NEW YORK -- When Applebee's tried to impose an automatic 18 per cent tip recently on the bill of Atlanta pastor Alois Bell, she crossed it out, reduced the tip to zero, and added the note, "I give God 10 per cent, why do you get 18?" A waitress posted the receipt online, earning Bell nationwide derision and the server a pink slip for violating Bell's "right to privacy," according to Applebee's. Over the weekend, the restaurant chain suffered an avalanche of criticism. More than 20,000 angry Facebook commenters responded to the company's attempts to explain its decision to fire the offending waitress.
Equating tipping with tithing is absurd, of course. Traditional tithing is a fraction of one's annual earnings, while tipping is a percentage of a restaurant bill. If you tip a waiter 18 per cent and your preferred deity 10 per cent, waiters can only out-gross God if Americans spend more than one-half their income at restaurants. (In fact, the average American spends around $2,500 annually eating out, which is less than 10 per cent of average per capita income.) The more apt comparison is between tithing and taxes, but presumably Alois Bell lacks the courage to scribble, "I give God 10 per cent, why does the government get 17.4?" on her income tax return.
Bell's spurious comparison, nevertheless, does require some attention. Tipping and tithing are both largely unenforced social norms. If you fail to tip a server between 15 and 20 per cent, restaurants don't force you to wash dishes. Likewise, few Christian churches banish tithing delinquents from the congregation. And yet, they're trending in opposite directions.
Tipping a server 10 per cent is now widely considered a serious offence, and a Zagat survey from 2012 found the average restaurant tip has risen to 19.7 per cent.
America's churches should be so lucky. When the Christian research group Empty Tomb began tracking tithing in 1968, mainstream Christians gave 3.3 per cent of their income to a church. Those donations have steadily dropped, falling to a mere 2.38 per cent in the most recent survey. Evangelicals like Bell typically give more, but their donations have also fallen by around 30 per cent since the late 1960s. Churches could really use the cash, too. Only 10 per cent of U.S. congregations have an endowment that exceeds their annual operating budget. Even the Mormon church, the international tithe-collecting champion, fails to pressure the faithful into a full 10 per cent tithe. Canadian Mormons pay about eight per cent of their annual income to the church.
Why do Americans increasingly prefer to donate money to waiters than to God? One potential explanation is simple awareness. Most studies on tipping show that a fair proportion of bad tippers or nontippers don't know -- or at least claim not to know -- that they're expected to leave 15 to 20 per cent. Between 1987 and 2000, the likelihood that an average American would eat at a restaurant in any given week increased 40 per cent. The more people dine out, and the more they hear servers moaning about their pitiful baseline wages, the more the tipping norm sinks in. God is experiencing no such awareness surge. Different methodologies yield different church attendance numbers, but most studies find that the proportion of Americans who attend church regularly has stayed nearly constant for decades.
There may be a better explanation than simple awareness, though: the rise of the megachurch. Lakewood Church in Houston packs 43,500 people into its seats per week, and several other churches count congregations in the tens of thousands. The average churchgoer now attends service with 400 others. Getting big makes sense for any individual church. Entrepreneurial pastors get their own television shows and crank out book after dreary, repetitive book, amassing huge fortunes in the process.
The growth in congregation size, however, may be bad for churches' collective income. God looks increasingly like an institution, and 21st-century Americans don't like institutions. Trust in banks, schools and Congress has slid steadily for 40 years. Churches have suffered from the same cynicism. The proportion of Americans who express a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in organized religion dropped by one-third between 1973 and 2012 -- the same as the drop in the average Christian tithe. Modern megachurches look a lot more organized than the little community chapels of yesteryear.
A 2012 Pew survey on trust in government should be of particular note to America's churches. One-third of Americans have a favourable view of the federal government, while 52 per cent view state government favourably, and 61 per cent express satisfaction with local government. The message couldn't be clearer: Big is bad.
Rather than sending minions like Alois Bell to nudge us, God should watch and learn from America's eminently relatable wait staff. Your waiter's first move is to tell you his name, although you have absolutely no use for it. They get close, sometimes disturbingly so. They take individual responsibility for "taking care of you." That promise doesn't just have the same effect when sent down from on high or from a stage in a football stadium