the Middle Man: If YAs know whom they’re giving to, they’ll give. Churches would do well to connect giving campaigns to specific projects, not the annual budget bottom-line. My friends who run races for charities raise a ton of money. I feel certain does not subsist on grandparents’ sponsorships.

Stewardship of Facebook Wall and Twitter Feed: When I led a local young adult ministry and made a related Facebook event invite, friends with hundreds of Facebook friends would often like the event and share it on their wall. Rarely did they actually come to the event. What were these social media users doing? Being good stewards of their social media presence, getting the word out about an event they supported even if they couldn’t attend in person.

Civic Minded Not Church Minded: 20/30-somethings give to their communities and are invested in their tribe, whatever it may be. OK, so it’s probably not the church. That’s cool because the church has a great opportunity to learn from their connections, and show how a compelling Christian community looks. That’s communal stewardship.

But that’s just a start of some young adult and stewardship thoughts. Help me out, Internet. What else? What resources do you recommend? What gives?


  1. Hey Adam,
    This is really good stuff to be thinking about. I found that even mere translation is a challenge. We’ve had about 6 new families in their 20s and 30s come into our very traditional church (at least when it comes to stewardship stuff) in the last year. I found there was a communication challenge even with notions of things like a “pledge card.”
    A couple of things that have helped me begin to this through this. The first was this blog post by David Lewicki from North Decatur Presbyterian Church:!/2012/10/how-to-figure-your-10-tithe.html. He also cites a really compelling article about stewardship that’s worth reading. This blog post became a very challenging sermon for his community; I’d suggest listening to it.
    Along those lines, I think you’re right on that YA’s want a church that is striving to enact the kingdom of God in the world. Giving 10% of the annual budget away in benevolences won’t cut it anymore. In our stewardship campaign we sought to increase our benevolence budget by $10,000 (that’s a 50% increase), and we’re getting close to being able to do it. That would move our mission budget to 12.5% of the annual budget. We’re going to be talking about how engagement in God’s mission in the world shapes our congregational giving during a session retreat this winter, possibly setting a 3-year goal to move our mission budget to more like 30 to 40% of the annual budget (we have a very small building with low maintenance costs; this is a HUGE benefit).
    But giving money away isn’t enough. YA’s want dirt under their fingernails and will give money to the causes in which the church invites them to participate.
    Finally, YA’s with children, I think, will give money to a church that they see investing in the spiritual life of young people and youth. Especially the Gen Xers who obsess on their kids’ happiness and success. Finding ways to describe this using all forms of communication is an interesting challenge.
    Thanks for this post!

    • Thanks, Andrew. That’s all great, really helpful stuff. I think the pledge card point, especially, is a big one and relates to monthly giving: if it’s not electronic, the checkbook will be forgotten.

      Good reminders re YAs w/ kids as well. I’ll check out David Lewicki’s post. I love his blog.

      • Catherine Neelly Burton says:

        It’s important to note the difference in electronic giving at will v automatic. By far most of our automatic givers are in their 60’s. The younger people aren’t sure if the money will be there when it’s time.

  2. Thanks so much for this Adam! I am eager to hear what others out there are thinking around this subject. Great conversation!

  3. Jim Stewart says:

    You’re on target. Here are some sources and people you may want to check out: Stewardship Kaleidoscope – an excellent Presbyterian Stewardship conference. Their website will have lots of references. Clif Christopher (sp) a UMC minister/consultant who has lots of material, author of Not Your Parent’s Offering Plate. And Karl Travis, pastor of a large PCUSA church in Fort Worth, who has some excellent material.

  4. How about we follow our 20/30s into the world. Find out what they contribute to and why and then bring those issues to the peace&justice-missioncommittee-session-minuteformission-congregationasawhole for action.

  5. Charlie Ruud says:

    Great topic, Adam. I was at a conference recently focusing on the Millenial generation (18-30) and their involvement with church. One of the presenters, a millenial herself, worked with an organization which specifically helps young families learn and think about budgeting an d finances. She raised some great points.
    1. The millenials’ supposed lack in giving isn’t about irresponsibility. Especially if a person engages in higher education, this generation is dealing with 3x more deabt than any other U.S. generation.

    2. This effects many other life decisions including choosing to get married much later and choosing to have children much later.

    3. There’s much shame, fear, and guilt for this generation around money, which incidentally they probably inherrited from their parents. Most of them probably grew up in one of two modes of financial management. Either they were never included in the discussion about money in their family as the heads of the household never shared any information with them about how budgeting/finance/giving was negotiated and accomplished and thus they were never taught anything and probably also saw poor examples, or they grew up in a totally micromanaged money style with every cent evaluated and any spending meticulously debated and often scorned.

    This has created a lot of shame, fear, and guilt around money and how to use it. An example might be that instead of asking mom and dad for some money to help pay the bill on a recent unexpected car repair, one would put it on a credit card. While mom and dad would have money to cover it, the fear, shame, and guilt of having to ask for financial help and being taught by those same parents that being responsible means you take care of yourself, the decision to “be responsible” instead leads to an ultimately dangerous financial choice.

    This insight has been helpful for me in thinking especially about financial stewardship in regard to millenials and also in educating those generations ahead of them who did not have some of the same burdens nor the same culture.

  6. As a pastor and a young adult, this is something I care a great deal about. Increasingly I believe the challenge is not that YAs are uninterested in giving to the church per se, but that YAs have never been taught how to give at all.

    Adam’s assertion that, “If YAs know whom they’re giving to, they’ll give;” seems to me inaccurate. A very small percentage of 20-30 somethings give away more than token amounts of money to anything, much less to churches. I don’t particularly blame young adults for this; their (our) constant narrative since high school has been one of poverty. “I’m just a poor college student (grad assistant, seminarian, barista, entry level employee, . . .”) And the narrative is conveniently adaptive and self-perpetuating, “I have a mountain of student debt, (a mortgage now, a child on the way . . .”) The continuous narrative of not having enough makes it almost impossible to contemplate giving more than $25 or $100 to a friend who is raising money or to a cause we believe in.

    The challenge we face in talking about stewardship with young adults is in helping them to understand that all their (our) money belongs to God, and that while giving away $500 a year sounds like a lot of money, it is less than they pay for their data plan and less than 2% of their income.

    I think we in the church have done a poor job of talking about stewardship as a way of life. We first decide to give generously to things that matter, because that is what we are called to do. Secondly, we figure out what organizations, events or people we can give our money to in order to accomplish those things. Few people, and fewer young adults, have this perspective when it comes to money.

    • Thanks for the comments, Sam. I don’t have time to drill down on the numbers, but my guess is that the Obama campaign wouldn’t say young adults give in “token amounts,” especially by text message and email response. My guess, also, is that Haiti earthquake relief and Sandy relief by text message raised significant money via mobile giving from young adults.

      I totally agree with you on the theology angle, but I don’t think we can say YAs don’t give–that said, what non-profit folks can help us out with links to the data?

      • I agree with Adam. We certainly need to emphasize the theology but we cannot say that YAs don’t give. One great data source that I have found is the Millennial Impact Report that looks deeply at how YAs give to non-profits:


        • Thanks, Grace!

        • Adam, I love reading your stuff. And again, I have to disagree. The Obama campaign’s unprecedented success in fundraising with young adults stemmed from their ability to leverage the “token gifts” of huge numbers of people. Getting a million people to give $10 (or $100) each is a great way to raise money if you can do it—but most of our churches can’t.
          Let me also add my thanks to Grace for posting the link to millennial impact report. In looking through the report the most interesting and pervasive revelation to me was the repeated emphasis that millennials like to give “in the moment.”
          This underscores the challenge that I pointed to earlier because “giving in the moment” and living a life of generous stewardship are tremendously difficult (although perhaps not impossible) to do simultaneously. If I give “in the moment” when I am moved by a tragedy, or when I chance upon a great organization like Building Tomorrow, then I will give what I can; what fits into my budget. Stewardship has to be about thinking about what is important and planning into my budget ways to make supporting those things part of my life.

          The challenge (and my great question) is this: How do we combine the spontaneity of giving “in the moment” with the difficult spiritual discipline of sharing generously the things God has given to us?

  7. What a great (and difficult) topic to tackle. I think you’re spot on when you state that “Churches would do well to connect giving campaigns to specific projects, not the annual budget bottom-line.” The challenge for established churches over the long-haul, when those that give to the annual budge bottom-line die, is how can they continue to function without having a means to cover overhead (facilities, staffing, insurance, etc). The non-sexy stuff needs to be covered as well.

    Does anyone have a hybrid model for giving that includes giving to specific projects as just one facet of stewardship?


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