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Church Giving Drops Even as Charitable Giving Increases

A recent report noted that even though overall charitable giving in the U.S. is increasing, giving to churches is dropping. Trends among Baptist groups echo the findings.
Researched and written by the philanthropy school at Indiana University, the Giving USA 2014 report looks at philanthropy trends in 2013 and compares it to annual data collected since 1956.

Overall charitable giving by individuals increased 4.2 percent in 2013 (or 2.7 percent when adjusted for inflation), but giving to religion declined 0.2 percent (or 1.6 percent when adjusted for inflation).

The religion category includes churches, denominational groups, missions societies and religious media.

However, religious groups still received the largest chunk of charitable giving, hauling in 31 percent of all charitable contributions.

The next largest categories were education (16 percent) and human services (12 percent).

“The recent declines in religious giving are, in part, attributed to a decline in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves religious and attend congregations,” the report concludes. “These demographic changes directly impact the ability of congregations to meet their revenue needs in the form of tithes and offerings.”

David Washburn, treasurer for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, also noted declining church attendance as a factor for the trends. However, he added other possible explanations not offered by the Giving USA report.

“As it relates to the churches, there are fewer people attending so there are fewer people giving,” he told EthicsDaily.com.

Washburn, a former pastor and banker, added that among younger Christians, it could be they are giving more to other charities—even faith-based ones—instead of just churches and denominations.

“Especially with younger givers, they’re very cause-driven givers, whether it’s clean-water or malaria eradication or some other cause,” he explained. “They want to change the world and they want their dollars to do it. They see some of these specific causes as the platforms where they can see that happen.”

In the Giving USA report, contributions to faith-based groups involved in healthcare, education, social services, disaster relief or other areas are not included in the religion category but in the areas of their specialization.

Thus, giving to faith-based groups might be increasing even as giving to the religion category of churches and denominations declines.

Although the report notes that religious Americans also give to non-religion organizations, it does not highlight faith-based cause giving as a possible reason for the decline in giving to churches and denominations.

Bob Perry, Congregational Health Team Leader for Churchnet, also told EthicsDaily.com that various shifts could account for the findings, including cause-driven giving by younger Christians.

“Much church giving in past generations was based on funds that were channeled through denominational-directed ministries,” Perry explained. “With the decline in loyalty to denominations, more funds, especially from younger givers, are going to non-denominational causes that are frequently involved in direct services to needy communities within the U.S. and around the world.

“Givers have become more discriminating in the causes which they support,” he added. “Scandals related to the misconduct of clergy and misuse of funds have caused many to distrust religious denominations and doubt their reliability. American Christians are generous, but their giving patterns are changing.”

According to the Giving USA report, giving to religion had grown 3.9 percent between 2011 and 2012, raising questions if the 2012-13 decline is an anomaly or the start of a new trend. Total charitable giving increased 7.5 percent between 2011 and 2012, meaning the overall percentage increase dropped in 2012-13 with religious groups seeing much of that decline.

With giving to religious groups declining even as overall charitable giving increases, religion no longer dominates charitable giving as much as in the past.

While less than one-third of charitable giving currently goes to religion, it used to be 57 percent in the mid-1980s.

Baptist groups have often matched the trends as receipts have fallen in recent years.

Heading into the last quarter of its fiscal year, the Southern Baptist Convention has seen a 0.55 percent decline in Cooperative Program giving and a 1.89 decline in designated giving compared to last year.

Churches have cut their average percentage giving to the Cooperative Program nearly in half since the early 1980s.

With flat budgets in recent years, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) devoted a large section of its 2012 Task Force Report to describing the need for “a new funding strategy.”

Among the reasons given for why CBF needed to rethink how it raises money was that “giving trends indicate a preference for directed giving (as opposed to institutional support) among younger generations.”

The Giving USA report offers suggestions for churches hoping to avoid the declining trend, including creating multiple ways for donors to give (not just in the offering plate) and offering transparency on how the gifts were used and their impact.

Washburn of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board offered similar suggestions.

He noted that churches and denominations cannot expect people to give just “for the sake of the institution.”

“They will support the institution if there is a clear and compelling identity as well as a clear and compelling mission,” he explained.

“You’ve got to develop multiple streams of revenue,” he added. “Churches have to think creatively. The only source of income can’t be people in the pew, passing the plate.”

He suggested churches consider creating endowments, searching for grants, charging for some camps or other ministries, partnering with local businesses for support, or reducing costs by working with other churches or nonprofits.

Both Washburn and Perry agreed that the findings in the report are important issues for churches and denominations to consider.

Ignoring the trends or hoping for a shift back to past institutional loyalty will not work for congregations.

As Washburn explained, “It’s a whole new day.”

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com and communications and engagement leader for Churchnet. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianKaylor.