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U.S. feels charitable, just not to churches
Whitney Jones, Religion News Service
October 28, 2010

U.S. feels charitable, just not to churches

U.S. feels charitable, just not to churches
Whitney Jones, Religion News Service
October 28, 2010

Americans are being more

generous to religious charities, but why are they skimping on their giving to

churches?

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,

John.

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

institutions.

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

congregations.

“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

community.”

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

for being.”

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.”