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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  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.