As If We Really Believed

Sylvia and John Ronsvalle publish meticulous, hand-crafted annual reports on the state of church giving. They study charitable giving statistics, and follow denominational reports assiduously. Their latest report is over 200 pages, full of charts and graphs. It makes for depressing reading.

Here’s the bottom line: church members give less than ever, as a percentage of income. The trend has been downward since 1968, when church members gave, on average, 3.11% of their income to charitable causes. The latest data, for 2009, shows they gave 2.38%.

If you take seriously Jesus’ words that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also, those numbers hurt.

The worst news, according to the Ronsvalles, is the decline in what they call “benevolences.” Benevolences are the part of the church budget that goes to help people outside the church—missions, whether foreign or local, whether oriented toward preaching or economic aid. “Benevolences,” measured as a percentage of income, is half what it used to be–.34% versus .66% in 1968.

The situation seems bleak for all churches, regardless of theology or tradition.

The Ronsvalles see a retreat from engagement with the world, and a lack of seriousness. As a spur to the imagination, this year’s report includes information about the 16 countries making “no progress” in reducing under-5 child deaths—a major Millennium Development Goal. Of these 16 countries, ten are majority Christian, with an average of 85% self-identified Christians. Why don’t American Christians get serious in helping those countries reduce their child mortality? The Ronsvalles’ very rough estimates suggest it could be done quite easily.

“It seems appropriate,” the Ronsvalles write, “to empower Christians living in the U.S. in the 21st century to produce fruit in keeping with their professed faith…. Current church structures have broad communication and delivery channels that could be used to lead toward mobilization of church members to help the least. To date, however, the leadership has not organized to strengthen and encourage Christians to act on their potential for helping the least at the same level they would if they really believed they were helping Jesus himself.” [p. 142]

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5 Responses to “As If We Really Believed”

  1. Doug Webb Says:

    Hi Tim, Wow, 2.38% is a really low amount for Christians to be giving to their church. I assume the Ronsvalle’s only looked at direct church giving and did not take into account how much people give directly to other Christian charities. In our case we give only 40% of our giving to the church and 60% directly to a number of Christian charities. However, that would only increase the giving to 5.95% of income. I guess the good news is that their is a huge potential for Christians to increase their giving. I would like to see a study that asked Christians why they choose not to give more to charity. Doug Webb

    • timstafford Says:

      No, that 2.38% is all charitable giving. Church giving averages about 75% of that. The question of why not more is hard to tease apart, but the Ronsvalles believe one component is that churches have not set clear, idealistic goals for what the church intends to accomplish.

  2. Fracking: Finally, the Truth; Tim Stafford; Notre Dame; Obama and the Catholic Church (and the rest of us) « ChosenRebel's Blog Says:

    […] Churches Should Euthanize their Small Groups As If We Really Believed: Disturbing trends in giving (Tim Stafford) St. Francis Never Said It (Mark Galli) Our Salvation is Bound up in the Doctrine of […]

  3. David Graham Says:

    I do wonder what the Ronsvalle’s found with respect to charitable giving since the global economy went south in 2008: is this 2.38% something that has been in a slow, steady decline since 1968? Or rather something that represents a downturn just in the last few years? I do know that in the area of missions, for example, giving has gone down in the last few years with the recession: no coincidence.

    With respect to the 16 countries who aren’t reducing their death rates for children under 5, yes, it is possible to ask, “Why don’t American Christians get serious in helping those countries reduce their child mortality?” But why not ask a better question: “Why don’t Christians in these 16 countries get serious in helping themselves reduce their child mortality?” or better yet, “Why don’t the governments in these 16 countries get serious in helping their people reduce their child mortality?”

    Non-Americans in developing countries are not like helpless chicks, waiting for Momma-bird to come bring some grubs to the nest. If mammon were the simple solution to public health problems, infusions of money from abroad would have cured many of the Third World’s ills long ago. But as Thomas Sowell has discussed in his writings, developing countries remain in retarded development for cultural reasons, as rotting farm equipment or dilapidated hospitals in places demonstrate. Until people in those 16 countries make the deaths of children under 5 a priority – and put in steps to decrease it – no amount of donated money is going to change that.

    • timstafford Says:

      The decline in charitable giving is consistent and steady, with few blips, over more than 40 years. Interestingly, recessions and economic struggles don’t seem to affect it that much.

      I agree that countries with high child mortality rates must take responsibility for their own problems–and that blaming American Christians for their failings would be off target. I think the Ronsvalles’ point has more to do with the trivialization of the American church. We don’t act like people who could accomplish great things. We’re content to dabble. Pick a challenge, whether reducing child mortality or planting churches in places where no church exists. Then mobilize to make a difference.

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