Americans are being more
generous to religious charities, but why are they skimping on their giving to
A new report from Empty Tomb
Inc., an Illinois-based Christian research organization, contains an analysis
that found from 2007 to 2008, Protestant churches saw a decrease of $20.02 in
per-member annual charitable gifts.
Meanwhile, Empty Tomb’s
analysis of federal data found that annual average contributions to the
category of “church, religious organizations,” which includes charities like
World Vision and Salvation Army, increased by $41.59.
Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive
vice president of Empty Tomb, said the good news/bad news difference is stark:
giving to religious charities is up, while giving to churches is down.
One reason? Churches spend
more money on congregational finances and less on missions beyond the church
walls, which is unappealing to people who want to support specific causes with
a tangible, visible benefit.
“People overall give to
vision, and this is just what we’ve observed, that you see that kind of
outpouring when there is a specific need,” said Ronsvalle, who co-wrote the
20th edition of the “State of Church Giving through 2008” with her husband,
For example, The Salvation
Army’s iconic Red Kettle Campaign, which provides food, toys and clothing to
the needy during Christmas, reached a new record in charitable gifts in 2008
that was up 10 percent from the year before.
Israel Gaither, the national
commander of The Salvation Army, attributed the increase in charity to
Americans’ willingness to serve during a time of great need, aided by increased
use of user-friendly technology like cashless kettles, the iPhone and the
Online Red Kettle.
According to the Empty Tomb
report, U.S. churches devote more than 85 percent of their spending on “congregational
finances” such as salaries, utility bills and brick-and-mortar maintenance.
Religious charities, meanwhile, can focus on serving people outside their
The report’s hefty subtitle
calls out churches on their lack of charity: “Kudos to Wycliffe Bible
Translators and World Vision for Global At-Scale Goals, But Will Denominations
Resist Jesus Christ And Not Spend $1 to $26 Per Member to Reach the Unreached
When Jesus Says ‘You Feed Them?’”
Christian Smith, the
director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University
of Notre Dame, said the main reasons Christians hold back on their generosity
are bad personal financial habits, distrust of where the money is going and a
lack of teaching from the pulpit.
Churches trying to serve and
survive in difficult economic times should not obsess about finances, Smith
said, but conceded that the financial bottom line is a daily reality for
“Obviously, churches are
more than financial,” he said. “They are more than about just money, but it
takes resources to hire people and put programs into action and to serve the
Conrad Braaten, pastor of
the Washington’s Lutheran Church of the Reformation, said his Capitol Hill
congregation continues to support outreach ministries — a food pantry, a GED
and job-training program, and repairing houses of low-income homeowners —
despite difficult financial times.
Even though the church has
seen a decline in giving, he said it has continued charity work by “tightening
the belt” on operating expenses.
“That’s why the church
exists,” he said. “When we’re focused in upon ourselves, we’ve lost our reason
Ronsvalle worries about the
long-term implications for philanthropy since churches are where most people
learn how to be generous. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found that
92 percent of charitable giving from people under the age of 25 went to church
or religious charities.
“Religion,” Ronsvalle said, “serves
as the seedbed of philanthropic giving in America.”