U.S. is feeling charitable, just not through churches

October 27, 2010

(RNS) 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."