How bad could U.S. Protestants’ money woes become?

How bad could U.S. Protestants’ money woes become? February 27, 2020

THE QUESTION:

Are U.S. Protestant congregations facing a dangerous plunge in income?

THE GUY’S ANSWER:

Note the subtitle of this recent book release: “The Coming Revolution in Church Economics: Why Tithes and Offerings Are No Longer Enough and What You Can Do About It” (published by Baker). Will many churchgoers no longer be able to keep the doors of their churches open? How bad will it get?

Authors Mark DeYmaz and Harry Li are evangelicals who lead the Mosaix Global Network based in Little Rock, Ark., which promotes and aids multi-ethnic churches. In addition to the book, they discussed their scenario and solutions in an article for www.christianitytoday.com. Their analysis pertains to Protestant congregations, so this Q & A article will do the same.

When offering-plate proceeds do not cover the budget, the authors advocate leveraging of any available assets, for instance creating profit-making business sidelines, renting facilities, and developing any excess land. The Guy will leave aside those ideas and discuss only the debate over how bad future finances may become.

One lethal financial threat seems to be off the table – for the moment. During his failed presidential campaign, Democrat “Beto” O’Rourke drew jeers when he advocated ending federal tax exemption for religious congregations if they oppose same-sex marriage. Even gay candidate Pete Buttigieg, among others, said targeting houses of worship went too far — though he does want to deny tax exemption to religious colleges and agencies that hold such traditional belief. DeYmaz and Li also warn that cash-hungry local governments “may someday” demand property taxes.

The authors see four reasons church planners need to worry.

First, the middle class, forever the backbone for church donations, feels squeezed and carries heavier debt than ever before. Nationwide household debt totals $13.9 trillion. Heavy student loans have been added to customary red ink from credit cards, home mortgages, and car loans. By one calculation, the middle class’s share of wealth and assets relative to wealthier citizens has reached its lowest point since 1947.

Second, offerings are sliding. According to the standard “Giving USA” report, religious donations showed only slow growth in recent years and are currently in slight decline if adjusted for inflation. This reflects the increase in “nones,” people who are uninterested and not affiliated with religious bodies any longer. A Faith Communities Today study said the median church budget slumped from $150,000 in 2009 to $125,000 in 2014. The authors remark that too many ignore their churches’ financial realities and suppose ‘some unknown entity” covers the bills.

Third, young Americans are less generous than with older generations. The Builder Generation (born before 1946) believed in institutions and in support for them, whereas younger Americans are drawn to causes, visions, and flexible impulses, which requires new approaches to fund-raising. Compared with older cohorts, one accounting firm tells us, only 36 percent of those in Gen X (born 1964-1981) and 25 percent in Gen Y, a.k.a. “Millennials” (born after 1981), think money is what matters with their social groups.

Fourth come demographics.  The authors project rapid changes the next 15 to 25 years, in particular a shrinking and aging total population with fewer children (whose nurture is a major reason for religious involvement). They think it’s possible that giving will be hit by the fact that by 2028 the foreign-born share of the U.S. population will be the highest since 1850.

Lots there to digest. But “The Coming Revolution” outlook is disputed by patheos.com blogger Gene Veith, formerly dean of Concordia University Wisconsin and provost of Patrick Henry College. Here’s his critique on those four points.

One:  The middle class is not actually suffering all that much. Typical income has lately started to increase somewhat, and inflationary rises in living costs are notably low. Yes, the economy could shift downward, and that family debt burden is a concern, but the middle class can’t be counted out.

Two:  Yes, younger Americans tend to be tightwads. Also, fewer and fewer Millennials maintain church involvements. But if so, their thinner donations have already been experienced so this must not be an insurmountable  problem.

Three:  If the population is aging, we know older people tend to attend more and to give more to churches so that could actually help budgets. Couples enjoy their peak incomes not as young marrieds but as empty nesters without children at home, in the mature life phase when accumulated raises boost employment income.

Four:  Yes, America is becoming a “minority majority” nation as the percentage of whites declines. Veith figures as whites leave church and become unaffiliated “nones,” new immigrants will take their place. They will have lower incomes to start. However, low-income people tend to be more generous than those who are well off, immigrants show notable enthusiasm for their religious communities, and eventually their incomes rise.

Veith sums up. “I don’t think the future of church giving is necessarily so dire. But, of course, lots of things could happen,” for instance taxation. What if U.S. culture and thus government become actively “hostile to churches” in general, or target the many faith groups that do not agree with political trends on issues like homosexuality?

He also asks this: “Have churches become too expensive, with mega-campuses, high-tech studio sound and projection systems, overly-ambitious programming” and such? Perhaps, he suggests, it’s time to simplify operations and to refocus on worship, the Word, and the sacraments.

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