Tim Dalrymple discusses recent surveys on giving in American churches in an article in the November 5 issue of World. According to Empty Tomb, Inc. tithing to mainline churches has reached its lowest point in 41 years, and of the amount that churches are receiving, a smaller percentage is going to serve the needy outside of the congregation as churches must retain a higher percentage to cover the cost of maintenance and paying staff salaries. Empty Tomb is an Illinois-based agency that provides “financial discipleship strategy and information about church giving patterns on a national level” (www.emptytomb.org). According to their study, data on evangelical and Roman Catholic churches’ giving patterns was not available, but the authors suggest that the trends among the mainline denominations included in the survey should be indicative of those American churches not included.
According to the Empty Tomb report, Christians in the denominations included in the study (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others) tithed 2.38 percent of their income in 2009, down .05 percent from 2008, and those churches then spent less than one-sixth of their budget on ministries that fell outside of the congregation itself.
Dalrymple notes that Empty Tomb could be accused of taking an alarmist approach to its research, but I would agree with him when he notes that, “the statistics are alarming enough if they are even remotely close.” I would like to think that if the churches not included in the study were to be surveyed we would see a higher percentage being tithed to the local congregation, but it is unlikely that it would be overwhelmingly higher, and even if it were double, that would mean only 4.76 percent…hardly anything to get excited about.
There is also the possibility that individuals are including organizations and ministries other than their local church in their tithing, giving directly to missionaries and other para-church ministries rather than having that support funneled through the local church. My wife and I have done that in the past. When we were members of a wonderful, Bible-believing, Bible-teaching church that had an approach to missions that we did not completely agree with we gave part of our tithe to our church, and part of it went directly to fund missionaries we know and support around the world. As much as I would like to think this is the case, though, I have to be honest and say that it is unlikely that the “missing” 7.62 percent of the tithe (assuming one holds to the idea of tithing equaling 10 percent, and the responsibility of the Christian being to tithe) is being contributed in such ways.
Dalrymple correctly points out that the obvious culprit for the decline in giving would seem to be the current state of the U.S. economy. However, according to Empty Tomb, church giving has not always declined when the economy has been, shall we say, sluggish. So there may be other reasons to consider, as well. What concerns me more, however, is the larger picture. Regardless of the reason for the .05 percent decline from 2008 to ’09, lets look at something more troubling. Empty Tomb reports that the .05 decline was the largest year-to-year decline in giving in the past 40 years. So while that is cause for concern, it reveals to me that giving has remained relatively stable…and, therefore, relatively scant.
Dig around on the Empty Tomb web site and you will find lots of interesting facts about the giving trends in the U.S. Of note, Protestants were giving 2.9 percent of their income to churches in 1916. In the midst of the Great Depression in 1933 they were giving 3.2 percent. In 1955, it was still 3.2 percent. By 2007, it was 2.5 percent. What happened to income over that same period? Compared to 1933, even taking taxes and inflation into consideration, Americans in 2007 were 582% richer. Yet giving had gone down. Per member giving in 2007 averaged a pathetically low $863.80.
So, what difference could this make? Well, according to the study, if American churches had given the same percentage of their budgets to benevolence ministries in 2009 as they did in 1968, an additional $3.1 billion would have gone to those in need. What’s more, if American Christians had tithed a full ten percent on their income in 2008 the resulting increase for the church would have been $172 billion. In both cases that’s billion…with a “b.” And I don’t care who you are, that’s a lot of money. So much money, in fact, that according to the authors of the study that would have been more than enough to “send missionaries to every unreached people group and all but eliminate the deaths of small children because of starvation and disease.” Notice that that says and, not or. In other words, if each member tithed ten percent–which comes out to an increase of slightly more than $200 per month based on 2007 per capita income–there would be enough resources available to eliminate childhood starvation and reach every known people group in the world. That is not to say that would happen, of course. Churches may choose to utilize that money in other ways if it were given. But think of whatever is most important to you or whatever you would love to see your church be able to do more of, and imagine what a full tithe could translate into. No child would be prevented from attending Christian school for financial reasons. No crisis pregnancy center would be unable to provide ultrasounds to mothers considering abortion. No orphaned child would be left with inadequate care. No elderly person would be deprived of respectful, honorable care. None of the more than nine percent of unemployed U.S. workers would be unable to pay their bills or feed their family. No one would be unable to access quality health care. Fill in the blank with your own vision….
So, back to an earlier question, why is the percentage of income that American Christians tithe to their churches so low? It’s not the economy. It is a failure to acknowledge that their income is not their income. It is God’s money that He has entrusted to them. Unfortunately, many are failing to be good stewards of that money, either because they do not know how, or because they do not care. They would rather spend the money on things they want, and give God what’s leftover. Remember, too, that when we look at averages of anything we must keep in mind that to get that average figure, some give much more while some give much less. I cannot think of much that would be more depressing than to think that there are many professing Christians who tithe much less than 2.38 percent of their income.
I am reminded of the biblical account of the three individuals who were entrusted with some of their master’s money when he left on a long trip. Two of the three doubled their master’s money in his absence, while one, afraid of a failure to measure up to the master’s expectations, simply buried the money and then gave it back to him upon his return. We find in that account that when the master received his money back from this third individual he called him “wicked and slothful” (Matthew 25:26, ESV). That individual was then cast into outer darkness. It gives me pause–and I think it should you, too–to imagine how much more upset the master in that story would have been had that third individual returned to the master only one-fourth of what he had been given and explained that he had used the remainder to pay bills, go out to eat with his family, buy some designer sandals, and take a vacation to the coast. I cannot help but picture this fool smilingly presenting this meager return to his master thinking it would surely be enough since the master had, after all, given it to him. Couldn’t he do with it what he wanted?
In his excellent and convicting book Whose Money Is It Anyway? John MacArthur writes this: “By God’s grace we can always find a way to give, because even the worst circumstances should never hinder our devotion to Jesus Christ and our desire to obey His commands on giving. … [G]iving is not righteous unless it’s accompanied by sincere, heartfelt joy. That’s because joy will supersede any motivation that causes you to give merely out of duty, pressure, fear of punishment if you don’t, or simply for the sake of a reward.” Towards the end of his chapter entitled “The Characteristics of Biblical Giving,” MacArthur writes, “You can give without loving (that’s merely legalistic, required giving), but you can’t love without giving (true affection leads to generosity).”
I’m not going to tell you that you have to tithe ten percent. I don’t think that’s my place, and I am not even convinced that the ten percent tithe is New Testament requirement. But tithing is a requirement, and I would ask you to prayerfully reflect on your priorities, as I reflect on mine. 2 Corinthians 9:7 says that, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” If you’re cheerfully giving God your 2.38 percent, that’s between you and Him. But I do wonder if your joy might abound even more…if you decide to give Him more.