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Turning inward

Religion | Giving declines as mainline churches focus more resources toward themselves

Issue: "Beyond the body count," Nov. 5, 2011

Tithing to mainline churches has reached its lowest level in at least 41 years. 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 mainline churches' tithing and giving patterns from 1968 to 2009 by Empty Tomb, Inc.

The study focused on mainline denominations because data was not available from evangelicals or Roman Catholics, yet the authors suggest that trends amongst Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and other mainliners are broadly representative of American churches.

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, the economic contraction cannot be entirely to blame.

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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. Yet we do need compassion, and in seasons of want our compassion is tested.

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