Voices

Who gives two cents for missions?

We do, to our shame

Issue: "New Orleans' comeback kids," Oct. 22, 2005

Of every dollar given to a Protestant church, the average amount that goes to overseas missions is two cents. In contrast, of every dollar Antioch Presbyterian Church in Chonju, Korea, takes in, 70 cents goes to missions.

For 15 years, the mission research and advocacy organization Empty Tomb, of Champaign, Ill., has analyzed the contributions and spending patterns of American churches. The latest report, "The State of Church Giving through 2003" (available at emptytomb.org), crunches the numbers for 41 Protestant denominations and surveys giving trends going back almost a century. In doing so, the study gives a not-too-flattering snapshot of the priorities of American Christians today.

The study also gives membership data. We learn, for example, that the "mainline" denominations of liberal Protestantism-defined in this study as those belonging to the National Council of Churches (NCC)-are not mainline anymore. In 1968, those denominations had as members 13.2 percent of the country's population (26,508,288 total members). By 2003, that percentage shrank to only 6.8 percent. Within those 35 years, as the U.S. population grew 45 percent, churches affiliated with the NCC (with nearly 20 million members) declined as a percentage of the population by nearly half.

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Members of a group of 15 evangelical denominations (22,269,608) now outnumber "mainline Protestants," and so should be considered the true mainline of American Christianity. Conservatives actually passed the liberals in 1993, growing 47 percent between 1968 and 2003. That is not quite as good as it sounds, with growth only 2 percent more than the overall population growth. These evangelical denominations reached a peak in the mid-1980s, numbering 8.23 percent of the population, but by 2003 declined to 7.65 percent.

The theological modernists had maintained that the church must conform to the culture in order to be relevant. In the 20th century, that meant downplaying the supernatural, focusing on this world rather than the next, and jettisoning the authority of the Bible. Evidently, cultural conformity as a way to grow the church does not work. And yet, ironically, some evangelicals today are trying to revive that approach, which, if followed, may herald an evangelical decline.

Giving to the church is already in decline-even among evangelicals. Back in 1968, members of eight evangelical denominations profiled by Empty Tomb gave 6.2 percent of their incomes. By 2003, that had declined to 4.4 percent, even as incomes had grown dramatically. In the 11 mainline denominations profiled, per capita giving was less in 2003 (2.5 percent of income) than it had been in 1933, during the Great Depression (3.3 percent of income).

And what do churches do with their money? In 1920, the percentage of giving to missions from the total offering was 10.09 percent, just over a dime out of every dollar. In 2003, conservative and evangelical denominations gave 2.6 percent (about three cents per dollar), with the liberals giving only 0.9 percent (one cent). The combined average for overseas work is about two pennies per dollar.

Where is the money going? For buildings? Not really, since churches spent proportionally more for new buildings in 1965 ($29 per capita) than in 2003 ($27). But the sprawling church "campuses" that have become the norm today are expensive to operate. Congregations today typically run an abundance of internal programs. The number of staff members and the amount of salaries have risen. All of this is for the good, but, as the authors of the report conclude, "the numbers demonstrate an increased emphasis on internal operations over the broader mission of the church."

Noticeably missing in this study of church giving is tithing. Though some Christians do give 10 percent of their incomes, many more do not, resulting in these low averages. Nor do churches tithe their incomes, giving 10 percent to foreign missions, as they once did.

If church members were to tithe 10 percent of their income, churches would reap an additional $156 billion. And, according to calculations in the study, if 60 percent of that extra income were designated for overseas missions, that would come to $94 billion-enough to feed, medicate, and evangelize the underdeveloped world.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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