What's ten percent of zero? If you're in college, you're not earning much money. You go to church, and hear the appeals from the pulpit for regular tithing, and you can't decide whether to feel ashamed or angry or guilty.
You may be thinking, "I'm in debt! My net worth is in the negative column...then should I put an invoice in the offering plate?"
Tithing is a long tradition in Christendom. It is a tool for empowering obedience to a more vague command in scripture. Accordingly, tithing should be treated not as law, but as wisdom. You can give 11% and be in danger of losing your soul; conversely you can give 1% and God may count it as righteousness. What's needed are general principles for understanding God's heart in the matter.
Tithing Without Money
Traditionally, the church has asked us to give ten percent of our first fruits over to the Lord's work. For most of church history, wages did not come in money. Money (like the denarius of Jesus' day) requires a stable and reliable central government. But daily life for most Christians, through most of our history, has been far less secure than today's economy or the economy of the pax romana. Especially for slaves, serfs, and peons (farmers bound to the land and to an overlord), wages came by way of food, clothing, tools or building materials. They couldn't tithe a penny, because they'd never laid eyes on one.
With the industrial revolution came wages in currency. The value of one's labors was abstracted and floated on the value of the entire economy. We are now so used to money, rather than goods, as a means of settling debts that it no longer seems strange to us. In fact, we are so used to currency, that we restrict our thinking about stewardship to dollars and cents.
You may have a summer job, or a part-time job, but this will probably generate less income than your housing expenses. The average college student will be under a mountain of debt—both good debt and bad, from government-subsidized loans and credit cards. At the same time, statistics show that North American college students have far more disposable income than previous generations of students. The cost of your schooling is up, the cost of living is up, and your sense for living standards is way up.
Tithing and Stewardship
What we need in part is a communal vision. We (society) are sending you to college. You may not feel it, but the taxpayers are investing in you for society's future. We may habitually think of our education as an individual effort, but in fact it's a corporate endeavor. Accordingly, churches are not looking for a tenth of your minimum wage, although every bit helps. Rather, the church needs you as a true partner. Stewardship involves not just giving money to the church, but learning to restructure lifestyles toward a grander vision of the church in general and finance in particular.
Consider doing an internship in the real world this summer. Teach yourself about money, personal finance, credit and savings. And start giving your stewardship muscles a workout. Here are some tips for tithing this summer:
So you're making minimum wage. Give ten percent to the church. That's a basic, habit-forming discipline that will serve you greatly later in life.
Consider dropping off an anonymous gift sometime this summer to a need within the church—a gift that is so liberal it actually hurts your pocketbook. Just as cardio-vascular training increases your lung capacity, your giving capacity grows with the tandem practices of regular, disciplined giving (tithing), and periodic major gifts.
Cut down on waste.
Use the summer to pay down personal debt. Getting rid of credit card debt is more productive than investing in the stock market. Do you want to give more to the poor? Then stop giving so much to the rich. Pay cash rather than plastic.
Record your spending.
If you don't have a job, but still have some cash-flow, consider giving to the needy an equal amount that you spend on entertainment (movies, dining, dancing, sports, toys etc). This will involve a very useful habit: keeping a log of your spending habits this summer. Record every dollar without judgment, just matter-of-fact. You will begin to see patterns, and patterns will help you tweak your performance. It may actually sting you next time you spend five dollars to rent a movie you don't really care to see.
Give free labor to your church.
There are tons of needs. You may be uniquely situated to help. Maybe there's a fund-raiser like a car-wash that needs some hands. Maybe the grounds crew can use your back. Maybe the administrative staff can use help. Consider tithing your hours this summer, if you don't have reliable money-income.
Tithe your educational time.
Read three books on non-degree related themes, like faith, righteousness, justice, missions and stewardship.
Give away a third of the clothes in your closet.
This is not to serve the poor (though it will help), but to serve you. It will hurt, especially when you get past the easy donations. It will also help you own the clothes, rather than the clothes owning you. If clothes are not an issue for you, do the same with books, music or sporting equipment. It's for training your heart, not for serving the needy. And college is about training.
Jesus spent more time talking about the Sabbath than about missions. Sabbath means rest. In our hectic lives we often confuse rest and recreation. Teach yourself the discipline of doing nothing.
Above all, learn to view stewardship as far grander than tithing, and far more practical than accounting sheets. These years in college are a great blessing as you proceed in faith.