New empty tomb Study: Long-term Church Giving and Membership Declines Don’t Yet Erase Potential for Good

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Although declines in membership and giving continue, a new study concludes church members still control resources that have the power and potential to do good.

Long-term declines in church member giving and membership continued in 2014.

But the new study from empty tomb, inc., documenting these trends, says that these declines have not yet erased the church’s potential for good.

The State of Church Giving through 2014: Speaking Truth to Power (October 2016) updates church numbers through 2014, the latest data year available.

Declines Evident:

Church member giving declined as a percent of income, from 2013 to 2014, the study found.

Overall, member giving as a percent of income declined 28%, from 3.02% in 1968 to 2.16% in 2014.

For a set of 36 communions, membership as a percent of population also declined over the 1968 to 2014 period. This set included some of the fastest growing denominations and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1968, the group represented 45% of U.S. population, compared to 35% in 2014.

The new study also reviews church declines observed by other researchers.

Major Cause of Declines Considered:

However, the authors, John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, are convinced that the church in the U.S. still has potential to accomplish great good.

Even with the declines over time, they note, the historically Christian church in the U.S. is one of the, if not the, largest identity groups in the U.S. Further, they estimate that church people in the U.S. control the equivalent of the third largest Gross Domestic Product in the world.

The State of Church Giving through 2014 concludes that this power for good has not been tapped for one major reason. Church leaders have not understood the impact of the affluence that spread throughout the U.S., as well as some other societies, especially since World War II.

Without guidance, church members have turned inward, both individually and in their congregations. The declines in giving and membership, the authors propose, are a result.

“Dark Money Energy”:

The new study asks, How could the effects of massive affluence be unrecognized? The authors propose that it may be similar to “dark energy” and “dark matter.” Until the 20th century, everyone, scientists included, thought “space” was empty. Now, the general theory is that it is filled with “dark energy” and “dark matter,” with visible matter making up less than 5% of the universe. Similarly, “dark money energy” has shaped expectations and framed lifestyles but not been discerned. This energy has not been harnessed for the good that ought to result from Christian faith. The church weakens as a result, as shown in the declines in giving as a percent of income and membership as a percent of U.S. population.

De-emphasis on Global Views in Church in U.S. Compared to Remittances Sent Internationally:

For example, denominations and congregations have not placed emphasis on global ministries in recent decades compared to the early 20th century. During the 1916-1927 period, 8¢ of each dollar given to the church went for global ministries. In 2014, the average was about two cents.

The study compares giving to international ministries in 2014 to remittances sent to other countries by foreign-born residents of the U.S. The countries receiving the most remittances from the U.S. include Mexico, China, India, and The Philippines. If native-born church members had supported international ministries at the same level that foreign-born residents sent remittances to other countries, church agencies focusing on international needs would have had an additional $405 billion to assist with global needs.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Charitable Giving Analysis:

Yet church giving remains important in the area of philanthropy. The new study also analyzes the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey 2014 data regarding charitable giving. When asked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to categorize charitable donations, Americans who give said that 71% goes to “church, religious organizations.” The category of “church, religious organizations” received the highest portion of donated income whether Americans were considered by age, income level, or region of the country. The under-25 age cohort gave the smallest amount of income to charity; however, of the amount given, 82% was directed to “church, religious organizations.” The high percent directed to that category suggest that young people learn their philanthropic values in religious contexts and then add other charitable categories as they age.

Closing the Gap between the Under-5 Mortality Rate Goals Set by World Leaders and the Actual Numbers:

As one example of the good that could still be accomplished by the church in the U.S., the new book considers the gap between goals set to reduce the global Under-5 Mortality Rate and the actual rate of death among children under five years of age. Although progress has been made, the goals set twice by world leaders, first in 1990 for 2000, and again in 2000 for 2015, were not met either time.

Many church institutions have frontline delivery systems in global areas with high child mortality rates. The new book proposes that church leaders could mobilize more resources through their own channels in order to make an impact on this recognized need of reducing the child-death rate in countries having difficulty meeting the goals.

Repent and Mobilize:

To reverse the negative trends in church member giving and membership, and to tap more of the potential for good among church members, the new book summarizes the apostle Paul’s teaching in Acts 26:20. That is, church leaders and members should repent and mobilize.

Other Topics:

In addition to the 1968 to 2014 analyses, the new book also has chapters that:

  • consider church member giving by two theological subgroups.
  • review giving and membership in 11 denominations for the period 1921-2014.
  • describe trends in giving and membership, past and future.
  • calculate potential church giving levels, in general and by various church populations.
  • analyze Americans’ charitable giving information.

Book Available October 14, 2016:

The State of Church Giving through 2014: Speaking Truth to Power is the 26th edition in the series. Published by empty tomb, inc., the book is to be released on October 14, 2016. The new book should be available through Internet bookstores, and can be purchased directly from the empty tomb Web site, on the Publications page.

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Sylvia Ronsvalle
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