My Name Is Jehovah, and I’ll Be Taking Care of You Tonight

Why do we pay waiters more than God?

Good service.
A 2012 Zagat survey found that the average restaurant tip has risen to 19.7 percent, while another recent survey found that donations by mainstream Christians to their churches have fallen to 2.38 percent of their annual income.

Photo by Jacob Wackerhausen/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

When Applebee’s tried to impose an automatic 18 percent tip last week on the bill of St. Louis pastor Alois Bell, she crossed it out, reduced the tip to zero, and added the note, “I give God 10%, 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 percent and your preferred deity 10 percent, 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 percent 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 percent, why does the government get 17.4?” on her Form 1040EZ.

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 percent, 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 had an inauspicious start in America. When the practice migrated from Europe, many consumers considered it bribery. The Anti-Tipping Society of America, a lobby group of traveling salesmen, pushed many states to ban the practice. When the laws were struck down or repealed under pressure from restaurant and hotel owners who profited in saved wages, members of the media suggested that a tip should total no more than 10 percent. Since then, the national tipping rate seems to have risen inexorably. Guides from the 1960s suggest that an appropriate tip ranged from 10 to 20 percent, with 15 percent representing the average. Tipping a server 10 percent is now widely considered a serious offense, and a Zagat survey from 2012 found the average restaurant tip has risen to 19.7 percent.

America’s churches should be so lucky. When the Christian research group Empty Tomb began tracking tithing in 1968, mainstream Christians gave 3.3 percent of their income to a church. Those donations have steadily dropped, falling to a mere 2.38 percent in the most recent survey. Evangelicals like Bell typically give more, but their donations have also fallen by around 30 percent since the late 1960s. Churches could really use the cash, too. Only 10 percent 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 percent tithe. There’s little data on U.S. contributions, but Canadian Mormons pay about 8 percent of annual income to the church. (Fortunately for Mormons, the church hardly needs the money.)

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 percent. Between 1987 and 2000, the likelihood that an average American would eat at a restaurant in any given week increased 40 percent. 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 favorable view of the federal government, while 52 percent view state government favorably, and 61 percent 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 waitstaff. 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

There’s one other problem for the Christian God: He has a flock full of cheapskates. Long before Alois Bell stiffed her server on religious grounds, American waiters complained about the Sunday afternoon crowd leaving Bible quotes in lieu of cash tips. A 2012 study by Cornell University tipping expert Michael Lynn showed that Jews and people with no religion tip better than self-identified Christians. (To be fair, the overwhelming majority of Christians tip between 15 and 20 percent, just lower in the range than nonbelievers and Jews.) This phenomenon is difficult to explain, but it’s possible that Christians think their devotion to the next life exempts them from such social niceties as tipping in this one. That confidence in their ultimate salvation may also diminish their sense of financial obligation to God. Perhaps churches need to modify their appeal to something like “faith alone, plus 10 percent.”

Correction, Feb. 10, 2013: This article misstated that Alois Bell lives in Atlanta. She lives in St. Louis. (Return to the corrected sentence.)