Giving to churches in the United States is changing dramatically. There was a time when giving to the work of the church was more frequently modeled in the home and regularly taught in Sunday Schools, discipleship programs, and from the pulpit. In this time, the church received over 60% of all charitable giving, but since 1980, giving to religion has experienced an increasingly rapid decline, hitting a new low of just 29% of total U.S. Giving in 2020.
Unfortunately, far too many church leaders have failed to understand and adapt to the changing realities which are behind this decline in giving to the local church. In this blog, I will focus on a few changes that are having the biggest impact on church funding:
- The changing perspective on giving to the church.
- How people understand the role of the local church.
- The rise of nonprofits as a philanthropic option for Christians.
Depending on your own experience, you may view the impact of these shifts differently. They must be understood, appreciated, and addressed strategically and in a compelling way. Otherwise, churches will continue to experience an erosion of ministry funding.
The Changing Perspective on Giving to the Church
There are two very different worldviews that are impacting the rapidly growing complexity of giving in churches. It is important for church leaders to appreciate and reflect on the impact both are having on giving habits.
One perspective maintains an organization-centric view of the local church as an institution. Those who subscribe to this thinking largely believe their responsibility is to give to the church, and then the church will know how to best use the funds to achieve its ministry goals and mission.
The alternative perspective is more impact-centric. This point of view subscribes to the idea that there should be a connection between giving and its’ impact that is clear, compelling, and measurable. This perspective is growing among church givers each year, and it introduces some new challenges church leaders must consider and address.
How People Understand the Role of the Local Church
Prior to the pandemic, Builder and Boomer generations (who are funding most of the ministry in churches today) were largely satisfied if their church delivered an acceptable on-site worship experience, offered a variety of attractive onsite programming, and interesting missions and service opportunities.
As people, especially those under 54 (Generation X, Millennials, and Gen Z), become more aware of the economic and social challenges within their communities, they increasingly want to see evidence their church is committed to being part of the solution. These donors are reflecting an impact-centric view of giving. In Horizons’ work with a wide variety of churches each year, we have observed a strong correlation between churches who are consistently experiencing growth in giving and those who embrace the idea that their givers want to see a constant stream of evidence demonstrating the impact of their giving. This does not mean these churches do not also communicate to those donors who hold an organization-centric view, but rather they understand the need to communicate effectively with both perspectives.
The Rise of Nonprofits as Philanthropic Options for Believers
There are more than 1.5 million nonprofits that exist today. That is exponentially more than in the past and the number grows each year. Even during the pandemic, there were over 35,000 new 501(c)(3) organizations formed in 2020 alone.
This means that every year, there are more people and causes competing for the attention and wallets of every Christian. While the United States remains among the most generous nations in giving our time and financial resources, the percent of our income and National Gross Domestic Product we give to charity has not grown but remained at about 2% for the past 40 years. Church and nonprofit giving doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game. Church leaders who recognize this reality will rise to the challenge and clearly communicate why their local church is the best option for donors wanting to see lives changed.
Churches that fail to effectively communicate ministry impact are seeing a steady shift in the pattern of their donors giving a higher percentage of their financial resources to nonprofits. Sadly, this trend is often led by those who are most financially generous in their congregations. Like a ball rolling downhill, with each year this goes unaddressed in a church, the more momentum this trend gains. The days are gone when leadership can assume Christians will just give freely and sacrificially to its budget, missions, and ministry without a clearly defined and effectively executed strategy to grow disciples, impact lives, and fund ministry.
With each passing generation, Christians are increasingly expecting church leaders to clearly communicate a plan for how the church is addressing the challenges, obstacles, and opportunities in the community and beyond. It does not stop with a plan, they are also requiring measurable evidence of the impact their investment of time, giftedness, and financial resources. Even if church leaders are not hearing this expectation verbally articulated, donors are sending this message loud and clear in how and where they are choosing to give.
Local Churches Must Take Church Giving to the Next Level
It’s no longer enough to hope that the weekend experience, the church bulletin, or the announcement time will reach and motivate your congregation to higher levels of giving to your ministries. You must use a variety of communication channels and speak to a variety of motivations and perspectives to grow members’ confidence that your ministries are providing an excellent return on their investment.
Evidence of failing to address these shifting giving patterns is far too often found in the concentration of giving in the builder generation, the youngest of which is turning 77. Over time, unless new givers emerge and existing givers grow, a church cannot survive.
The good news is this challenge can be addressed. It takes planning, intentional leadership, and a disciplined approach to grow a culture of generous giving. When church leaders see this shift take place, they will recognize the difference is much more far-reaching than simply increasing giving to the budget. Church members will be invested in the outcome. That’s why rethinking church giving and adopting a focus on growing generous givers can transform your congregation into a force for change in the world.
There is no institution better positioned to meet the needs of local communities than the local church. At our best, we provide help to the hurting, love to the suffering, and hope to those who have lost their way. We are an instrument in the hand of our Creator and with this empowerment, there is no nonprofit ministry that has the same connection to people, families, and communities.
The Next Big Thing
The next big thing in church giving is learning how to build a culture of generosity. It is a process of helping God’s people to understand how to best use their time, giftedness, financial resources, and their voice to bring about the world that God desires. It is one in which church leaders prioritize and embrace discipleship and spiritual formation as the means by which all people are invited to experience a journey of spiritual growth that shifts focus from themselves to how they can leverage all the resources God has entrusted to them in a powerful way.
Creating a culture of generous disciples will require a new way of thinking and operating. Churches of all shapes and sizes are making these changes and seeing the results. The best and most exciting days of local church ministry are certainly ahead, but the future will look very different from the past.
If there is one word that can sum up what the future of church stewardship, church giving, and generosity will look like, I believe is integration. Being generous is not something Christians do. It’s part of who we are, and in turn, it must become part of the culture of every local church.
It’s time to take your church ministry and giving to the next level. The world is waiting and watching to see if we will live into our divine design to be instruments of change in the world.