WASHINGTON (RNS) Collection plates are growing even lighter as Protestant church member giving reached new lows in 2011, and tithing probably will not recover from the recession, according to a new report by Empty Tomb, a Christian research group.

Methodist Megachurch

Collection plates are passed during the Sunday evening service at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection on July 15, 2012, in Leawood, Kan. The Church of the Resurrection is known as the largest Methodist church in the nation. RNS photo by Sally Morrow


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“Is the issue that the church is not providing an authentic alternative to the consumer mindset?” said Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb. “Over a period of time, if the church isn’t providing more of an authentic alternative, the church will lose.”

The percentage of a church member’s income given to the church dropped to 2.3 percent in 2011 (the latest year for which numbers are available), down from 2.4 percent in 2010, according to the Empty Tomb study.

In 1968, church members gave an average of 3.1 percent of their income.

Giving has declined for four consecutive years, according to the report. The only other period of prolonged decline in giving per member was from 1928 through 1934, almost entirely during the Great Depression.

In 2011, the 23 denominations researched by Empty Tomb received $22.94 billion. In 2010 they received $22.88 billion.

The steepest monetary decline was in the area of “benevolences,” spending that does not apply to a local congregation’s needs but includes things like seminary support or missions work. Giving to benevolences was at 0.34 percent of a person’s income, a decrease of 48 percent since 1968 — its lowest level since that time period.

Altogether, the report found, churches had $87.2 million less to spend in 2011 on work beyond their congregations than in 2010.

Empty Tomb also reported that overall church membership has declined.

Empty Tomb examined data reported by congregations to their denominations and then compiled in the “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.”  In some cases, Empty Tomb obtained data directly from denominations.

The denominations included in the report encompassed more than 100,000 congregations across the U.S. and included denominations affiliated with both the National Association of Evangelicals and with the National Council of Churches, as well as unaffiliated denominations. Although Catholics were not included in the report, previous Empty Tomb research has found that Catholics generally give at comparable or slightly less rates than Protestants.

The decline could be attributed to a variety of reasons, including economic struggles, said Matt Branaugh, director of editorial and business development for the Church Law & Tax Group at Christianity Today. Christianity Today has conducted its own surveys on church tithing.

Another reason could be a decline in church member attendance, Branaugh said.

“I’ve heard some reference that phenomena as the ‘grazer effect’ — people are not going to church every week now, and the weeks they don’t go they’re listening to podcasts, doing worship on their own or fellowshipping with people in other ways,” Branaugh said. “They’re not there as much, and consequently they’re not giving as much.”

Other churches struggle with how to talk about finances, not realizing that churches must teach about how a relationship with God involves giving — “stewardship,” as churches would say, Branaugh said.

“As a result, if it’s not being talked about and it’s not really being taught, it may not necessarily grow into the culture of that congregation,” Branaugh said.

Churches need to embrace the idea that all money is God’s, not just a small tithe, said Rick Dunham, CEO of Dunham+Company, a consulting firm that assists ministries in fundraising. Dunham is also on the executive committee of the Giving Institute, an organization that seeks to advance philanthropy.

“I think the decline in giving is in part because the church hasn’t really embraced the biblical mandate around true giving, the idea of investment in eternity, in the stuff that matters most,” Dunham said. “Not just putting a little bit of money in the offering plate and thinking I’ve done my duty.”

Ronsvalle said part of the reason giving has declined is because churches still treat people as if they are living in “hard times” — even when they are not.

“They’re hard because people want to take better vacations,” Ronsvalle said. “They want to get more cars. They want to have more square footage.”

Churches and their members need to realize that if 100 million Christians gave an extra $50 a year, child deaths could be drastically reduced across the world, Ronsvalle said.

“The church doesn’t think that way,” Ronsvalle said. “It has not understood its potential power for good.”

KRE/MG END BURGESS

32 Comments

  1. Jesus being omnipotent needs your money to run his churches? Jesus being omnipotent can’t stop his own ministers and priests from molesting children in his own church? But Jesus can help you find a parking place 50% of the time – more or less.

    No wonder comics get so much milage out of Jesus.

    • Not fair.

      What you might call “the Lifeforce” these folks call Jesus, the idea that there’s something out there that’s bigger than us and all-powerful. As for giving money, the folks would argue that God works through us and the Church. Money pays for the mortgage and heat.

      But, hey, I’m sure you’re far too sophisticated to all this. But one day you’ll start thinking about all these things, too. Usually happens when you get older and realize the curtain is gradually dropping.

  2. Christianity is at fault for its own demise for at least two reasons:

    1. Churches are very expensive to operate and provide little value in return.

    2. Most of Christianity promotes conservative values and supports conservative politics. Conservative politicians promote plutocracy and economic injustice. Economic injustice causes churchgoers to have less income to share with their churches.

    Perhaps the decline of conservative Christianity will lead to a more just society.

  3. Lawrence Lewis

    People make up the church. As Paul said, “The workers deserve to be paid.”
    Mike if you aren’t getting anything out of your church go find one that meets your needs.

      • In the same chapter 1Cor 9 Paul ends his leadership pay instruction by saying this right should be refused with great passion and strategic wisdom. When a church pays leaders it will consume 75-85% of its collection. This means it’s pooling not giving. Giving must go beyond the giver to be giving. : ) how can the Holy Spirit convict on giving when he knows it’s mostly pooling? Billions of $ are raised by the flesh and called the work of God. It’s the accepted system.

  4. Not mentioned is the increasing tax burden. The higher the taxes the less left to give. Would be interested in seeing the giving percentage using after tax income. The historic battle between church and state has always had a economic element.

  5. I stopped going to church after the mess of the Catholic Church’s handling of the child abuse cases. These men all call themselves “men of god” and portend to claim they have the answers on questions of morality, yet they didn’t seem to know that child abuse was immoral and illegal at the same time! Then there are the issues surrounding gays in the church and how women in general are thought off and “dealt” with.
    As a woman, I work way too hard to give my money to such criminals who have no respect for me as a women and the issues that women have to endure. So now, I give my money directly to charities I know for a fact do what they say their mission is to do. I support local food banks and the local emergency shelter and I also provide assistance for kids going to school, Care, the Red Cross and animals in need. At least these folks aren’t doing the old “do as I say and not as I do routine”.

    • There was a time back in the ’60s when the Church turned a blind eye to homosexuality within the priesthood. That’s over now.

      As for the subject of homosexuality in general, the Church has been consistent. Times change, but not always for the better.

      And the “dealing with women” comment doesn’t deserve a response. You’ve been fed a load of cr@p by people who hate the Church.

      • A large segment of the Christian faith has been taught that women are inferior to men and thus cannot be pastors or priests. Imagine your 11-year-old daughter asking you why can’t she grow up to be a pastor? According to the Southern Baptist Convention, Mormons, Catholics and some others, the answer to her question is because that is not a role God wants you to have. Which still begs the questions why? “Because God sees you as unworthy of such a role” – that is what the young girl will hear. Anyone who refuses to recognize this stamp of inferiority on women is refusing to recognize history and reality. Religion-based bigotry has been used to place a religious and moral stamp of disapproval on other minorities in America’s past – Native Americans, African Americans and interracial couples. Religion-based bigotry is most prevalent today against the gay and lesbian minority population. Such religion-based bigotry is a disease within the church and it has gone untreated for a very long time. Acknowledging such social and spiritual injustice could be a first step toward its renewal.

  6. My reduced giving is due to 2 things. One is the declining standard of living I have experienced over the past 2 years. The second one is the continued bombardment by the Catholic church to have parishioners contact their representatives and urge them to vote for amnesty for illegal immigrants, and to vote for more spending on the poor. My church in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago has seen its collections and its parishioners decline by an easy 20% over the last year because of this. Until religious faiths take back charitable giving from the government and stay out of politics, people like me will still believe in the power of God, we won’t believe in organized religion is the only way to heaven.

  7. I’ve never much understood the rationale of Christians regarding their giving. As Christians, my wife and I have been able to give 12% of our gross income to church and ministry for most of our marriage, increasing each year to a present 15%. All the while, we are sending two children to college and are increasing the amount we give to charities in our community. Our hope, within the next couple of years, is that we will be giving 20-25% to worthwhile ministries around the world. While I know our story may be extraordinary, I am living in the SAME economic hard times as everyone else and I fail to understand how Christians can only muster 2.4% to Kingdom work.

    Our ability to live generously comes from God and is experienced through the practice of some basic, biblical principles:

    1. Live within your means. In most cases, if you acquire debt, you’re not living within your means.
    2. Don’t let your standard of living rise to meet your salary. The question isn’t how much you have to live on, but how much can you give away.
    3. Choose to honor the Lord first. When you put giving in its proper place, the Lord blesses you. This blessing, most often, is the ability to live at peace with what you DO have and an extraordinary ability to stretch and make the best with your resources.
    4. teach your children to do better. Our generation learned to be selfish. Let’s teach our kids to do better.

  8. I am a Catholic who formerly gave $5,000/year to my parish. After the partisan behavior of the bishops in the last two presidential elections, I am now a “free rider”. I attend Mass weekly and the sacraments regularly. But I don’t give a dime to the Catholic Church other than once a year in Mass offerings for my deceased relatives to a carefully selected priest. I’m hoping Pope Francis gets the Church back to the point where I feel I can financially support it.

  9. Jordan Storment

    The institutional church is reflecting the exact same lack of giving that its members are, so why are they surprised. I don’t ‘give to an institutional church because only 2% of it will actually go out of the 4 walls of the institution and reach those that I think the tithe was originally meant for. So it is a little hypocritical for the institution to point fingers at the body and demand for them to give in ways that they are unwilling to give. The institutional church is an archaic model of the temple system that existed when Jesus was alive. The same temple system that Jesus challenged, which got him killed. All of the tithe goes toward paying pastors 6 figures in a lot of instances and paying for multi-million dollar buildings. So yes, I do not give to that, but I give much more than 10% to the things that matter like LOVING YOUR NEIGHBOR, which is the 2nd greatest commandment from Jesus. The institution stinks at loving their neighbor, but wants all of our money so they can build huge monuments and huge salaries. Is this what the tithe is meant for? I say no, and here is where New Testament shows that. This is the beginning if The Church after Jesus died and what tithing looked like, I encourage you to read it. Acts 4:32-35. All of the believers in the “church” brought all of their resources and laid them at the apostles feet, and it says that they apostles immediately distributed the resources to those in need in their community and there were no needy persons among them. Today, we bring all of our resources and lay them at the apostles feet and…..THEY KEEP IT! No thanks!

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