Are Christians Losing Their Generosity?

Are Christians Losing Their Generosity? October 27, 2011

Tithing to churches has reached its lowest level in at least 41 years — and of the smaller amount churches are receiving, a smaller proportion of church funds is serving the needy outside the congregation. These are two of the findings from an analysis of church tithing and giving patterns from 1968 to 2009 by Empty Tomb, Inc.

The study focused on mainline denominations but also included some evangelical Protestant bodies.

Our first inclination might be to blame the decline in tithing on the U.S. economy. While it’s true that the most severe year-to-year decline in giving over the past 40 years took place in 2008-2009, the Empty Tomb analysis showed that church giving has not always declined in past recessions. If Christians are clutching the purse-strings a little tighter this time around, the economic contraction cannot be entirely to blame.

Since harnessing the financial resources of American churches for needy children around the globe is Empty Tomb’s very purpose, the study’s authors could be accused of having a bias toward alarmism. Yet the statistics are alarming enough if they are even remotely close. They found that Christians in these denominations tithed a mere 2.38 percent of their income, down from 2.43 percent in 2008, and churches in 2009 devoted less than one-sixth of their budgets to “benevolences” or ministries to those outside the bounds of the congregation itself.

As churches receive less, they may need to retain a higher proportion of their resources in order to meet their operating costs and retain their staff. Yet “turning inward and valuing the happiness of its members” over the needs of others is “moving on a spectrum toward pagan values,” argues co-author Sylvia Ronsvalle, Empty Tomb’s executive vice president. Such trends, she says, require careful examination, not a knee-jerk defense of the church.

Some will object that reaching the lost, feeding the poor, and healing the sick are not merely questions of amassing sufficient resources. Political corruption, decrepit national infrastructures, and the belligerence of ruling authorities all complicate the equation. Others will object that the purpose of the church is the proclamation of the gospel, not the abolition of social ills.

Yet the astonishingly low tithing levels found in the report ought to provoke self-examination. It is not only spending on physical services that has declined, but spending on missionaries as well. If American churches had devoted the same proportion of their resources to benevolences in 2009 as they had in 1968, then another $3.1 billion would have gone to the needy. And if American Christians had tithed a full 10 percent of their income in 2008, then the church would have had another $172 billion at its disposal for missions and services. This would have been more than enough, suggest the authors, to send missionaries to every unreached people group and all but eliminate the deaths of small children because of starvation and disease.

To be sure, we need effective, wise compassion directed to programs that cultivate initiative and responsibility instead of dependency and multi-generational poverty. To be sure, different churches have different callings, and not every church must serve the needy outside its walls. Yet we do need compassion, and in seasons of want our compassion is tested. Are we, as a body of believers in the United States, passing the test?

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Note: This was originally published in World Magazine.  Some changes have been made.  Original reports indicated that the study was solely of the Mainline denominations, but subsequent communications with Empty Tomb suggest that some evangelical bodies were included as well. I’ll learn more soon. The language above has been adjusted accordingly.

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  • Wiliam C Manuel

    The incessant litany from our media and politicians that government is the savior of the poor and the answer to all of society’s problems is taking an inevitable toll on personal responsibility. The mainline churches have for the most part bought into and endorsed that concept which has exacerbated the situation.

    Some evangelicals have responded to the apotheosis of government and abandonment of scriptural principles by mainline denominations by developing a me and my little platoon first, last and only mentality. They claim that their focus is on soul winning, but it extends only to those fortunate souls who might happen to wander into their church during a service – after all we all know that it is only the pastors responsibility to call them to Christ.

    Some other churches noting the increasingly secular societal drift have enthusiastically joined in by proclaiming that Christ came into the world to make you happy, healthy and rich. They have won many souls to avarice, but few or none to a lifelong commitment to live for Christ.

    Unless and until more churches refocus on the inerrant Truth of the Word of God and the whole gospel of Jesus Christ – which, surprise, includes tithing and sharing the love of Christ through our own actions and with our own resources, the trend noted in the article will not only continue but accelerate.

  • Larry

    I would like to see the break down … denominational affiliation, region, demographics. I’ve a feeling that those numbers would provide important and revealing details. Is para-church giving included in this survey? Deflected giving is an important factor in determining over all giving. There is always a chance that people have voted with their wallets … if congregants feel that the church is failing in effective stewardship they may well take matters into their own hands. In short, my guess is that there’s far more to this story than meets the eye.

  • Sophia

    I agree with Larry. Plus, I would add that people have not only a right but a responsibility to take care of their own first. This is not necessarily selfish. Many Americans now are struggling to make ends meet…keep a roof over their own heads and not be reduced to poverty and need and dependency themselves. There is nothing wrong with makeing it a priority to take care of ones own. Tightening our beltss is the responsible thing to do under the current economic circumstances and I believe all would benefit from learning to do more with less.

  • Laurel

    I am reading the book “Revolution in Generosity” and it is very informative and helpful in understanding the shift in Christians’ giving. We have forgotten that everything belongs to God and that He expects us to be generous with His money as well as our whole lives.