The ongoing case of the shrinking offering plate

If you’re associated with one of the hundreds, yeah thousands, of faith-based nonprofits that are eyeing churches as a source of new or increased gifts, I bring you sad tidings. This just in from the Empty Tomb, a Christian research group. Congregational giving has declined for a fourth consecutive years, dropping by a tenth of a percentage point between 2010 and 2011 (the most recent year for which numbers are available).

According to the State of Church Giving Through 2011 report, the only other period of prolonged decline in giving per member was from 1928 through 1934, almost entirely during the Great Depression.


And as if that wasn’t depressing enough news, there’s more. Benevolences (the larger mission of the church, including denominational and seminary support, domestic and international missions) declined from 2010 to 2011 as a percent of income and in inflation-adjusted dollars. In other words, an ever greater proportion of an ever smaller Sunday collection is staying put where it was given.

The Empty Tomb team points to the usual suspects in assigning blame for the decline in church giving – the national economy, fewer people attending church, little to no stewardship preaching, and run-away materialism. In fact, there are some who feel the cards are so stacked against greater giving that they’re ready to pack their offering plates and look for a different game.


But not so fast, write the authors of the Empty Tomb report. “The potential, rather than decline, should be the focus of church leaders. It is important to use the statistics to take the temperature of the church. However, the next step to evaluate how to get well, not hide under the covers.”

This advice takes me back to what Thom Jeavons and I wrote in Growing Givers’ Hearts: Treating Fundraising as Ministry about the importance of accentuating the positive when talking about money in the church. “Despite an overwhelming perception on the part of many observers that the financial needs of religious organizations are outpacing the ability or inclination of people to give, the fact is that organizations do prosper, funding goals are met, and God’s work is advanced on earth.”

That’s the real news — the counter-news — to this latest sorry story about church giving. God hasn’t given up on the potential generosity of God’s people, and neither should we. Trend lines are descriptive, not determinant.

Change is possible. Which is exactly what Jesus promised.

For more about churches and generosity, see:

A challenge to pastors: embrace the ministry of fundraising 

Speaking of money in church

Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors. Where are the givers?




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