I like to think of myself as an optimist. But when I got my annual copy of The State of Church Giving last week, there wasn't much to persuade me that the glass is even half full.
Americans, to be sure, have a reputation for being generous people. Among all Americans, Christians are known for being even more big-hearted with their dollars. And among those who are known as Christians, we evangelicals have regularly supposed that we top the list in our giving for world missions.
Well, all that is true-and it's still embarrassing. According to this report, which is compiled, analyzed, and distributed by an Illinois organization called empty tomb inc., only about 2 cents out of every dollar given to local churches in North America gets used for denominational world missions.
Just 2 cents.
Now, before you start protesting (as I did at first) about all that is perhaps wrong with the way the analysts came up with that figure, let me tell you how really awful it is-and how pointless it is to argue.
Yes, it is an average that includes just about every nominal Christian and liberal hanger-on in the country. In that sense, it is not altogether fair to evangelicals. And yes, to the best of my ability to sort through the details, it includes only those dollars given through local churches for denominational missions. It largely ignores what is given through those same local churches for parachurch missions organizations, or dollars given directly to such parachurch groups, or even directly to missionaries themselves.
So let's suppose we're way off. Let's suppose we're off by a factor of 100 percent. No, let's make it 200 percent. But even if we make it 300 percent, you see, we're still designating only 6 cents out of every dollar we give for world missions! Would that be cause for celebration?
Or look at it this way. Consider who the top performers are: Coming in at No. 1-among all denominations-is the Primitive Methodist Church in the U.S.A., which reports 9 cents out of every dollar for world missions. But their total membership of just 3,965 people doesn't do much to pull up the overall average. Right behind them, at 8.9 cents, is the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, with a total membership of 35,209.
Free Methodists and the Church of the Nazarene average 7 cents out of each dollar for world missions. The Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church give 5 cents. The Presbyterian Church in America and Seventh-day Adventists are at 4 cents. Southern Baptists are reported to give at the level of the national average for all "Christians": just 2 cents on the dollar.
So even if we double, triple, or quadruple that average, or even if we hike our giving to the level of the top-performing denominations, we're still doing miserably. We're still designating a miniscule portion of our giving-which itself is typically a miniscule part of our total income-for something that in theory we say is very important. We're still saying, by our actual performance, that this is in fact quite unimportant in our whole scheme of things.
Yet shameful as this record might be, and as embarrassed as we all ought to be by it, I'm compelled to sound a note of optimism. Here it is:
One benefit of a really poor performance is that you don't have to do terribly much to improve it! For example, in order to double the giving performance of American Christians for the work of their denominations in world missions, they'd have to increase each $1 of their church giving only to $1.02-and then make sure that the extra 2 cents went for the cause of world missions.
I'm not suggesting this would always be a logistically easy assignment to accomplish-or even what many folks in liberal denominations would want to do with their charitable dollars. I offer the suggestion instead to dramatize both what a pitiful job is being done right now-and how much upside there is to the opportunities before the American church at large.
After all, isn't that the task of an optimist?