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The Decline Of Religious Giving: Six Reasons Why It Is Happening

By Mark Brooks

It is our natural tendency to want to blame someone other than ourselves when things go wrong. Washington is playing that game. Republicans blame Obama. Obama blames Bush. Nothing truly gets done as our politicians posture for re-election. The same is true when it comes to giving. I find that too many blame the economy for all their woes and misfortunes. They look at the past recession and claim that all was wonderful before the crash and that if we could only get back to the way things were everything would be alright. It sounds reassuring and it might give some hope. That hope, however, is false. The truth is that giving has been in decline for years and the economy has but little impact upon that reality.

There has been much debate about how this past recession has impacted giving to religion. Last year when Giving USA released their data on giving there were howls of protest. The reason why was Giving USA’s report showed only modest declines. For religion the decline was essentially flat. People screamed that it could not be true that their data must be wrong. Recently Giving USA did indeed adjust their report based upon new IRS released data. Giving to charities overall declined 7% in 2008 and 6.2% in 2009. In 2010 giving to charities rose 2.1 %. Amazingly giving to religion declined only 0.8% in 2010. We do not know yet what the decline for churches will be as their data gets lumped in with all religious giving. Reports on church giving typically lags two years behind in their reports. However it stands to reason that the decline will be less than what many felt it would have been. Still, a decline is a decline.

What is more alarming is how giving to religion has changed over time. Religious causes now attract just above one third of all charitable giving in the US at 35.8%. However during the years spanning 1991-1995 that average was 48.6%. So while the economy was booming and charitable giving was increasing, giving to religion was actually taking a smaller percentage of the giving pie of Americans. Reports like Giving USA are interesting and do give us a backdrop of what is occurring on the American landscape. However they only give us the 30,000-foot view. For you as a leader you are much more concerned with how things look at ground zero where you work and minister. What is giving doing in your church and ministry?

My guess is that it is challenged. I have not yet worked with a church that told me that they did not have challenges with giving. Even our best clients, who weathered the recession’s storm and continued to raise funds always need more funds. The more you do in ministry the more funds you need. If the best are still challenged is it any wonder that the rest are struggling. Yet why is that? Here are my thoughts and observations of why giving to religion is declining.

1. We are becoming increasingly more secular as a nation. We can talk all we want about the few explosive mega churches in America but the truth is that attendance continues to spiral downward. When attendance is in decline giving will also be in decline.

2. We have not engaged the younger generations. As the Builders move off the stage and Boomers move into retirement we had better find a way to engage the next generations coming up. What is alarming is the fall out of our youth after they enter college. If we do not reverse this trend we will be in serious trouble in the coming years.

3. We have retreated from teaching stewardship as a part of discipleship. In part I blame this on the contemporary church movement. We have gone out of our way to apologize for the offering rather than make a cause for why attendees should give. A true disciple gives willingly to their church. In our desire to attract the crowd we have thrown making disciples under the bus. We may have a crowd but we have few horses pulling the bus. Jesus never apologized about teaching on money. Neither should you. Go and make disciples not a crowd.

4. We have failed to communicate a compelling vision. People give to vision. They want their gift to matter. If the only reason you state for people to give is to help you make budget don’t be surprised if they pass the plate without putting anything in it. Get a vision worth inspiring people and then trumpet that vision!

5. We are guilty of re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic ignoring the water lapping at our feet. I find few who are truly alarmed by statistics like those I quoted from Giving USA. We hope things will turn around. Hope is never a strategy. Our ship is sinking and re-arranging the chairs will do nothing to change that fact. Find the holes and plug them. Now!

6. We lack a plan of action. If you read my blog posts you will know that this is the same song I sing over and over again and again. Yet I find few churches with any type of stewardship plan. Failing to plan is planning to fail!

I am sure there are other reasons for the decline in giving to religion.  The point is however that the decline is real and should be cause for alarm.  Rather than wringing our hands about how terrible that is we need to work to do something about it.  While you cannot impact the church across the state, much less the church down the street from you, you can do something about your church. Your church may not be the Titanic but there are icebergs drifting in the waters you navigate. What actions are you taking right now to avoid becoming the next church Titanic?


Mark Brooks is founder and president of Atlanta-based The Charis Group, a consulting group that helps Christian ministries raise funds for capital projects. He can be reached at mark@thecharisgroup.org; www.thecharisgroup.org.

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