Giving trends point toward consumer oriented members

More churches challenge their members to a maintenance level than to dreaming big dreams.

By Ronald E. Keener

“Overseas missions are often used as a reason to give to the church. However, most churches and denominations have patterns in place that keep missions a small percent of actual total spending,” says Sylvia Ronsvalle.

“Members are not seriously challenged about increasing giving beyond maintenance levels for the church, because the fear exists that then only the larger mission vision and not the less-dramatic ongoing operation, will be fully funded. So stories about missions are used as flavoring to make everyone involved feel that present levels of activity can be viewed as significant.”

That’s the explanation that empty tomb inc.’s Sylvia Ronsvalle gives for the subtitle of the newest report The State of Church Giving through 2005: Abolition of the Institutional Enslavement of Overseas Missions.

The ministry, empty tomb, was founded in 1970 with the initial focus of organizing discipleship opportunities for Christians in the Champaign, IL area to serve local people in need. Almost immediately, the organization began researching church giving potential that could impact global and domestic need. By the mid-1980s, the research led to an exploration of practical ways to increase missions giving through congregations. The ministry now offers matching contributions through its Mission Match program to historically Christian congregations that want to increase their total spending directed to missions.

John and Sylvia Ronsvalle are president and CEO, and executive vice president, respectively, and their responses to questions from Church Executive represent them both:

What is the record of giving as a percentage of income?

The portion of income given to the church was 3.1 percent in 1968 and 2.6 percent in 2005. One might say that the church is losing market share in people’s spending patterns.

Of the two subcategories in total contributions, congregational finances, the amount spent within the congregation, began to increase in 1993, while benevolences continued to decline. On the one hand, that’s good news for congregational operations. On the other, it may point to an increasingly consumer attitude among members. People are paying their churches for services rendered. They are being satisfied rather than transformed. If that is the case, churches have begun to redefine charitable giving in a way that confuses benefits to self with caring about others.

How do you define benevolences, and have natural disasters and violent actions around the world increased benevolences?

Benevolences are defined as the portion of the congregation’s budget that goes beyond the congregation’s own operations. Support for the local soup kitchen, denomination, seminary and international  missions are all considered to be in the category of benevolences.

With the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, and the Pakistani earthquake, benevolences did increase in 2005, both in the number of dollars given and as a percent of income. Depending on the numbers for 2006, one may be able to draw conclusions about whether the benevolences increase was disaster-related giving or if it represents a general improvement in commitment.

Our work with money dynamics in churches suggests that church members are trained toward crisis giving, rather than toward a steady response to grace in their lives. For most congregations, raising the budget is the standard of successful stewardship. There is little dreaming about what could happen if church members increased giving to 10 percent of income and then made sure the increased giving was spent to expand missions.

Until congregations are willing to dream big dreams that reflect God’s heart, the majority of church leaders will probably be content to challenge their members on a maintenance level, with an occasional crisis thrown in, rather than engaging the big picture.

What’s the trend in giving to churches over the recent decade, compared to other charitable support to education, hospitals, and the like?

Giving to religion is the largest single charitable category in every measure of philanthropy. A very interesting finding developed in our analysis of U.S. Department of Labor Consumer Expenditure Survey data. Consistently, those surveyed about charitable giving defined more than 70 percent of their giving as going to “church, religious organizations.” The other categories they could choose were “charities and other organizations” and “educational institutions.”

This high percentage focused on religion is larger than other measures of philanthropy. That suggests that when people are giving to organizations classified by some researchers as “human services” or “international agencies,” the donors perceive themselves as giving out of their religious convictions.

You separate out giving to evangelical Protestant denominations vs. mainline Protestant denominations. What are those data and trends?

Evangelical Christians gave a higher portion of income to their churches than mainline Protestants in data from 1968, 1985 and 2005. However the difference is narrowing. It may be that evangelicals maintained a strong barrier between their values and those of the larger society in the late 1960s. The more recent giving levels suggest an accommodation to the consumer society and a weakening of that barrier.

There seems to be a movement for encouraging “generous giving” or generosity — over and above tithing. Do you see any evidence of that in specific congregational giving?

The short answer, based on the data, is no. Such a movement might help us figure out how to redeem our role as the bad guys in Scripture. Affluence spread quickly through the general society after World War II. Suddenly pastors were looking out into congregations filled with the “rich” who were to be warned not to forget God (Deuteronomy 6:12) or trust in worldly wealth (1 Timothy 6:17 and James 5:1-3). Most pastors talked about abstract justice or avoided the topic of money — except the annual stewardship sermon. In general, post-World War II Christians have not been taught how to combine affluence, righteousness and personal discipleship.

Is there an inclination toward giving to local and national needs rather than to overseas missions?

By “local and national needs” we’re assuming you mean local congregations and national denominational offices. In the 1920s about seven cents of each dollar donated to the church was directed to denominational global missions. By 2005 the average was down to two cents. The decline is likely due to a change in priorities on the part of congregational and denominational leadership.

The fact that missions is not a great priority in the church in the U.S. can be seen from two numbers. An estimate of overseas mission’s income to Protestant agencies based in the U.S., including 700 denominational and para-denominational groups, is $5.2 billion in 2005. That figure compares to more than $60 billion Americans spent on soft drinks.

In our current report, we explore the dynamics that have transformed international missions into something like a trained elephant in a circus. It is trotted out to do the heavy lifting during annual stewardship campaigns as a good reason to support the church. However, a number of factors conspire to keep a lid on the portion of church budgets that is directed to global missions.

One factor is the perceived competition between the popularity of overseas missions and local and denominational operations. In the 1920s the unified budget was introduced in many denominations. That put overseas missions in direct tension with every other category of church service, with overseas missions receiving a percent of the total. Today denominational and congregational leaders may not be excited about freeing overseas missions to find its own level of funding. The fear is that other categories, whether denominational administration, local operations or seminaries, will receive less.

Where are the encouraging points in your 2007 report?

Religion continues to be the single largest charitable giving category. That means that there is still potential for Christians to integrate their confessions of Jesus Christ with their behavior patterns. However, it will take denominational and congregational leadership willing to put God’s values ahead of worldly success standards. Success may come, but it cannot be the goal.

What trends give you pause in the state of church giving today?

The charitable impulse in general seems to be weakening in the society. We are all familiar with great societies failing. The intellectual energy of Germany in the mid-1800s had been transformed into the Third Reich, with all its horrible consequences, within 100 years. Now here is the U.S., with a broad network of churches, freedom of religion and state-of-the-art communications. The U.S. economy is about $14 trillion a year, with the next largest being Japan at somewhat more than $4 trillion.

Are we the church acting like salt in this environment? Or is the whole stew becoming tasteless, and about to be thrown out, because the salt is missing? There are a growing number of church leaders who are worried about the lukewarm nature of the church in the U.S.

Megachurches are raising millions — one $105 million — for ministry and construction. Are members motivated more to bricks and mortar than missions?

Church members are generally only being offered the limited vision of institutional maintenance. We have no idea of how wealthy we really are. Even with all the building activity going on now, people in the 1960s were spending a larger portion of their incomes on religious buildings than they were in 2005. It is not really a choice between buildings or missions. It’s that the leadership is challenging people about buildings and staffing and not spending the same amount of energy — or more — to provide God-empowered leadership about missions.

What specific actions are needed for a healthier giving picture by Christians to their churches?

Denominational and interdenominational leaders could agree to mobilize overseas word and deed missions by announcing a goal that 60 cents of each dollar donated to the congregation be directed to overseas word and deed mission. This goal could only be met through increased giving.

To support this goal, denominations and other national leaders could develop a country-by-country analysis of need in a format that could be used by congregations. The focus could be on child deaths (estimated cost is $5 billion per year), unreached peoples (estimated cost of $1 billion per year), and primary education for children in all countries (estimated cost at $7 billion per year).

Third, denominations and congregations could promote or call pastors by heavily weighting the success of the pastor in moving church members to increase missions giving toward the 60 percent of congregation spending goal.

Denominations could also develop good feedback systems for church members to know what happens to their money when it is sent overseas.

Finally, denominations and congregations could agree to focus on the geographical areas of the globe with the greatest needs for word and/or deed witness.

If church members reached a congregation-wide average of 10 percent giving, what dollars could be available to local and global neighbors in need?

Ephesians 3:20-21 says that God can do more than we ask or imagine. Current leadership in the church in the U.S. has not presented a challenge to American Christians on a scale with what God is able to do. If Christians in the U.S. increased giving to an average of 10 percent of income, there would be at least an additional $168 billion a year going through churches. Given the world’s best estimate that $5 billion a year could stop over two-thirds of the more than nine million under-five child deaths happening each year around the globe, that money could accomplish a lot of good.

The gold standard is Antioch Presbyterian Church in South Korea that started in 1983 with 90 adult attenders, and committed to directing at least 60 cents of each dollar received to overseas missions. In 2005, with 4,000 adult attenders, they gave more than 70 cents to overseas missions.

Here in the U.S., the additional portion of the tithe is not going to come into churches for more building and staff. Giving as a percent of income is shrinking, not growing, with the current internal emphasis of the church. It’s our opinion that those additional dollars will only be given if people are asked to do something great for the Kingdom of God, and are offered a broad vision that sparks people’s God-inspired imaginations.

On a more general level, courage on the part of denominational and congregational leadership is a key factor. In the past great social movements grew out of church initiative. One can look at general primary education, child labor laws, the women’s movement, abolition, and find strong church leadership that overflowed into society as a whole.

What’s the impact on society today?

Today, with a lot of religious activity going on, we find that teenage suicide increased 150 percent from the 1950s to the 1990s. A recent news report cited the fact that one out of four teenage girls is coping with a sexually transmitted disease. While Chinese university students were reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as an introduction to Western business in the 1980s, today American business leaders are taking “perp walks” on the way to being tried for corruption.

If the church is not holding its own people accountable about their spending patterns, and if the church is not investing heavily in its primary purpose of missions, is it possible that the society is suffering as a side-effect?

We have to repent that we’ve been willing to allow missionaries on the front lines to cobble together their ministries while we add specialty staff in our congregations.

We have to repent that we put in elaborate computer, phone and video systems and yet aren’t making sure that every person in the world who wants a Bible can have one. We have to repent that while we sing “Jesus loves the little children of the world,” we’re content to let about 17,600 under-five kids die each day from causes that could be prevented.

After repenting, we need to open our imaginations to explore what could happen if we were to really take God’s heart seriously.

What actions should churches be taking to better encourage giving?

The congregation’s budget needs to come under scrutiny, the same way that individual budgets need review. How much does your congregation spend on global missions? Most congregations can’t answer that question. There’s a missions trip here, part of denominational funding there. Yet the leadership boards know exactly how much is spent on utilities and staff benefits. What does that say about our values?

Here’s an example of an approach that might work to attract more giving for overseas missions. A congregation could establish its base budget. This budget could account for all the operating needs, including salaries, utilities, capital allowance and denominational funding. Then church members could be told that this base budget would require a certain amount of money. The promise would be made that everything over that amount would go for missions. What would happen?

How data is collected and analyzed

The church member giving that empty tomb analyzes represents actual congregational reports that are submitted by the congregation to the denominational headquarters.

The national office aggregates the data and publishes it. Most of the data is published in the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches series. Some denominations take a full year in aggregating their data, and so there can be a two-year lag between the close of the data year and when the data is analyzed by empty tomb. Presently the most recent confirmed and analyzed data is 2005, published in October 2007.

Consult for further giving trends and book sales. Private contributions provide 96 percent of the resources that underwrite both the local and national ministries.

Source: Antioch Presbyterian Church, Chonju, South Korea empty tomb, inc. 2008

The history of Antioch Presbyterian Church suggests that churches at any attendance level can achieve a goal of 60 percent of total church income to overseas missions through intentional increased giving.


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