The Church is never trendy but not immune to trends, especially those that affect the bottom line of attendance and giving patterns. A blog post a while ago addressed the idea that the new normal of active attendance is once monthly (down from three times monthly or more). This highlights the overall trend down in terms of the percentage of income given by church members. This has never been a great statistic and is downright embarrassing. For all the talk of tithing and ten percent, the reality is that the average church member does not come even close to the minimum under the Law.
The percentage of a church member’s income given to the church dropped to 2.3 percent in 2011, down from 2.4 percent in 2010, and continues its slide slowly but surely. Compare this to 1968 when church members gave an average of 3.1 percent of their income. Giving has declined in consecutive years since rebounding slightly after a drop during the economic decline in 2008 and thereafter. The only other period of prolonged decline in giving per member was from 1928 through 1934, corresponding almost entirely to the time of the Great Depression.
For what its worth, this does not mean that the total income is down. In fact, for the LCMS statistics, overall congregational income continues to increase, although slightly, even though the giving per member shows some of the same inclinations common to other church bodies.
The end result is we must do more with less. On a national level this means that only the core mission gets funded. Essential services only the denomination can do are those which get the bulk of the funds. While some of these are less than exciting and involve basic church structures, other parts of this are mission work that, although largely funded with individual support to the missionaries, still includes a great deal of synodical funds. But the days of hefty payrolls and fully staffed national offices are long gone. Those in the Missouri Synod love too impugn our Purple Palace but if you stop by you see office furniture that is 30-40 years old and worn, empty cubicles, and a much smaller crowd than in the past. The glitter has worn off and the purple palace is in need of a flipper to come and spruce up the place and take care of major maintenance woes.
On a congregational level, the same thing happens. Dollars to benevolence or missions beyond the local congregation are often used to fund essential needs just to keep the doors open. With all of this comes the question of how congregations can afford a full-time pastor. We see parochial schools closing and congregations looking at how to reduce budgets more than increase them. It is a squeeze that finds the core mission of the congregation as much at risk as the fringe things that were once fully funded by member giving. The challenge before us is clear and we either have to decide to make do with less or to find a way to encourage giving and reverse the national trend.
The surest way to hinder the work of the congregation and the church at large is to kill it by the slow death of withholding funds. The surest way to make sure the congregation and the church at large does what it is supposed to do is to provide the funds so that it may do that work unhindered by a lack of resources, dollars, or people.