empty tomb, inc. Research Explores the Connection Between Declining Giving Patterns and the Lack of a Positive Agenda for Affluence

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Although data analysis finds downward trends in both church giving and membership, empty tomb, inc., suggests the patterns can change through a positive agenda for affluence.

As a result of its research, empty tomb, inc., suggests a connection between declining giving patterns and the lack of a positive agenda for the affluence that has flooded the U.S., especially since World War II.

Is there a connection between the observed decline in church giving and membership numbers and a lack of a positive agenda for affluence?

Declines in church membership have been found in survey responses, and empty tomb, inc. research, based on reported numbers, has also found membership and giving declining.

Many church leaders and others are concerned about how to reverse the downward trends.

As a result of its research, empty tomb, inc., suggests a connection between declining giving patterns and the lack of a positive agenda for the affluence that has flooded the U.S., especially since World War II.

Using data from the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches series and denominational reports, empty tomb analyzed data for 11 denominations from 1921 through 2015. As a percent of income, church member giving was higher from 1921 through 1940 than it was in 2015.

This comparison is true even though U.S. per capita Disposable (after-tax) Personal Income (DPI) increased 537% from 1921 to 2015. Adjusted for inflation, per capita DPI was $6,000 in 1921, and $38,237 in 2015. Yet church member giving as a percent of income was 2.9% in 1921 and 2.2% in 2015.

Even in the depth of the Great Depression, church member giving as a percent of income was 3.2% in 1933, when income was $5,034, the lowest amount in the 1921 through 2015 period. Although income increased 660% between 1933 and 2015, the percent of income given by church members was down 33% from the 1933 base in giving as a percent of income.

In the chapter discussing the trends in The State of Church Giving through 2015: Understanding the Times (27th edition, October 2017), empty tomb observed that global missions had been a vital agenda of churches in the U.S. early on. The Haystack Prayer Meeting in 1806 led to some denominations starting international outreach. By the late 19th century, the Student Volunteer Movement was attracting thousands of young people to serve as global missionaries. The 1910 Edinburgh Conference showed the priority given to global missions. The momentum for missions was interrupted by World War I and the Great Depression, followed by World War II, accompanied by changes in society that affected priorities.

In the 1950s, affluence was spreading, and yet church leaders no longer had an agenda that enjoyed a general consensus among Christians. In chapter 8 in The State of Church Giving through 2003 (15th edition, 2005), a review by empty tomb, inc., of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches series found a change in focus among churches. The Yearbook series emphasized denominational foreign mission activity and membership in the 1916 through 1918 annual editions. In the 1919 Yearbook, general giving numbers were also added.

Denominational support for international mission activity continued to be reported through the 1931 Yearbook, and in the 1935 Yearbook. Total levels of international mission support was again reported in the 1951. Then, per capita spending on international missions was reported in the 1952 through 1967 Yearbooks. After 1967, church support data for international missions was no longer published in the Yearbook series.

However, a new topic, ministerial salaries, was introduced in the 1945 Yearbook, and then reported annually in the 1953 through 1971 Yearbooks, and in the 1975 Yearbook.

The shift from reporting international mission support to ministerial salaries fits with an observed trend in empty tomb’s State of Church Giving series. That is, giving as a percent of income to Benevolences, the category in which international missions would be reported, declined faster between 1968 and 2015 than did Congregational Finances, which includes ministerial salaries. As church members became more affluent, the trends suggest the focus of the church turned inward.

This may be due, in part, to what Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith described in 1958 as “uncorrected obsolescence.” Galbraith used the term to describe economic policy that did not take into account that the majority of people in some societies, including the U.S., were no longer poor.

“Uncorrected obsolescence” could also be applied to church leaders who did not propose a positive agenda for the affluence that a large portion of their members were increasingly controlling. As a result, church members, as well as the general population, found more and more ways to spend more and more money on themselves, with no solid reason to increase giving to the church.

The State of Church Giving through 2015, published by empty tomb, inc., suggests that a quote by former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey, describing the churches in England, could apply to more and more churches in the U.S. as well. In an interview published in The Telegraph, Lord Carey was quoted as saying that those no longer in the church are not hostile to the church so much as bored with it: “So many people do not see the average church as a place where great things happen …”

Over the centuries, the church has been at the forefront of many of the voluntary social outreach efforts in the U.S., and of medical and educational efforts globally. If support of the church, as shown in giving and membership patterns, is weakening in the U.S., the social fabric in the U.S. may well also be frayed.

In addition to studying the trends in church giving and membership for three decades, empty tomb, inc., has also been working to reverse the negative trends by focusing on a positive agenda for the affluence available to church members.

The Mission Match® effort of empty tomb will offer Matching Contributions to congregations that apply to carry out mission projects. To qualify for a Matching Contribution, the congregation’s mission project will target one of the 14 causes of death in children under age 5 in one of 40 countries.

One goal of Mission Match is to encourage churches across the theological spectrum to help, in Jesus’ name, close the “Promise Gap.”

In 1990 and again in 2000, over 180 world governments “promised the children of the world” to reduce the global Under-5 Mortality Rate (U5MR), according to UNICEF.

By 2015, according to a UNICEF and WHO report, although progress had been made toward reducing child deaths, the goal had not been reached.

The difference between the goal and actual rate of reduction is labeled the Promise Gap by empty tomb.

In 2015, according to empty tomb estimates, 1.3 million children under the age of five were caught in this Promise Gap, and, as a result, died before their fifth birthdays.

Further, 40 countries are behind the curve in the level of progress needed to meet the next goals set to reduce their U5MRs, according to an empty tomb analysis.

It is these 40 countries that will be the focus of empty tomb’s Mission Match when it relaunches this summer.

The launch goal is for the Mission Match Web site to be up by midsummer. Congregations will be able to apply for Matching Contributions on the Web. Also, individuals who want to support Mission Match, and its positive agenda for the affluence flooding the U.S., will be able to donate to the pool of funds offered as Matching Contributions. If an individual wants to donate now to Mission Match, designated donations to Mission Match can be made through the empty tomb Web site.

The empty tomb research on trends in church giving and membership, and discussion about those trends, is available in The State of Church Giving through 2015: Understanding the Times (Champaign, IL: empty tomb, inc., 2017). The book is the 27th edition in the series. The book is available through Wipf and Stock Customer Service by phone at 541-344-1528 or orders@wipfandstock.com, or through amazon.com.

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