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October 7, 2009

Are U.S. Churchgoers Stingy?

Angela Abbamonte
October 7, 2009

Are U.S. churchgoers stingy?

That's one possible conclusion from a newly updated report that shows if parishioners tithed the biblically recommended 10 percent of their income -- instead of their current 2.56 percent -- an extra $161 billion would be flowing to charity.

The report, published by Illinois-based research firm empty tomb, inc., also found that congregations continue to keep more money for their own needs instead of "benevolences" beyond the four walls of a church.

"Money is training wheels," said Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of empty tomb, inc., "If we're not faithful in giving, how will we see the church grow?"

Ronsvalle, along with her husband John, co-wrote the "State of Church Giving through 2007: What Are Our Christian Billionaires Thinking -- Or Are They?" The annual report, scheduled for release on Oct. 15, examines financial trends in Christian churches.

The Ronsvalles found some room for optimism: churchgoers, at 2.26 percent given to charity, outpaced the general population, which gave 1.8 percent. Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. charitable donations were funneled through churches or religious institutions.

Unlike other studies that focus on overall charitable giving, the Ronsvalles generally restrict their research to religious institutions.

Financial vitality, they say, is a key indicator of overall church health. Money given to the church is divided into two sub-categories for analysis: benevolences (such as international and local missions, denominational support and seminary support) and congregational finances (such as salaries, operating budgets and building costs).

Giving for benevolences in 2007 hit an all-time low, with an average of just 14 percent of member contributions going to needs beyond the church, down from a high of 21 percent 40 years ago. Ronsvalle said this may indicate churches believe that "maintenance is adequate" and are more concerned with being financially sound than contributing to missions.

"If you go to maintain your institution, you're going to find that your institution dies," she said.

The report compares the amount U.S. church members gave to international missions and the amount of "remittances," or money that is sent back home by foreigners living in the U.S. In 2007, $79 billion was sent abroad through remittances -- an average of about $2,076 per person. By contrast, U.S.-born church members gave an average of $70 to international ministries. If churches sent money overseas at the same rate as the foreign born, that would mean an additional $314 billion given for international needs, Ronsvalle estimates.

Ronsvalle said churches have become complacent -- "lukewarm" is the term the Bible uses -- and are no longer challenging themselves to do extraordinary things. There is a "lack of vision" and churchgoers have a hard time seeing how their contribution to missions can affect the world or its problems.

"One of the changes that seems to have happened to the church in the United States is that it has moved away from vision," she said. "It's not challenging itself to be great. Don't go to safety, go for faithfulness."

Example A: the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant body, which has set a goal of recruiting 2,800 missionaries to contact all "unreached" people groups, but has not laid out a financial roadmap, or price tag, for how to get there, she said.

One solution the report offers is through the idea of "wholesale billionaires" -- individuals with an ability to donate large sums of money -- and "retail billionaires" -- individuals whose small contributions, when combined with others, can add up for big impact.

The report suggests that if wholesale billionaires make a pledge to match the total amount given by retail billionaires, congregations will see the impact of their individual contributions, and be more inspired to give.

"This is possible even in (a) recession," Ronsvalle said, citing earlier empty tomb studies that found that between 1968 and 2005, church giving went up in three recessions and went down in three.