Is the Church in the U.S. Serving God or Money, Asks New Book

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Is the church in the U.S. serving God or Money? The new State of Church Giving through 2010 suggests that church member giving and membership patterns can help answer that question.

Is the church in the U.S. serving God or Money?

That’s the choice highlighted by Jesus Christ in Matthew 6:24.

The new edition in The State of Church Giving series suggests that church member giving and membership patterns can help answer that question.

The State of Church Giving through 2010, published by empty tomb, inc. in October 2012, is the 22nd in the series.

Is church member giving important?

The new book presents a number of analyses of religious giving in the U.S.

One is based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) data for 2010. The CE data is considered by age, income level, and region of the country.

Two findings from the CE analysis suggest that church member giving is very important to the practice of philanthropy in the United States.

Americans gave 76% of donations to “church, religious organizations.” First, Americans reported that 76% of their 2010 charitable donations were directed to the category of “church, religious organizations.”

The other recipient categories included: 18% to “charities and other organizations”; 4% to “educational institutions”; and 1% to “gifts to non-Consumer Unit members of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.”

Whether considered by income level, age, or region of the country, giving to “church, religious organizations” received the highest portion of donations in every bracket.

Americans in the Under-25 years of age bracket gave 88% to “church, religious organizations.” Second, a finding about the under-25 age bracket suggests that religious giving has an impact on the practice of philanthropy in the U.S.

Consistently, this youngest group of U.S. citizens report that their limited charitable giving focuses on “church, religious organizations.” In 2010, the figure was 88% of their total giving. That number suggests that young people learn their philanthropic values in a religious context.

What is happening in church member giving?

The State of Church Giving through 2010 analyzes data for a composite set of denominations that represent over 100,000 religious congregations in the U.S. A working estimate puts the total number of religious congregations of any type in the U.S. at about 350,000. That means the data for the Protestant denominations in the composite set considers giving patterns for almost one-third of all religious congregations in the U.S.

Church member giving declined from 2009 to 2010 as a percent of income. Church member giving to congregations’ Total Contributions declined from 2.47% of U.S. per capita Disposable (after-tax) Personal Income (DPI) in 2009 to 2.40% in 2010.

When dollars are given to a congregation’s Total Contributions, the majority of these donations is spent on congregational operations, referred to as Congregational Finances. Money spent beyond the congregation, for what might be termed the larger mission of the church, is referred to as Benevolences.

From 2009 to 2010, giving as a percent of income declined to Congregational Finances, from 2.12% to 2.06%.

In Benevolences, per member giving rounded to 0.35% both years, although there was a slight decrease in the unrounded numbers.

Church member giving as a percent of income to Total Contributions and Benevolences in 2010 was at the lowest levels in the 1968-2010 period. The 2010 figure of 2.40% was the lowest amount in the 1968-2010 period that was analyzed. The figure of 0.35% was the lowest portion of income directed to Benevolences in the 1968-2010 period studied.

Changes in income and church members giving, 1968-2010. During the 1968 to 2010 period, U.S. per capita DPI increased 130% in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 1968, U.S. per capita DPI was $14,136. In 2010, it was $32,522.

Church member giving shrank as a percent of income inasmuch as the amount donated to congregations’ Total Contributions only increased 78% in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 1968, per member giving was $439.65. In 2010, it was $781.56, an increase of 78% since 1968, compared to income’s growth of 130%.

Other findings in The State of Church Giving through 2010

Membership as a percent of U.S. population declined. A group of 36 Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church decreased from 45% of the U.S. population in 1968 to 36% in 2010. If the present trends in U.S. population growth and membership changes continue, this group will represent 30% of the U.S. population in 2050.

The trend in giving to Benevolences indicates a continuing decline. While Congregational Finances did not display a consistent pattern of decline, giving to Benevolences as a percent of income declined in a fairly steady fashion from 1968 to 2010. Church member giving as a percent of income to Benevolences decreased 47% from the 1968 base, from 0.66% of income in 1968 to 0.35% in 2010.

Giving patterns for 11 denominations, 1921-2010. A review of 11 denominations from 1921 to 2010 found that church member giving as a portion of income was higher in 1921, the first year in the period studied, and in 1933, the depth of the Great Depression, than it was in 2010. In 1921, per member giving was 2.9% of income for this group of 11 denominations. In 1933, per member giving was 3.3%. In 2010, per member giving was 2.4%.

Giving by theological perspective. Per member giving as a portion of income was analyzed for a subset of denominations affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and a subset of denominations affiliated with the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC). Church member giving as a percent of income in the NAE-affiliated denominations was larger than in the NCC-affiliated denominations during the 1968-2010 period. Even so, giving as a percent of income declined faster in the NAE-affiliated denominations than in the NCC-affiliated denominations.

What is the potential for increased church giving?

The report also considers the potential impact that increased giving among church members could make.

If 2010 giving had been the same as in 1968. If church member giving as a portion of income had remained the same as the 1968 level, in 2010 the denominations analyzed as part of the composite set would have had an additional $2.8 billion for Benevolences.

If native-born church members had given at the rate of remittances. If native-born church members sent as much overseas as do foreign-born people in the U.S., in 2010 churches would have spent an additional $370 billion on global missions Over ten years, that would amount to $3.7 trillion.

The potential could impact a global crisis. For comparison to the potential, consider that an estimated $5 billion more a year could prevent two-thirds of the global deaths among children under the age of five.

Has the church in the U.S. chosen God or Money?

Chapter 8 of The State of Church Giving through 2010 considers whether the church in the U.S. has chosen to pursue God’s agenda or Money’s agenda. The choice between God or Money was stated by Jesus Christ in Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (New International Version).

Can church member giving make a difference in global need? The first section of chapter 8 addresses issues raised in a February 2012 Christianity Today cover article. The magazine article suggested that progress in reducing global poverty has been a function of government and business rather than church efforts. The State of Church Giving through 2010 presents several factors that outline the role for the church. These include both theological responsibility and opportunities unique to the church. The church also has the wherewithal to help address critical needs in Jesus’ name that have not been solved by government of business.

Chapter 8 in The State of Church Giving through 2010 also offers two other arguments for increased church involvement in global poverty. One is that increased church member giving has the potential to be large enough to play a significant role in alleviating critical global needs, as developed in chapter 6 of the new book. The second is that church leaders could help church members by providing a “positive agenda for affluence.” Yet, church leaders have not assisted church member in combining their faith with action in this way. The potential for church members to impact global need may remain untapped, the authors suggest, because church leaders are locked into “uncorrected obsolescence,” a phrase that economist John Kenneth Galbraith employed in another context. In the discussion of church member giving, The State of Church Giving through 2010 authors comment, “…church leaders may be evaluating church members’ potential to impact global poverty based on their own shrinking budgets, rather than on members’ actual potential to give more.”

The largest factor, the new book asserts, is that church leaders have not offered their members a positive agenda for the affluence that has been increasingly available to most church members since World War II.

What would a positive agenda for affluence look like?

The new book states, “Negative giving and membership trends beginning in the 1960s serve as the basis for the observation that church leaders did not provide a positive agenda for church members’ increasing affluence. Whatever church leaders taught about money, church members were not convinced to maintain, let alone to increase, the portion of income directed to the church. Both the church, and society in general, were impacted by this absence of a positive agenda.”

The State of Church Giving through 2010 would call church members to action on specific measurable goals that could inspire church members to be part of a larger vision by increasing giving to implement those goals in a defined timeframe.

The book suggests two specific goals, using the concept of “triage.” Goals are set as priorities based on both the degree of need and the ability to impact that need.

One “triagic” need facing the church in the U.S. is the number of “unengaged unreached people groups.” These people groups would be described as having inadequate access to a presentation of the claims of Jesus Christ. One estimate placed the 2010 cost of the number of cross-cultural missionaries needed at an additional $200 million a year. That annual amount equals less than $12.50 per church member in one denomination.

The other “triagic” need facing the church in the U.S. is the reduction of child deaths globally among children under the age of 5. This Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 4 is behind its planned rate of progress, according to an analysis offered in the new book. Church leaders and members, the authors argue, are in a unique position to help improve progress so that MDG 4 can achieve its 2015 target of reducing, by two-thirds, the rate of under-5 child deaths between 1990 and 2015. At an estimated cost of about $5 billion a year, the financial goal would equal $50 from each of 100,000 million church members in the U.S. for each of the next three years. The donations could be sent through each member’s own denomination for programs generally already in place but underfunded. Through this additional giving, the church could also provide moral leadership to encourage world leaders to keep their MDG 4 promise to address what the late James Grant referred to as “the silent emergency.”

For Author Comments or Details of the Findings. Contact Sylvia Ronsvalle, empty tomb, inc., research(at)emptytomb(dot)org or (217) 356-9519.

Book Available October 15, 2012. The new report, authored by John and Sylvia Ronsvalle and published by empty tomb, inc., is scheduled to be released on Monday, October 15, 2012. The full title is: The State of Church Giving through 2010: Who’s in Charge Here? A Case for a Positive Agenda for Affluence (ISBN 978-0-9843665-2-1). The book is sent to denominational and international denominational leaders. Copies are available to the public through Internet booksellers, or directly from empty tomb at

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