Shortly before he died in 1994, the Associated Press’s venerable religion writer George Cornell decided to answer the age-old question: Is it true Americans spend millions on sports but billions on religion? It is true, Cornell concluded. Religious giving in 1992 totaled $56.7 billion, Cornell reported, which was 14 times the $4 billion spent on the three biggest sports: major league baseball, football, and basketball. Moreover, attendance at religious events, based on annual Gallup polls, was 5.6 billion, 55 times the 103 million total attendance reported by the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball.
In philanthropy, the single largest category of giving is religion. But today, in a time of soaring individual incomes, religious giving is down as a percentage of income, especially among Christians. Nearly every denomination agrees that giving is nowhere near the biblically prescribed 10 percent. Catholic giving averages out to about 1.5 percent of gross income. Mainline Protestant giving is 2.9 percent. In some of the evangelical and charismatic/pentecostal groups such as the Assemblies of God, average levels range from 4 to 8 percent.
Hiding Under a Bushel Basket?
The State of Church Giving Through 1998, a recent report from a group called Empty Tomb, suggests that as people grow richer, they give less.
Among the findings:
*Giving to churches per member has increased in terms of total dollars, but has declined as a portion of income. That is, while giving increased 55 percent from 1968 to 1998, disposable income in the United States went up 91 percent, adjusting for inflation.
*Evangelical Protestants, known for their insistence on tithing, tend to give more, but even they show declines in contributions.
*During the Great Depression, giving was at 3.6 percent in a survey of eleven mainline Protestant denominations. It fell during World War II, then rose again, to 3 percent by 1962. Then, for some unknown reason, it started to decline, reaching 2.4 percent in 1998, a 6 percent drop from the early 1960s and a lower rate than during the nation’s worst economic crisis.
* If all church members were to tithe 10 percent, the report said, an additional $131 billion would be available through churches for Christian and charitable work, both within and without the congregation.
More recent numbers point to a slight uptick in religious charitable giving: The latest Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (which relies heavily on Empty Tomb for its giving data), published by the National Council of Churches, reports a 2.9 percent increase in charitable giving among churchgoers in 1999, for a total of nearly $27 billion. Most of that increase was attributable to a surge in giving among theologically conservative groups such as the Assemblies of God (up 1.9 percent) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (up 1.8 percent). However, direct charitable donations by churchgoers to the needy are down in recent years, and the 30-year trend reported by the Yearbook matches Empty Tomb’s gloomy assessment.
Sylvia and John Ronsvalle, the founders of Empty Tomb, say the problem isn’t so much stingy parishioners as inept fund raisers.
“Church leaders aren’t trained to deal with wealthy people,” Sylvia Ronsvalle says. “They comfort people but they don’t provide people with a sense of noblesse oblige. Everyone tells Bill Gates he is not giving enough but no one tells the middle class they are not giving enough.”
The only thing that does seem to capture pastors’ imaginations is building projects. In a satirical essay in Christianity Today, a monthly magazine for evangelical Christians, guest columnist Andy Crouch reminded readers that much of the giving only benefits rich Americans, not the Third World poor.
“Don’t count the portion of your ‘missions’ budget that sends church members on short-term mission trips—most of that money is spent to convey them to and from their destination in safety and comfort,” wrote Crouch. “By the same token, all references to capital campaigns should include the amount devoted to building projects outside of North America. It isn’t exactly news that North Americans like to construct nice buildings for themselves. A congregation willing to invest $10 million in church buildings overseas (and that’s a lot of church buildings) is more interesting, from the standpoint of the kingdom of God, than one that invests $10 million in a new family life center.”
Even more devastating for religious giving is what the Ronsvalles, in their report, call “poor talk”—the assumption many Americans make that they are not as well-off as they truly are. “In talking to the vast majority of U.S. citizens—other than perhaps Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffett—people declare they are not rich,” says the Empty Tomb report. “This perspective is defensible if they are looking at people above them on the economic ladder [since people] look at the consumer debt they have incurred and feel they have little money actually available. However, from a global perspective, Americans live a fantasy of enjoying great wealth while denying the reality.”
Many churches, the Ronsvalles add, are poorly equipped to create decent “money dynamics” in a church. In view of the vast personal wealth in 21st century America, the tithe, they suggest, might be too low. Unfortunately, church members do not like to talk about money and seminaries generally do not teach their pastors how to broach the topic.
For the most part, they say, the pastor preaches the need to pay the bills as the chief reason to give. Better, the Ronsvalles suggest, to view giving as a form of worship. Also, churches make it clear that their target audience is couples with families in an era when the largest-growing groups of Americans are singles and childless couples—two groups with enormous discretionary income.
Free Riding in the Pews
Giving among American Jews mirrors the decline among Christians, though the numbers are masked by the relative wealth of the Jewish population, and by the number of Jews who give at the highest levels of philanthropy. Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, estimates that Jewish giving is somewhere between the Catholic 1.5 percent and the mainline Protestant 2.9 percent.
That may sound low, Tobin says, but “Jews tend to have higher median incomes and more fall into the wealthy category,” he adds. “While the percentage of giving in relation to income might be lower, the amounts are higher.”
Jews pay dues to their congregations instead of offering the voluntary gifts that are customary in most churches. But they also give heavily to hospitals and universities, homes for the elderly, and charities benefiting Israel. The unofficial estimate of total Jewish giving in the United States is $2 billion.
“The trend is for Jewish philanthropists to give larger and larger gifts to institutions of their choice,” Tobin adds.
American Catholic households have benefited from the booming economy as well, with incomes averaging more than $50,000, as reported by Villanova University professor Charles E. Zech in a recent book, Why Catholics Don’t Give . . . And What Can Be Done About It. Still, many indulge in what church officials call “free riding.”
“People sit in the pew and say ‘What’s the difference—they’re not going to miss my money,’” he says. “When you have a whole parish saying that, you’ve got a problem.”
Part of the challenge for Catholics is finding room for the individual in parishes of 2,500 members or more, where an attendee can feel like a cog in a wheel. Mr. Zech advises pastors to make a parish “feel small” by establishing weekly community groups—gatherings of no more than 15 people in private homes where they feel they have some say in what goes on.
“A lot of folks say ‘Why give to my church?’ It’s impersonal,” says Zech. “It freezes me out of the decision-making process. That’s where the Protestants beat us up. They have more say where their money goes.”
Alex Carrion of the National Catholic Stewardship Council says his organization sells parish members on “Time, Talent, and Treasure” as a slogan to guide Catholics on what they can give. “People giving a dollar a Sunday still goes on,” he says, “but we’re still trying to educate people that everything they have is a gift.”
Still, like other Christians, Catholics get hit with direct-mail appeals ranging from aid to the bishop of Alaska to interest groups seeking to influence Rome. Among Christians, uncounted millions of dollars are raised for everything from groups helping persecuted Third World Christians to organizations furnishing farm animals to poor peasants in the name of Christ.
After all, it was evangelicals and charismatics who built up the empire of Tulsa evangelist Oral Roberts (who built a hospital, university, and a medical school from mainly charismatic/pentecostal donors) and Jim Bakker’s ill-fated Heritage USA compound in North Carolina. The three largest Christian TV networks in the early 1980s—CBN, TBN, and PTL—were all founded by charismatics and their millions of dollars of donations.
The Ronsvalles also found that people are sending their money to local church and charitable projects as opposed to national denominational organizations. In the Episcopal Church, at least, this has become a definite trend, due to the liberalized theology emanating from church headquarters in Manhattan. For at least a decade, many conservative congregations have been withholding their allotments to the national church while giving to their local dioceses. Since 1990, the Southern Baptist Convention, which numbers nearly 16 million members, has had similar struggles with major churches leaving over theological disputes. The upshot of these interchurch struggles is that all the spare cash designated to charity gets thrown into court costs.
The Pillars of Islam
Such are the travails of a majority religion. But one minority group, made up of America’s more than 6 million Muslims, is having no trouble building its base of charitable givers. The Muslim standard for giving is 2.5 percent of one’s net income for “zakat,” one of the five requirements or “pillars” of Islam.
“Lots of organizations do their fundraising efforts during the month of Ramadan because people are more generous during that month,” says Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Monies go into a general fund at the local mosque, overseen by an administrator or the imam himself. Shukri Abu Baker of the Holy Land Foundation in Richardson, Texas, America’s largest Islamic charity, says giving is rising as accumulated Muslim wealth grows in this country. “Zakat is becoming an institution at the moment as reaching out to the needy has become logistically difficult,” he says. “So people rely on institutions to figure out their zakat and do their giving for them.”
And unlike Christians and Jews, Muslims can count on generous help from governments such as Saudi Arabia that use parts of their national budget to build mosques around the world. Mr. Baker says his group’s income is $9 million, much of which goes to help Palestinian refugees. It’s impossible to say what total U.S. Muslim giving is, he adds, but Dallas Muslims alone donated $3 million to charity last year. With 1,000 mosques in America as well as hundreds of schools, giving is only going to increase.
How best to turn around the 40-year nosedive in religious charitable giving? Sylvia Ronsvalle suggests showing congregants exactly how their dollars are being spent, especially overseas. This leads the givers to feel that their hard-earned money is not going into a black hole somewhere. Better that churches and missions agencies treat givers the way airlines treat frequent fliers, she says, sending them personalized statements after each flight, reminding them how many miles they have accumulated. One Charlottesville, Virginia, group, Christian Aid Missions, does exactly that, even informing donors how many bikes, Bibles, or electric fans their gift paid for.
“People these days are giving to arts and education,” Ronsvalle says. “They’ll pay to keep the lights on in a church, but that’s all.” With a few adjustments to how religious organizations raise money, she says, that may change—and unleash the untapped promise of America’s faithful.
Julia Duin is culture editor of the Washington Times.