What’s the climate of giving in today’s church? Part 1 of 3
By Dr. Steve McSwain
There is one question I am asked by church leaders across the U.S. more frequently than any other: “What is the climate of giving in today’s church?”
Across all denominational lines, the climate is similarly cloudy.
After nearly 20 years of coaching church leaders, churches and parishes representing virtually every Christian communion in America, I have observed the weather patterns of giving and they’re not too different, whether you’re observing a Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Evangelical church. Admittedly, there are exceptions you will find within and among all of these denominations. But, for the most part, the climate of giving is similar and has not changed much over the years.
So what is the climate of giving?
It is true that charitable giving is still high in American churches, even staggeringly high when compared to Christian churches in other countries. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of churches in America are struggling financially. Many of them have been steadily cutting their budgets for years, or just maintaining them, while other churches have found it necessary to downsize their staff or redirect mission money – money that was regarded for decades as sacred, even untouchable. Since the financial collapse in the latter part of 2008, most churches have experienced about a 5 to 15 percent drop in giving. Some more steep than this. And, for almost all of them, there has also been a steady drop in the number of giving households.
Which leads to a second observation…
2. Fewer and fewer members are giving more and more of the lion share of the church’s total contributions.
Why is this? There are likely many reasons, including the following: In virtually every denomination, churches are “graying” and the young are “going” – that is to say, members are aging and many others are leaving. Some are leaving for less traditional churches. Others are giving up on the church altogether. At a minimum, as our culture becomes more and more religiously pluralistic, the options for religious affiliation are becoming more varied and available. Even in rural areas of America areas that have been the domain of Christianity almost exclusively there are now other religions on the rise. Where I grew up in rural Kentucky, everyone I knew was a Christian and most were Baptist. Even if they did not go to church, they regarded themselves as Christian and, for most of them, Baptist.
It is different today. Your neighbor is just as likely to be Buddhist or Hindu, Jewish or Muslim, agnostic, atheist, or a “none,” as they are commonly referred today. They are called “nones” because, when asked about their religious commitments, they claim none. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, as many as one in every five adults claim no religious affiliation. Many of these are formerly churchgoers but, for whatever their reasons, they no longer attend church anywhere. I frequently write about this group and largely because the majority of them still regard themselves as “spiritual…just no longer religious” meaning, no longer associated with any church. Many of the concerns they have voiced over the years regarding the church, the church has largely ignored.
Today, America is the most religiously diverse nation in the world. It will only become more diverse in the years to come. No other country, except perhaps India, has a more varied religious landscape. So, I hesitate to reduce it to a kind of consumer equation, but the fact is, the religious marketplace has multiple religions from which consumers may choose. Many of those who have given up on the church are switching brands.
What all of this means for those who remain in the church is that the weight of budgetary demands is increasingly resting on fewer and fewer shoulders.
3. Evangelical churches, and many non-traditional churches, appear to be holding their own. Some even appear to be growing. But, with a very few exceptions, it’s largely an illusion.
What’s keeping many of these evangelical and non-traditional churches on an even-keel, and a very few of them actually growing, is the influx of people leaving traditional churches and going down the street to the more popular place of worship. While ministers would like to believe differently, honest ministers will admit the overwhelming majority of their growth is coming from former churchgoers. Many will be baptized for varied theological reasons, thus contributing to the illusion that these have had no Christian background whatsoever. In most instances, however, the majority of these people have had some relationship with a Christian church somewhere in their history. So, while a few churches across America are growing numerically, even financially, the growth is largely an illusion when one honestly considers the church’s overall impact on the American culture.
Almost without exception, traditional Protestant churches have all shown declines in the last couple of decades, not only in attendance, but in giving, too. The same phenomenon is happening in Roman Catholic Churches, except in one principle people group – the Spanish-speaking community. Were it not for the tremendous influx of those persons, who are not only the fastest growing people group in America, but almost entirely Roman Catholic by faith 90 percent Catholic, the Roman Church in America would be showing steep declines in attendance, just as Protestant churches are. The annual closure rate of Catholic parishes would also be vastly higher than it is already. Yet, in spite of the numerical growth in Catholic Churches among Spanish-speaking people, the growth in giving has not shown any measurable increase. In fact, giving is declining in most Catholic churches.
The honest seeker of truth overlook the ongoing negative impact on attendance and giving by Christian fundamentalism. This, too, as Rick Warren points out, has changed what was once a good term to describe Evangelical Christians.
Regarding fundamentalism and its negative impact today, Rick Warren, perhaps one of the most widely known Evangelicals in the world, says that while “fundamentalist started out as a good term among Christians in the early 20th century…the word has been hijacked now to basically mean a radical or terrorist or something like that.”
So, today, Rick Warren defines a fundamentalist as “anybody who has stopped listening.”
“There are,” says Warren, “Islamic fundamentalists…Christian fundamentalists…even atheist fundamentalists.” It’s anyone whose mind is closed, who, as Warren puts it, “won’t listen.” One would be naive to ignore how this negative stigma of closed-mindedness associated with fundamentalism partially explains the widespread departure from Christian churches across America. At the least, this departure has also greatly impacted giving.
There are many other observations I might make regarding the climate of giving in churches today. But an equally important question is this: “Can anything be done to change the climate of giving?”
I think so. That’s the question I’ll answer next week in Part Two.
Dr. Steve McSwain, is the founder of the Foundation for Excellence in Giving. He has provided coaching and consultation to more than 200 churches and parishes nationwide, representing all Christian traditions. As a founding partner with the John Maxwell Team of Professional Speakers, Coaches, and Trainers, Dr. McSwain not only coaches congregations within Catholic, Evangelical, and Protestant traditions, but he also maintains a private coaching relationship with a select group of religious leaders, business and professional people across America. You can learn more at www.stevemcswain.com. Or, call (502) 777-9426.