Christianity Today has published a wake-up call to churches, saying that it is very likely that church giving will drop off in the not-too-distant future.
The article is entitled Here Come the Skinny Cows: Four reasons tithes and offerings are about to drop dramatically and was written by two pastors, Mark Deymaz and Harry Li. The article is based on their book The Coming Revolution in Church Economics: Why Tithes and Offerings Are No Longer Enough, and What You Can Do about It (Baker, 2019).
Frankly, I question their projections, as I will go into below, but their reasons are worth considering. After all, as the Old Testament patriarch Joseph would tell us, as he interpreted Pharoah’s dream, during times of plenty (the fat cows), we should make provisions for times of scarcity (the skinny cows, as alluded to in the article title) (Genesis 41). Here are the four reasons they think tithes and offerings will diminish, along with my thoughts in bold.
(1) Rev. Deymaz and Rev. Li say that the American middle class, historically the main source of church giving, is increasingly overburdened with debt and increased expenses. Their share of the nation’s wealth has been declining. With less discretionary income, they can be expected to cut down what they give to their churches.
But currently in the Trump economy, Americans’ income is going up! This is especially true of lower income folks, but the middle class is doing well. Furthermore, inflation is down. True, if the American people decide to transition to a socialist or an anti-growth economy, things could change. And the debt burden is a concern. Still, the middle class has not been overthrown, at least not yet.
(2) The authors cite research to show that Millennials tend not to be generous givers. So if the rising generation is tighter with its money–the authors don’t use that term but couch it in more positive ways–that would mean churches would be likely to suffer.
Interesting point about the Millennials, but as we are constantly reminded, fewer and fewer Millennials are involved with churches. So their refusal to give should not be that big a factor. More to the point, there is another generational factor that I’ll discuss below.
(3) The population is aging. If the older generations that give more die out and the younger generations that will replace them give less, church giving is bound to go down.
But if the population is aging and if older people give more to the church, that should mean an increase in church giving.
It is one of the hard facts of life that young families just starting out have the most need for money (to buy a house, to support young children, etc.) at the very point in their lives at which their income is the lowest (since they are just starting out in their jobs). Conversely, families enjoy their peak incomes (due to promotions, accumulated raises, and years on the job) when the parents are older and the children have left the nest.
This explains both why older people give more to their churches and why young adults, such as the Millennials, give less.
As Millennials get older, they can be expected both to attend church at a great rate and to give more to churches and other charities.
(4) America is becoming a “minority majority” nation, as the percentage of white people declines, due in part to lower birth rates, while the percentage of racial minorities and immigrants will increase. As whites abandon the church to become “nones,” immigrants in particular will take their place. And since racial minorities and immigrants, as a group, have lower incomes, churches will also have lower incomes.
Actually, low-income people tend to be especially generous. And the religious zeal of so many global Christians coming into American churches tends to manifest itself, among other ways, in generous giving.
But the immigrant experience should not be stereotyped. Once immigrants are assimilated and in the second and third generations, they usually prosper as much as other Americans.
So I don’t think the future of church giving is necessarily so dire. But, of course, lots of things could happen. For example, a government hostile to churches–or to churches that get labeled as “discriminatory” for refusing to compromise their Biblical convictions about homosexuality or other issues–could lose their tax-exempt status, which would be a major hit on church budgets.Furthermore, church giving is already down slightly. According to statistics from Giving USA cited by Revs. Deymaz and Li,
“Giving to religion declined in 2018 after six years of slow growth and one year of flat growth in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2017.” Religious giving, the report said, “is estimated to have declined by 1.5% (a decrease of 3.9% adjusted for inflation), receiving $124.52 billion in contributions.”
Obviously, many congregations, for whatever reason, are having financial problems. This is true of small congregations and highly-indebted, highly-staffed mega-churches.
So what should churches do, not only now, but in preparation for a possible drop-off in giving in the future? Revs. Deymaz and Li suggest “leveraging church assets” and recommend that church leaders “unleash entrepreneurial creativity” and “establish profitable business enterprise.”
So churches should start businesses to fund their operations, rather than depend on the offerings of their members? Is that theologically problematic?
I suppose a church on a large tract of land could leverage its assets by putting up an apartment building or by selling off part of the land to developers, who could build houses, an office building, or a strip mall. Or a congregation could hire out its facilities to other groups for meetings or other activities.
There could also be enterprises that could tie into the church’s mission, such as building a nursing home or starting a school.
Other money-making opportunities could present themselves. I know of a congregation that gave permission for a phone company to put up a cell tower. Others are putting cellular antennas in their steeples! Such ventures can bring a congregation a few thousand dollars a month.
I don’t have a problem with any of that, as such, but we must remember the anger of Our Lord at the commercialism he saw in the Temple–with all of the buying and selling and moneychanging–and His words as He turned over the tables: “Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:16).
Surely churches should be supported primarily by the offerings of its members.
But what if that falls short?
When money is tight, families have to set priorities. Have churches become too expensive, with mega-campuses, high-tech studio sound and projection systems, overly-ambitious programming, etc, etc.? Might they need to simplify what they do and how they do it? Perhaps by refocusing on Word and Sacrament ministry on Sunday mornings?
Do you have any suggestions and experiences to draw on that might help congregations that are, or will be, struggling financially?