WASHINGTON — Collection plates are growing even lighter as Protestant church member giving reached new lows in 2011, and tithing probably will not recover from the recession, according to a new report by Empty Tomb, a Christian research group.
“Is the issue that the church is not providing an authentic alternative to the consumer mindset?” said Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb. “Over a period of time, if the church isn’t providing more of an authentic alternative, the church will lose.”
The percentage of a church member’s income given to the church dropped to 2.3 percent in 2011 (the latest year for which numbers are available), down from 2.4 percent in 2010, according to the Empty Tomb study.
Each weekend, 18,000 people gather at one of Eagle Brook Church’s five locations outside St. Paul, Minn., to hear pastors preach family-friendly sermons on avoiding excuses and learning to forgive.
When it’s time to ask for donations, Executive Pastor Scott Anderson said he’s careful to ask only when God deems it necessary.
In recent years, it’s been necessary a lot.
As has happened many times after I have given a talk about the Body of Christ’s responsibility to care for their brothers and sisters experiencing impoverished and dehumanizing conditions, I was asked to answerthose questions — the ones in my experience that are always the first to be asked the moment I stop speaking.
“How will I know I have given enough? How does the church balance financial responsibility with service to the poor? Where do we draw the line?”
These questions always come, sometimes spoken in a curious tone by a person whose heart is being convicted, sometimes in an angry accusing tone insinuating I must hate prosperity, sometimes privately as a whisper in my ear or in a personal email filled with insinuations about my sanity. What a preposterous proposal, that the Body of Christ in any particular location should be the first resource to its own community for spiritual, physical, and emotional well being! Don’t I know that such a mission is naïve and impossible to achieve? Most recently it was phrased like this: “I love this idea, but it is difficult to see benevolence funds go towards someone's electric bill when they smell like they smoked five packs of cigs before meeting with us; what do we do?”
Is poverty what it used to be? Or has poverty grown so shameful that we dare not speak its name? So determined are we keep poverty out of view, we erase the presence of the poor from Jesus’ teachings. The widow we encounter in Mark 12:38-44 provides a case study in poverty and oppression. Unable to confront poverty, we have turned her into something safer – an example of generosity.
The election has just passed. As I’m writing this, I don’t know who will win. I do know this: neither presidential candidate could work up the courage to address poverty as a serious issue, at least not directly. If Democrats typically look out for the poor, you wouldn’t know it from President Obama; Mitt Romney mentioned the poor more often than did the president, if only to remind voters that the economy is struggling. For his part, Obama avoided the “p-word,” even if he discussed policies that could remedy the poverty problem. Some of our political leaders do include the poor in their policy work, but they face an uphill struggle.
This morning, Madu walked the one kilometer path from his village to my house. He is married to Sirima and they have two children: four-year-old Sira, who they call Bonnie, and two-year-old Musa, who they call Papa. He told me that Papa had burned his hand and wrist in the morning cooking fire.
Maybe the path to civility and peace can be found somewhere along the path from my house to Madu’s village.
“Do you have any medicine for a burn?” he asked.
There is a hospital in our small town on the southwestern edge of Mali, but its small staff of doctors serve a large population of people without the use of technology, electricity, or even running water. Many times people come to me for help and healing before they go to the hospital because I have free first aid supplies, a generator, and a deep water well. I consulted my ragged copy of Where There Is No Doctor and turned to the section on the treatment of burns.
Post-recession America is beginning to open its wallet to charities again, but is not giving as generously to religious institutions.
While charitable donations from individuals rose nearly 4 percent overall in 2011, according to the annual "Giving USA" report, donations to houses of worship and other religious bodies dropped by 1.7 percent — a decrease for the second year in a row.
The report, compiled by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy and released on June 19, shows that individual Americans gave nearly $218 billion last year, $96 billion of which went to religious organizations.