Questions regarding the prospectus for the ’90-day Tithe Challenge’

Matthew Paul Turner tells us that the “90-day Tithe Challenge” is a thing that exists: “If you tithe for 90 days and God does not prove Himself faithful, we’ll refund 100% of your tithe.”

The 90-day time limit here might seem short — implying that God’s faithfulness should only be measured on a quarterly basis — but keep in mind that Jesus said faith is like a mustard seed, and a mustard plant goes from seed to seed-bearing in as little as 60 days.

Despite a page-length registration form that reads like a seven-point financial prospectus, the folks at Sagebrush Community Church neglect to define what it means for God to “prove Himself faithful” in response to a duly and “properly credited” tithe.

What kind of return are we talking about here? Is it strictly financial, or does it include, say, miraculous healing or tangible answers to prayer? And how would we measure the latter?  If you’re praying that your child will be accepted into college and they only get accepted into their safety school, would that count as a wholly faithful or only partially faithful response by God?

What if it turns out that God only proves faithful by providing spiritual returns — something like the fruits of the Spirit, or a deeper love for neighbors and for the outcast? That kind of return would surely seem disappointing — unless, I guess, it was significant enough to help you become the kind of spiritually mature person who wouldn’t think so.

Sagebrush’s prospectus also seems unclear on some of its conditions regarding what constitutes a properly credited tithe. It specifies only that for a tithe to count it must be “10 percent of our income.” But what counts as income? Is this gross or take-home? Before or after taxes? What about health-insurance expenses deducted from payroll? Do tax-refunds like the mortgage-interest deduction count as tithable income? What about subsidies for health insurance?

Say your annual salary is $30,000 a year. That’s a 90-day income of about $7,397, which would require a tithe of $739. But your take-home pay would only come to about $24,000 — a take-home income over 90 days of about $5,918 and a tithe due of only $592. This is an important question, because apparently that $147 difference could determine whether or not God is obliged to be faithful in response.

This is further complicated by the fact that either tithe would, itself, be a tax deductible donation — making the whole calculation of post-tax income itself contingent on the size of the tithe duly paid.

For simplicity’s sake, then, gross income would make this all easier to calculate, but in the example above it would result in a tithe of $739 on take-home pay of only $5,918 — making that “10-percent” donation feel like a 12.5 percent tithe. That added bite could, in turn, ratchet up parishioners expectation of God’s faithful response — making them feel as though God ought to be 25 percent more faithful in return.

Sadly, the subjective nature of this guarantee (“if I am not convinced of God’s faithfulness as a result”), and the likely distorting influence of social pressure against church members actually attempting to collect on it, prevent this from providing a reliable quantitative measurement of divine faithfulness.

Sagebrush could provide regular reports on this — “God’s Faithfulness Q1 2014” — but unless they make some adjustments to this system (anonymous reporting, clearer definitions, etc.), I’d only treat those divine-faithfulness scores as tentative.

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  • flat

    oh boy, When I read that registration form I suddenly had the feeling that there is Somebody upstairs who is not going to be very happy with the Sagebrush Community Church.

  • MaryKaye

    How come people who are otherwise so fond of clobber verses don’t get clobbered by “Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test?” (Also, for a different subset of them, by “That hour no man knows, not even the Son, but only the Father”?)

  • Jakeithus

    Those fond of clobber verses will also know that when it comes to the tithe, the Lord commands Israel to test him on it (Malachi 3:10). It goes to show the problem with using clobber verses one way or another, rather than scripture as a whole.

    Personally, I’m not sure I have major issues with this whole thing. They are not making specific promises that tithing will solve all your problems, beyond what might be already be promised in scripture. One could view it as the church putting its money where its mouth is.

    It’s funny, if a church encourages people to tithe, they just want the money. If the offer the money back, it’s no better in the end

  • Lori

    It’s funny, if a church encourages people to tithe, they just want the
    money. If the offer the money back, it’s no better in the end

    People are unimpressed with the offer to return the money because the offer is clearly being made with the expectation that no one will ever collect. And I don’t mean that in the sense that they expect god to prove his faithfulness to each and every person who tithes. I mean it in the sense that as Fred noted the offer is structered in such a way that it’s highly unlikely that anyone will be deemed to have met the conditions for the refund, assuming that anyone is able to overcome social pressure and actually ask for one. The offer isn’t bona fide, it’s just part of the church’s pressure to give. IOW, the church just wants money.

    If even one person collects on this “guarantee” and is able to remain a member of this church I’ll reconsider, but I don’t expect to have to do that.

  • That Other Jean

    Looks to me as though all that vagueness of terms amounts to the Ferengi First Rule of Acquisition: “Once you have their money, never give it back.”

  • Arashtorel

    That’s true of guarantees in general:people usualy don’t collect on them. But that’s fine. The purpose of a guarantee is to remove risk for the buyer.

  • Lori

    There’s a difference between “most people never collect” and “designed so that no one will collect”. In this case it’s the “buyer’s” wariness and common sense that are being removed by the faux guarantee, not their risk.

  • LoneWolf343

    They, of course, ignore the parts where the tithe was supposed to go to the poor.

  • Vass

    It made me think of the manna incident in Exodus. I think if you really believe in going all in and trusting God for everything instead of trying to help yourself or your community, or setting up social safety nets (or you’re actively trying to dismantle the existing safety nets,) then you don’t get to ask for money-back guarantees at the same time.

  • tsig

    All they have to do is show my where god gave them power of attorney and I’m in.

  • Monala

    I pretty much hate most Christian discussions of tithing. Because, like so many borrowed from Jewish scripture teachings, it extracts one or two verses from the whole context. The Jewish tithe was part of an entire Israelite economic system that included the annual tithe being placed in storehouses for the widows, orphans, poor and aliens every 3 years. Is there any church that teaches tithing that donates every third collection to the poor? That ancient economic system also included cancellation of all debts every 7 years. How about churches that take every 7th collection and use it to pay off the debts of their members? When churches start doing some of these things, then I’ll think they’re serious about claiming God’s promises via tithing.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    The Mormons maybe get close, but even they don’t cancel all debts every seven years as far as I know.

  • smrnda

    Mormons I have known said the LDS church is a lot like an insurance agency – good at collecting premiums but not so good at paying out benefits. Receiving help is often contingent on having been a faithful tither, which is hard to do when one is hard-up financially.

  • Loki1001

    That sounds like a very good economic system. I bet Sagebrush would be firmly against it.

  • ReverendRef

    Is there any church that teaches tithing that donates every third collection to the poor?

    Well, fwiw, every Episcopal church I’ve been associated with puts the cash offering of the first Sunday of the month into the Rector’s discretionary fund, which is used for a variety of emergency needs. It doesn’t come close to what you’re probably talking about, but at least there’s a line item for it on the budget (as opposed to other church in my town who are often fond of telling people, “Sorry, we don’t have any money right now.”)

  • Monala

    Does the Episcopal church teach that tithing (as in giving 10% or so of one’s income to the church, not just as a term to express the overall concept of “be generous to those in need”) is an expectation of God? That’s my objection: when churches take this Old Testament concept, tithing, divorce it from its context as part of the ancient Israelite economic system, and then bind it on their members as a commandment for Christians in order to guilt them into giving.

    Encouraging people to give to support the work of the church, without guilt trips: great, no problem. Setting aside some of those funds collected to meet emergency needs: even better. Telling them that God expects them to tithe, or else they’re robbing God? Not cool at all.

  • ReverendRef

    Does the Episcopal church teach that tithing (as in giving 10% or so of one’s income to the church, not just as a term to express the overall concept of “be generous to those in need”) is an expectation of God?

    We (the Episcopal church) don’t teach that it’s an expectation of God. As always, it went to committee and came out more complicated. The tithe is only one part of stewardship. To give context, I’m giving you the whole canon particular to that:

    III.9.5 (b)(2) It shall be the duty of Rectors or Priests-in-Charge to ensure that all persons in their charge are instructed concerning Christian stewardship, including:
    (i) reverence for the creation and the right use of
    God’s gifts;
    (ii) generous and consistent offering of time, talent,
    and treasure for the mission and ministry of the
    Church at home and abroad;
    (iii) the biblical standard of the tithe for financial
    stewardship; and
    (iv) the responsibility of all persons to make a will as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer.

    Now, that’s the standard; but no priest I have ever known has said it’s a requirement. It’s more like a goal to shoot for and a financial pledge to a church should never compromise a person’s ability to provide the necessities of life for themselves.

    **Sorry for the delayed response. I wasn’t ignoring you, it just happens to be a big football weekend. So lots of games combined with getting the church ready for Advent means not much computer time.

  • Fusina

    This is one of the many reasons I am for government programs like SNAP and social security. I figure the taxes I pay are also part of the money I give to god…or something of the sort. So they go to help out people who need help along with other things, like the armed forces etc…

    Err, other people’s mileage may vary, that is just my take on it…

  • smrnda

    I’m more inclined to pay more taxes than give to charity, as I *know for sure* that SNAP gets food to people who need it. There are some forms of private generosity I think do some good, but overall, most problems need a government-level approach.

    Giving $ to homeless people will probably not help someone not become homeless. I have seen too many ‘help the homeless’ programs that were more about some egotistical spiritual leader filling seats with followers than helping anyone (help conditional on church attendance on every day of the week) and I think for that issue, a government solution would be better. (Individuals or groups ‘sponsoring’ homeless people, even when done well, seems problematic.)

  • Fusina

    The way I see it, problems have tiers of solutions. The solution tier depends on the size of the problem. I have said that I drive people who cannot to places they need to go. That is a small problem that can be solved on a personal level. As problems become larger–say, 10 people need a ride somewhere, a larger solution is needed–like mass transit. And so on. So yes, I think that the government should be in the bus line business. Etc…

  • Arashtorel

    I disagree. SNAP is an extremely efficient and effective program. But in GENERAL, private charities are more efficient and effective in using their funds. Government programs have a tendency to waste money on buearcray and stupid things like drug-testing welfare recipients.

  • AnonymousSam

    However, private charities have less oversight, fewer resources, receive less funding and lack the networking capability of the federal government, and only about 30.6% of charitable giving is directed toward benefiting the poor. Far more often, what people think of as giving to charity—donating to their church—is actually doing nothing but paying for their church’s upkeep, expansion and missionary efforts.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    While I concur that drug testing of welfare recipients is an intrusive and unnecessary procedure, it does not then follow that private charity would be any less prone to this kind of petty intrusiveness. Nor does it follow that private charity could scale to the national and subnational level as well as the way SNAP, WIC, AFDC (now TANF) and Medicaid do.

  • AnonymousSam

    ^ Come to think of it, a lot of the proponents for private charity are also the same ones insisting on drug testing. You’re not allowed to break something and then complain when it doesn’t work. >.<

  • Ross

    The trick to efficiency and effectiveness is to be modest in scope. Private charities can be more efficient than government programs exactly because the large government programs take the pressure off them and allow them to focus on smaller and more narrowly defined areas of interest.

  • smrnda

    A few points:

    People who want to drug test welfare recipients have in recent years tended to be right-wingers who, for the most part are hostile to government aid to begin with. Their actions represent an attempt to reduce the effectiveness of of government aid or reduce the quality of aid by making recipients jump through some degrading hoops.

    In terms of getting benefits to people who need help, who needs help? The unemployed, people who are employed but don’t make enough money, and people who don’t work like the elderly and the disabled. This includes SNAP, WIC, medicaire, medicaid, social security among other things. These are huge programs that provide huge benefits to millions – I see absolutely nothing in private hands that approaches that level of help, and that’s helping the vast majority of people who need it. In sheer numbers, the government wins.

    There are some benefits to private aid – a food bank can provide food without necessarily needing to means test the people coming in the door, but efficiency? A bunch of people drive around, buy food that people may or may not want and then put it in a location (with other locations replicating the same service?) and this is efficiency? Are you aware of how dependent on government money most serious food banks are?

    I have been unable to work owing to disability, and I would not care to speculate what would have happened if I’d only had private charities to appeal to. Help is best with no strings attached, and I find many private charities come with strings attached. If I’m unable to work, is a private charity going to give me a residence, food I want to eat and the right to do as I please while only getting the help I need, or will I be *encouraged* to stoke the ego of the resident High Priest?

  • Arashtorel

    There’s many aspects of Israelite society prescribed in the Bible that modern Religionists reject. The stoning of adulteresses, for example. Judaism pretty much rejects the death penalty.

    We know a lot more about the dismal science than the ancient Israelites. I’d like to see a real modern economy function with a cancelation of debts every seven years.

  • Monala

    Way to miss my point! So I’ll make it clearer: for churches that insist on commanding their congregants to tithe, they (the churches, not the entire economy) should go the whole hog and implement something akin to the Israelite economic system. If they want to play the, “But those are Old Testament laws, not binding on Christians!” game, then they should stop telling their parishioners to tithe, because tithing is also an OT law, not binding on Christians.

  • AnonymousSam

    “We pledge to continue to honor and affirm proportional giving through the Cooperative Program as the most effective means of mobilizing our churches and extending our outreach as Southern Baptists, enabling us to work together to evangelize the lost people of our world locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, 20:20-21; Romans 10:14-17; 2 Corinthians 8:1-13; 9:1-15)”

    — Document written in response to the issue of the SBC somehow losing a significant portion of its funding in management costs

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Reminds me of the “Jiffy Lube Guarantee” which, funnily enough, hasn’t seemed to stop them from ripping people off.

    Betcha anything by next year SBC will still somehow have a “high management expense ratio”.

  • Loki1001

    “That kind of return would surely seem disappointing — unless, I guess, it was significant enough to help you become the kind of spiritually mature person who wouldn’t think so.”

    Fred’s a funny guy.

  • Asha

    Reminds me of a friend who told me about her pastor ‘counseling’ people who would not give a full tithe and putting pressure on people who wouldn’t. She saw nothing wrong with this.

  • smrnda

    I get very irritated by the whole “10%” demand. Cost of living is regressive. The less money you have, the higher % of your income will go to basic necessities. 10% out of a low-income person or family can be a pretty tough burden; 10% out of a 100,000 dollar a year salary is spit in a bucket leaving plenty left over for basic expenses and discretionary spending.

    I’ve seen this stunt pulled, and I once sat in a church where ‘testimonies’ were heard about people finding an extra couple hundred dollars in their bank account and such after having tithed faithfully. The ‘testimonies’ seemed unconvincing and improbable, and nobody’s name was identified so anyone could check it out. It’s not bad for a church to ask for $, but to pretend there *will be* some payoff is getting into pyramid scheme territory.

  • Matthias

    Or as someone else put it:
    “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Also, anyone “finding” a couple hundred extra bucks in their account in this day and age of instant bank balance checking*?

    Sure as hell aren’t keeping a close eye on their finances. Could’ve just as easily been “finding” a $200 hole in that bank account due to an overdrawn check they forgot about.

    * And even as far back as the thirties, at most it was a matter of taking a day and going to the bank to get a reconciled bank statement showing deposits and withdrawals. Not instant, but people back then were taught the skill of balancing a checkbook precisely to have a second set of numbers to easily call upon at need.

  • smrnda

    It didn’t strike me as a very persuasive testimony, probably easier to account for by a person who doesn’t stay up to date on their finances than anything else. I’m suspecting that it’s believable enough for some people, and it isn’t like churches are screening ‘testimonies’ based on evidence.

  • tricksterson

    Dear God:

    For my tithe I want three wishes and a talking cat

  • Jamoche

    Remember to phrase your wishes carefully.

  • tricksterson

    Well, that’s what the cat is for, to advise me.

  • Chocolate Covered Cotton

    Do you really want to live in a world made of yarn, canned tuna, and slow rodents?

  • AnonymousSam

    Don’t forget the freshly hung toilet paper!

  • hagsrus

    And hope it doesn’t talk LOLcat!

  • AnonymousSam

    Which just makes me think of something a game where a mad sorcerer was attempting to call forth a being from a realm outside our own whose visage is said to drive people mad… only for said being to emerge as a LOLcat.

    *The Old One:* Im in ur uneevers, bloweding it up.

  • Jamoche The Egyptians were on the right track with cat-worship – they’re our only line of defense against the Elder Gods.

  • snowmentality

    Strictly speaking, all the registration form says is that if you’re not convinced of God’s faithfulness after 90 days of tithing, you will be “entitled to request a refund” (emphasis added). It doesn’t say anything about you actually getting a refund.

  • tsig

    The person who signs the check is Helen Wate, so if you want a refund you have to go to Helen Wate.

  • Mark Z.

    “Please return the unused portion of the product, and we will return the unused portion of your money.”

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Customer: “Well, yes, we got the new cat, but it had fleas.”

    Faith Agency: “Then you got more than what you wanted from prayer. No refunds.”

    Customer: *snarl*

  • Chocolate Covered Cotton

    Reminds me of a local radio ad for some real estate MLM scheme which promises recruits are guaranteed to make up to $50k in 90 days. So, they’re promising that you will absolutely not make more than that. I have no doubt this is true.

    How can you go wrong?

    (Now I’m wondering what happens if by some fluke a recruit did make more than $50k. Would they have to withhold the difference?)

  • TheBrett

    EDIT: Deleted, because I don’t think it’s relevant enough.

  • Jenny Islander

    But I don’t give in expectation that God will improve my life. I give because hospitality, support of the poor, and assistance of the stranger in our community are things we are supposed to do, and they all take money.

  • Dave

    Order your salvation now and for a limited time we’ll give you treasure in heaven absolutely free. A one hundred dollar value!

    Subject to availability. God’s faithfulness not suitable for all creeds. God’s level of faithfulness may go down as well as up. Past faithfulness is not necessarily a guide to future performance.

  • Ken

    Is it strictly financial, or does it include, say, miraculous healing or tangible answers to prayer?

    It better not be financial or tangible. The letter acknowledging the donation should have the IRS boilerplate, saying that nothing was received but intangible religious benefits.