Church offerings in the recession

Religion journalist Julia Duin reports on church giving during the recession:

The nation’s churches are staggering under the depressed economy, with more than one-third reporting decreases in giving last year, according to a survey.

A “State of the Plate” survey of 1,017 churches sponsored by Christianity Today International (CTI) and the Colorado Springs firm Maximum Generosity reported that 38 percent saw their income drop in 2009, compared with 29 percent seeing drops in 2008.

Although the report did not specify how much giving has dropped, a similar survey of 1,168 churches released last spring by CTI said weekly contributions were down 2 percent or more.

The nation’s worst recession since the 1930s has sent churches into an “unprecedented” economic dive, with the nation’s megachurches being the hardest hit, survey data show.

That is, 47 percent of churches with 2,000 attendees or more saw giving drop in 2009 compared with 23 percent of those churches seeing decreases in 2008. . . .

The news out of the survey was not all bad; 35 percent of the churches reported that giving was up in 2009, compared with 47 percent in 2008.

Thirty-one percent of the churches increased their benevolence giving to the poor and to help financially strapped members. Thirty percent increased their missions giving. . . .

Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb Inc., a Champaign, Ill. organization that monitors church giving patterns, said giving is not always down during recessions; in fact, it went up in 1974, 1982 and 2002.

via Recession impacts church donations – Washington Times.

Is this a glass empty/glass full kind of story? If 38% of churches saw giving go down, 35% saw it go up, leaving 27% that stayed the same. And if the average decrease is 2%, that doesn’t seem all that bad.

Still, I have no doubt that lots of churches are getting hit hard financially.

Why do you think megachurches are hurting the most? Why has giving actually increased during other recessions, but not so much this one?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Jonathan

    Perhaps in the megachurches, congregants figure that no one will miss their contribution if they cut back, not thinking that everyone else around them is thinking/doing the same thing.

    Then again, maybe the congregants where the “prosperity gospel” is taught are having doubts because of how the economy is affecting them despite their efforts, and that is causing them to cut back.

  • Jonathan

    Perhaps in the megachurches, congregants figure that no one will miss their contribution if they cut back, not thinking that everyone else around them is thinking/doing the same thing.

    Then again, maybe the congregants where the “prosperity gospel” is taught are having doubts because of how the economy is affecting them despite their efforts, and that is causing them to cut back.

  • inexile

    My guess is that megas in particular have felt the sting for two reasons. One, megas tend to attract lots of people on Sunday but don’t make many ‘members.’ People I talk to say that they ‘go to’ their mega church as opposed to ‘belong to’ it. I think that this has been one of the approaches of the church growth movement from the beginning – ie. we need to get out of the ‘membership’ and get into the ‘discipleship’ mentality. The problem is, ‘members’ are devoted to their congregation and work to support it through thick and thin but ‘attendees’ aren’t so devoted. When times get tough and you’ve got to cut, Sunday offerings may get set aside or downsized much more quickly than for the ‘members’ of a smaller congregation where there’s an ethos of responsibility to the congregation and interdependence on one another.
    Two, mega churches have big overhead that requires huge weekly offerings. Staff and building mortgages have grown during the good times. A lot of it’s become fixed expense. I was speaking with someone from our local mega this winter after a Sunday got snowed out. He complained about the amount of income that they’d never recoup and that just one missed Sunday would be hard to recover. Smaller congregations that have a low overhead can weather the storm easier because they’ve never lived beyond their means. But mostly, I think that smaller congregations made up of loyal members will do what needs to be done to take care of their congregation. After a snowed out Sunday, they double up on next week’s offering. A devotion I suspect is lacking in the mega.

  • inexile

    My guess is that megas in particular have felt the sting for two reasons. One, megas tend to attract lots of people on Sunday but don’t make many ‘members.’ People I talk to say that they ‘go to’ their mega church as opposed to ‘belong to’ it. I think that this has been one of the approaches of the church growth movement from the beginning – ie. we need to get out of the ‘membership’ and get into the ‘discipleship’ mentality. The problem is, ‘members’ are devoted to their congregation and work to support it through thick and thin but ‘attendees’ aren’t so devoted. When times get tough and you’ve got to cut, Sunday offerings may get set aside or downsized much more quickly than for the ‘members’ of a smaller congregation where there’s an ethos of responsibility to the congregation and interdependence on one another.
    Two, mega churches have big overhead that requires huge weekly offerings. Staff and building mortgages have grown during the good times. A lot of it’s become fixed expense. I was speaking with someone from our local mega this winter after a Sunday got snowed out. He complained about the amount of income that they’d never recoup and that just one missed Sunday would be hard to recover. Smaller congregations that have a low overhead can weather the storm easier because they’ve never lived beyond their means. But mostly, I think that smaller congregations made up of loyal members will do what needs to be done to take care of their congregation. After a snowed out Sunday, they double up on next week’s offering. A devotion I suspect is lacking in the mega.

  • Larry

    Why do you think megachurches are hurting the most? Why has giving actually increased during other recessions, but not so much this one?

    Wow, there could be a lot of answers there good and bad depending on the situation.

    Why do you think megachurches are hurting the most?

    From my experience in such, I suspect because such churches trust not in the Gospel but in man’s ability to ‘do something’ through other means, e.g. funding., though they say they would. We all recognize the necessity of money and don’t expect pie to fall out of the sky, or should not and thus give. Yet there’s a dangerous line that often gets crossed when effort to do things, evangelism and such, though a good zeal gets caught up in “money is what makes things happen” (or excitements to induce conversion as Finney put it). When that happens the Word is eschewed. It’s very subtle in us and we all suffer this temptation and fall for it at various levels. But I’m reminded of a sermon Luther once preached on the Word and it was dealing with the text where Jesus comes to Peter and fellow fishermen who fished all night long, during the best time and caught nothing. Then along comes the Word both literally and to speak, “drop your nets down again…” during the day, the worst time. Luther points out that this is to teach us two things, that though we labor and suffer much it is all utterly vain unless the Word comes and gives it strength and increase. This Christ shows us in this account. When the Word comes it produces beyond imagination at the worst time more than the empty vanity at the best time. This to show our works vain and the Word is everything and there’s no middle ground its either utter and absolute empty vanity or more than we can imagine or contain via the Word. Thus, we trust in the Word and cast our cares upon God. To this we see Peter react a sinner to the core, “Lord depart from me I’m a sinful man”. Luther points out that often the Law operates more effectively this way and more killingly, as it were, when the goodness of God is shown before us in light of our self turned-ness, this often strikes our hearts stronger and crushingly condemns more than “just condemning Law”. E.g. condemning prostitution or theft or homosexuality may indeed condemn a conscience somewhat but it may only do so enough to harden against it, but have Christ wash the same person’s feet and bleed to death for them and then we confess more like Peter did here. The other thing Luther points out is that Christ is not forsaking doing work, for he clearly says, “let down your nets”, but rather faith in the Word not our works and labor.

    Thus, often our labor and works are shown to produce nothing and utterly vain. E.g. big churches with big budgets and big projects and busy to the teeth. So that we may be shown in truth the real producer, the Word and often this may be shown during a time when it is worse (day time fishing for example); like when a church’s budget is forced low, struggles and true suffering occur. This is so that God is our God, fear, love and trust Him alone, and not our labor, suffering or works.

    One could, thus, see what is happening as good, not that we like suffering nor wish it upon any one, but this drives us back to Christ, the Word alone.

    Why has giving actually increased during other recessions, but not so much this one?

    Hmmm, a lot of speculation could happen here. It’s hard to assess a culture and time I never lived in personally, but easier to assess our own. One is probably practical. People save less now than back then and thus live pretty much “real time” as to there income. That is it comes and goes pretty much pay check to pay check and there’s little buffer or capacity in between. Based on my grandparents back then we produced more food and necessities at home than we do today in which people feed themselves more or less from the grocery store thus one cannot off set the financial burden by growing more food (but that’s likely to change as this continues), this too affects any existing buffer or capacity between income and outcome events. It generally cost less to live back then than now even considering only necessities. We do have a lot of frivolities to be honest we attempt to keep paying for, that’s a negative sometimes and cost us. However, pressure is higher in terms of time today than then (e.g. back then men lived by a slower paced clock than we do today) that creates anxiety and thus outlets for such. Part of it may be a difference in the strength and value of the dollar then versus now, but I’m not an economist to really say yea or nea on that. Fear of the government as opposed to trust of the government seems higher today than then. Families and communities now more than any time pull together less than they use to, so there’s less other help and more need of money to sustain self reliance. Debt is higher today than anytime in history so that’s a factor. The big one I think more than any is that which gives and strengthens faith. I suspect the churches have so not preached Christ and assurance for the believer that the believer finds him/herself in a mode of crisis concerning faith/trust. Individualism lauded as an American virtue is in reality idolatry at its worst. It increasingly creates the “If I don’t do it for myself nobody else will” and we pull apart into individuals. Individuals less rely on the vocation of the other and more on there monies to buy them the help and security they need, so money becomes important in this scheme. Thus, one pulls their money back when crunched, what else do you have when that’s what you’ve been taught? Perhaps some have seen through the façade of “if you tithe more you get more”, experience and reality is a nice truthing device for fantasy land ideals.

    I’m sure there are a lot more possibilities.

    Larry

  • Larry

    Why do you think megachurches are hurting the most? Why has giving actually increased during other recessions, but not so much this one?

    Wow, there could be a lot of answers there good and bad depending on the situation.

    Why do you think megachurches are hurting the most?

    From my experience in such, I suspect because such churches trust not in the Gospel but in man’s ability to ‘do something’ through other means, e.g. funding., though they say they would. We all recognize the necessity of money and don’t expect pie to fall out of the sky, or should not and thus give. Yet there’s a dangerous line that often gets crossed when effort to do things, evangelism and such, though a good zeal gets caught up in “money is what makes things happen” (or excitements to induce conversion as Finney put it). When that happens the Word is eschewed. It’s very subtle in us and we all suffer this temptation and fall for it at various levels. But I’m reminded of a sermon Luther once preached on the Word and it was dealing with the text where Jesus comes to Peter and fellow fishermen who fished all night long, during the best time and caught nothing. Then along comes the Word both literally and to speak, “drop your nets down again…” during the day, the worst time. Luther points out that this is to teach us two things, that though we labor and suffer much it is all utterly vain unless the Word comes and gives it strength and increase. This Christ shows us in this account. When the Word comes it produces beyond imagination at the worst time more than the empty vanity at the best time. This to show our works vain and the Word is everything and there’s no middle ground its either utter and absolute empty vanity or more than we can imagine or contain via the Word. Thus, we trust in the Word and cast our cares upon God. To this we see Peter react a sinner to the core, “Lord depart from me I’m a sinful man”. Luther points out that often the Law operates more effectively this way and more killingly, as it were, when the goodness of God is shown before us in light of our self turned-ness, this often strikes our hearts stronger and crushingly condemns more than “just condemning Law”. E.g. condemning prostitution or theft or homosexuality may indeed condemn a conscience somewhat but it may only do so enough to harden against it, but have Christ wash the same person’s feet and bleed to death for them and then we confess more like Peter did here. The other thing Luther points out is that Christ is not forsaking doing work, for he clearly says, “let down your nets”, but rather faith in the Word not our works and labor.

    Thus, often our labor and works are shown to produce nothing and utterly vain. E.g. big churches with big budgets and big projects and busy to the teeth. So that we may be shown in truth the real producer, the Word and often this may be shown during a time when it is worse (day time fishing for example); like when a church’s budget is forced low, struggles and true suffering occur. This is so that God is our God, fear, love and trust Him alone, and not our labor, suffering or works.

    One could, thus, see what is happening as good, not that we like suffering nor wish it upon any one, but this drives us back to Christ, the Word alone.

    Why has giving actually increased during other recessions, but not so much this one?

    Hmmm, a lot of speculation could happen here. It’s hard to assess a culture and time I never lived in personally, but easier to assess our own. One is probably practical. People save less now than back then and thus live pretty much “real time” as to there income. That is it comes and goes pretty much pay check to pay check and there’s little buffer or capacity in between. Based on my grandparents back then we produced more food and necessities at home than we do today in which people feed themselves more or less from the grocery store thus one cannot off set the financial burden by growing more food (but that’s likely to change as this continues), this too affects any existing buffer or capacity between income and outcome events. It generally cost less to live back then than now even considering only necessities. We do have a lot of frivolities to be honest we attempt to keep paying for, that’s a negative sometimes and cost us. However, pressure is higher in terms of time today than then (e.g. back then men lived by a slower paced clock than we do today) that creates anxiety and thus outlets for such. Part of it may be a difference in the strength and value of the dollar then versus now, but I’m not an economist to really say yea or nea on that. Fear of the government as opposed to trust of the government seems higher today than then. Families and communities now more than any time pull together less than they use to, so there’s less other help and more need of money to sustain self reliance. Debt is higher today than anytime in history so that’s a factor. The big one I think more than any is that which gives and strengthens faith. I suspect the churches have so not preached Christ and assurance for the believer that the believer finds him/herself in a mode of crisis concerning faith/trust. Individualism lauded as an American virtue is in reality idolatry at its worst. It increasingly creates the “If I don’t do it for myself nobody else will” and we pull apart into individuals. Individuals less rely on the vocation of the other and more on there monies to buy them the help and security they need, so money becomes important in this scheme. Thus, one pulls their money back when crunched, what else do you have when that’s what you’ve been taught? Perhaps some have seen through the façade of “if you tithe more you get more”, experience and reality is a nice truthing device for fantasy land ideals.

    I’m sure there are a lot more possibilities.

    Larry

  • Dan Kempin

    “Why do you think megachurches are hurting the most? Why has giving actually increased during other recessions, but not so much this one?”

    Why are we focusing on megachurches? Is it because they reported a decline in giving at a somewhat larger rate than smaller churches (though less than half reported a decline) and we think this is significant? Or is it another chance to bash big congregations? Megas could return differently for a host of non-theological reasons. For one thing, megas are found mostly in metro areas, which are often hit more acutely if a local industry suffers. That’s just off the top of my head.

    I am more interested in the second question. Does the decline have to do with the economy only, or is it a reflection of a greater decline within the institutional church?

    (And I’m going to add the words “socialist” and “socialism” for no reason, just to see if my post gets moderated.)

  • Dan Kempin

    “Why do you think megachurches are hurting the most? Why has giving actually increased during other recessions, but not so much this one?”

    Why are we focusing on megachurches? Is it because they reported a decline in giving at a somewhat larger rate than smaller churches (though less than half reported a decline) and we think this is significant? Or is it another chance to bash big congregations? Megas could return differently for a host of non-theological reasons. For one thing, megas are found mostly in metro areas, which are often hit more acutely if a local industry suffers. That’s just off the top of my head.

    I am more interested in the second question. Does the decline have to do with the economy only, or is it a reflection of a greater decline within the institutional church?

    (And I’m going to add the words “socialist” and “socialism” for no reason, just to see if my post gets moderated.)

  • Dan Kempin

    Ha! You were right, tODD!

  • Dan Kempin

    Ha! You were right, tODD!

  • DonS

    If you see the mission of your church as being to attact seekers, by definition your congregation will be less dedicated to the cause of Christ than a church filled with mature believers. The issue is one of stewardship, which is something you learn as you grow in your faith and relationship to God.

  • DonS

    If you see the mission of your church as being to attact seekers, by definition your congregation will be less dedicated to the cause of Christ than a church filled with mature believers. The issue is one of stewardship, which is something you learn as you grow in your faith and relationship to God.

  • Carl Vehse

    Church offerings decline during a recession? Who’d have guessed?!?

    As for the gush of alleged numbers in the WashTimes article, the article included this caveat: “Because the survey – which was conducted by e-mail in February and March among mostly Protestant congregations with a sprinkling of Catholic and Orthodox churches – was not a random phone sampling, it has no statistical margin of error.” With that statement, the article and its pronouncements like “staggering,” “unprecedented economic dive,” and “some states… may start taxing charities” are little more that hype and newspaper filler.

    Especially since the numbers comes from a firm, “Maximum Generosity” that links to a Colorado Springs church’s former pastor, Dr. Brian Kluth, who sells “A 40-day Spiritual Journey to a More Generous Life” guide along with “Recession-Proof your Church” seminars and other stuff. BTW, Kluth’s degree is an honorary doctorate of divinity from the Evangelical Free Church of Trinity College and Seminary, Churachandpur, Manipur, India.

  • Carl Vehse

    Church offerings decline during a recession? Who’d have guessed?!?

    As for the gush of alleged numbers in the WashTimes article, the article included this caveat: “Because the survey – which was conducted by e-mail in February and March among mostly Protestant congregations with a sprinkling of Catholic and Orthodox churches – was not a random phone sampling, it has no statistical margin of error.” With that statement, the article and its pronouncements like “staggering,” “unprecedented economic dive,” and “some states… may start taxing charities” are little more that hype and newspaper filler.

    Especially since the numbers comes from a firm, “Maximum Generosity” that links to a Colorado Springs church’s former pastor, Dr. Brian Kluth, who sells “A 40-day Spiritual Journey to a More Generous Life” guide along with “Recession-Proof your Church” seminars and other stuff. BTW, Kluth’s degree is an honorary doctorate of divinity from the Evangelical Free Church of Trinity College and Seminary, Churachandpur, Manipur, India.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dan (@4) … what was I right about? I’m confused.

    Carl (@6), good job on the research. I do wonder, however, if this had been in the Washington Post, how much more you would have railed against the failings of the MSM and their “fifth column treachery” and so on and so on. Your tone does seem to change significantly when failings are found in more sympathetic media.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dan (@4) … what was I right about? I’m confused.

    Carl (@6), good job on the research. I do wonder, however, if this had been in the Washington Post, how much more you would have railed against the failings of the MSM and their “fifth column treachery” and so on and so on. Your tone does seem to change significantly when failings are found in more sympathetic media.

  • Liz

    If one were interested enough to conduct a study, one would ask a particular denomination for giving records, adult membership numbers, and address for each congregation; one would control for personal income, probably by zip-code. Further, one should control for state (assuming some states suffer from droughts, floods, or other maladies unrelated to the broader economy; or have more or less problems with the economy). Free-ridership in churches was the topic of my college capstone paper ten years ago. I chose to study a particular denomination to also control for teachings on offering. Anyway, that’s how its done.

  • Liz

    If one were interested enough to conduct a study, one would ask a particular denomination for giving records, adult membership numbers, and address for each congregation; one would control for personal income, probably by zip-code. Further, one should control for state (assuming some states suffer from droughts, floods, or other maladies unrelated to the broader economy; or have more or less problems with the economy). Free-ridership in churches was the topic of my college capstone paper ten years ago. I chose to study a particular denomination to also control for teachings on offering. Anyway, that’s how its done.

  • Dan Kempin

    tODD, #7,

    You will know once my comment clears moderation.

    (I feel like I’m discussing time travel: The past me, which will appear in your future, will make everything clear.)

  • Dan Kempin

    tODD, #7,

    You will know once my comment clears moderation.

    (I feel like I’m discussing time travel: The past me, which will appear in your future, will make everything clear.)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dan (@9), I see. And were [will] you [be] talking about s0ci@lism?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dan (@9), I see. And were [will] you [be] talking about s0ci@lism?

  • DonS

    We are all on pins and needles, awaiting Dan’s comment :-)

  • DonS

    We are all on pins and needles, awaiting Dan’s comment :-)

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Yes, Dan’s comment went into the spam folder, apparently because of the word “socialism”! Let me see if it does it with me: socialism.

    Well, it let me do it, I guess because I’m the owner of the blog, and the software, good conservative free market Republican that it is, honors private property.

    Sorry, everybody. I’m checking the spam folder from time to time and I will release any legitimate comments I find, including those that mention socialist, socialists, socialism, etc. (I’m still testing.)

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Yes, Dan’s comment went into the spam folder, apparently because of the word “socialism”! Let me see if it does it with me: socialism.

    Well, it let me do it, I guess because I’m the owner of the blog, and the software, good conservative free market Republican that it is, honors private property.

    Sorry, everybody. I’m checking the spam folder from time to time and I will release any legitimate comments I find, including those that mention socialist, socialists, socialism, etc. (I’m still testing.)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m mildly disappointed that Dan’s comment didn’t draw a more topical connection between megachurches and s0ci@lism. :)

    However, I would like to note for posterity’s sake, in the most context-free way as possible, that someone on this blog said, “You were right, tODD!”

    And I fully blame Dan for this degradation into meta-commentary.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m mildly disappointed that Dan’s comment didn’t draw a more topical connection between megachurches and s0ci@lism. :)

    However, I would like to note for posterity’s sake, in the most context-free way as possible, that someone on this blog said, “You were right, tODD!”

    And I fully blame Dan for this degradation into meta-commentary.

  • DonS

    Nice one, Dan! Now, that’s the scientific method at its finest.

  • DonS

    Nice one, Dan! Now, that’s the scientific method at its finest.

  • Larry

    A down and dirty analytical method would be to ask folks what would you do if your income dropped or was lost? Would you keep the same level of giving, decrease, increase? Why?

    Of course that assumes you have a calculus for giving in the first place and how one applies that. Personally I’ve over the years learned to do away with such calculus methods because I always get myself in a self imposed legalistic trap and by the time I’m done I’m all but a cheerful giver, not because of any dollar amount or percent, high or low, thereof but it becomes more convoluted in the conscience than the US tax code.

  • Larry

    A down and dirty analytical method would be to ask folks what would you do if your income dropped or was lost? Would you keep the same level of giving, decrease, increase? Why?

    Of course that assumes you have a calculus for giving in the first place and how one applies that. Personally I’ve over the years learned to do away with such calculus methods because I always get myself in a self imposed legalistic trap and by the time I’m done I’m all but a cheerful giver, not because of any dollar amount or percent, high or low, thereof but it becomes more convoluted in the conscience than the US tax code.

  • Dan Kempin

    tODD, #11,

    Nice use of time travel grammar. You must, at some time, have read the “Hitchhiker’s Guide.”

    and @ #14,

    I say you are right all the time, tODD, but it always gets moderated out. I don’t know how this one slipped through. (That was the real test–not sociali . . . oops. Better not.)

    And, um, megachurches are all soci@list!

    Finally, my apologies to Don (#12). I’m sure my comment didn’t live up to pins and needles expectation.

  • Dan Kempin

    tODD, #11,

    Nice use of time travel grammar. You must, at some time, have read the “Hitchhiker’s Guide.”

    and @ #14,

    I say you are right all the time, tODD, but it always gets moderated out. I don’t know how this one slipped through. (That was the real test–not sociali . . . oops. Better not.)

    And, um, megachurches are all soci@list!

    Finally, my apologies to Don (#12). I’m sure my comment didn’t live up to pins and needles expectation.

  • Economist Doug

    Megachurches are kind of like mortgage backed securities.

    Megachurches tend to attract the same social class, the same racial group and a predominant age group. That makes them vulnerable when some social classes suffer disproportionately. Megachurches and overheated housing markets also tend to be located in the same geographic regions.

    When average home prices fall, the mortgage backed securities drop because despite they’re all high risk and a fall in home prices triggers the simultaneous defaults.

    I can’t speak to the validity of the statistics mentioned in the article but I’d not be surprised if more megachurches have falling donations just because so many megachurches are vulnerable to anything that hits one slice of society especially hard.

    An economically diverse congregation isn’t as vulnerable no matter its size.

  • Economist Doug

    Megachurches are kind of like mortgage backed securities.

    Megachurches tend to attract the same social class, the same racial group and a predominant age group. That makes them vulnerable when some social classes suffer disproportionately. Megachurches and overheated housing markets also tend to be located in the same geographic regions.

    When average home prices fall, the mortgage backed securities drop because despite they’re all high risk and a fall in home prices triggers the simultaneous defaults.

    I can’t speak to the validity of the statistics mentioned in the article but I’d not be surprised if more megachurches have falling donations just because so many megachurches are vulnerable to anything that hits one slice of society especially hard.

    An economically diverse congregation isn’t as vulnerable no matter its size.


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