The concept of tithing is a simple one: give ten percent of your income to the church to support its work. The word “tithe” comes from the Old English for “tenth,” and people throughout history have used that percentage as a benchmark of what should be given back to the community.
There are all kinds of examples of tithing as a social practice in both Christianity and Judaism, and although tithing in some countries and sects was mandatory, for the most part tithing in modern times is voluntary. You give what you can, with the ten percent amount serving as a benchmark for your charitable goals.
But what happens when you’re having trouble keeping your head above the financial waters? If you’re in debt, should you still be tithing, or would those dollars be better spent getting your own financial house in order first?
These are questions of conscience, of course, and there’s no single “right” answer for everyone — especially since coming to the conclusion that works best for you will depend on your interpretation of scripture and insights into your own heart. But if you are struggling to make ends meet and to care for your family on your current income, you may wish to consider a few alternative ways to give back to your church that won’t put your further into debt.
In the Middle Ages, tithing didn’t necessarily mean giving cash. For a farmer, ten percent of income could easily have meant giving ten percent of the crop to the church instead, which would have supported priests directly as food or with money after being sold.
If you are in business for yourself, you might be able to tithe by giving away some of your produce, too — that is, the products you make. For example, if you are a seamstress who sells original fashions on Etsy, you could directly donate some of your products to a women’s shelter or group that makes sure needy people get clothing. If you are a woodworker, you could donate some of your stock of lumber and nails to build a new playground for the church or to make needed repairs. If you are a baker, you could donate cakes and cookies to the church coffee hour each Sunday.
It may be more difficult to tithe things to directly benefit your own church, but you may consider donating items to religious charitable organizations as a worthy substitute.
Many people work at jobs in which they don’t necessarily “make” something like the examples above. Still, you probably have skills that you use at work that could be valuable for your church. Consider donating these skills to your church to aid in its operations and take some of the expenses out of the church budget.
For example, if you are an accountant or bookkeeper, you could volunteer to tally the offering plate contents after Sunday services and maintain the church’s records of giving. Likewise, professional services providers like doctors and lawyers will also be able to donate their expertise directly to the church or to a charitable organization that helps the needy. Tradespeople also have wonderful opportunities to share their skills by caring for the church building and grounds for free.
If you’re sitting there thinking that your job isn’t particularly conducive to tithing, don’t despair: You still have a lot to give! If you are drowning in debt or going through a rough period of unemployment, a heath crisis or some other struggle that has you living from paycheck to paycheck, you still have exactly the same allotment of time as every other person on the planet. So how will you spend it?
Consider giving ten percent of your time to volunteer at your church or another organization that furthers its ministry. When you consider that ten percent of your waking hours is roughly 90 minutes per day, that’s a whole lot of time to devote to helping others. This comes to about 10.5 hours per week, which would amount to a good, long day of volunteering each weekend. If that sounds like a lot, remember that the spirit of tithing is that you are giving a significant portion of your resources back to God — so it does come to a big chunk of your time. But if you can’t spare the money, you may be able to tithe by service.
Remember that volunteering doesn’t have to be physically demanding if you are unable. You can do seated work at church, or you can explore ways to work from home if you have trouble getting around — offering companionship or tutoring via Skype are just a couple ways to harness the power of the internet in your volunteering.
If you’re in a situation in which your time already spoken for and money is tight, you may be able to tithe by sacrificing some of your possessions. Many churches have a need for household goods, either for cooking and cleaning in the church itself or for helping those less fortunate set up independent households. You may own many things that don’t give you much pleasure, but could be incredibly useful to someone else.
Take an inventory of your belongings and see which items would be most useful for others. If your church holds a charity auction or yard sale fundraiser, contribute these items to that cause to turn your stuff into cash for your tithe.
The Spirit of Tithing
At the end of the day, tithing is about making a gift to God the priority in your life. By that measure, your tithe — whether in the form of giving time, skill or possession — should come first in your planning. This doesn’t have to mean donating cash to your church before paying your bills, though. You can also make a personal commitment to volunteering that comes before other ways you might choose to spend your time.
And if you feel that you simply must give money to your church, that’s okay, too. Give what you can comfortably afford and combine your gift with some of the suggestions above. You can also designate your tax refund for the offering plate, or take on a side gig with the express purpose of using that extra income as your tithe. With some creativity and a generous heart, you can make a meaningful gift to God and your community.