Why Giving to Religion is Declining and How to Turn the Tide

Giving USA, the longest running and most authoritative report on the sources and uses of charitable giving in America, was released June 18th, assessing the state of charitable giving for 2018. And one of the key findings is the decline in giving to religion.

Why is this happening and how should your church respond? Let’s look at some primary factors for this decrease in giving, and then unpack some practical actions your church can take to counteract this trend.

According to Giving USA, giving to religion declined by 1.5% in current dollars and 3.9%, when adjusted for inflation. This means that giving to religion dropped from 31% of the whole to 29%, the first time it has dropped below 30% of total giving.

However, giving to religion still represents the largest recipient of charitable dollars at $124.53 billion. The next highest is education at $58.72 billion.

So what’s really going on?

To understand this decline, it’s important to see the bigger picture. Let me give you some context.

First, it’s important to understand what “giving to religion” actually entails. Back in the 1980s, the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) created what is known as the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities codes (NTEE). The goal was to standardize how charitable institutions were categorized.

Giving to religion ended up being defined as giving to houses of worship, mission agencies, denominational headquarters, and religious media (radio and television). What this means is that other religious causes are not counted in giving to religion.

For example, if you donate to World Vision it is counted under International Affairs. Or if you support a Christian school, it is counted under Education. So not all religious giving is accounted for under the NTEE codes.

Having said that, the growth rate of giving to religion has slowed. So much so that from 2016-2018, giving to religion only had a growth rate of 0.6%. This was the slowest growing recipient group of any type of recipient organizations. For instance, giving to international affairs grew 5.2%, giving to the environment and animals grew 13.5%, and giving to education grew 9.4%.

There are some trends that are impacting giving to religion, one of which is the frequency of attendance at religious services. According to the Philanthropy Panel Study, donors who attend religious services more than monthly give on average $3,000 per year. Those that attend monthly give just over $1,500. And those who attend infrequently or never give just over $500 per year.

With the known decrease in church attendance and religious affiliation, it makes sense that there would be a correlated decrease in giving.

Other Factors at Play

Another factor is the scandals that have impacted the Catholic Church. As Rafia Khader reports in a recent article for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, “In an online poll conducted by America Magazine, a leading Catholic publication, close to half of the respondents said they had lowered their giving to their parishes in direct response to the sexual abuse crisis.” With the Catholic Church being the largest denomination in America, it stands to reason that such a pullback in giving would impact overall giving to religion.

So if giving to religion continues to decline as a percentage of the whole, what should you do? Let me give three simple suggestions.

  • Engage your people

First, because there is a direct correlation between church attendance and giving, and regular church attendance is declining, you need to consider how to reach people between services. How do you keep them engaged in supporting the work of the church when they attend sporadically?

Meet them where they live, and that is in the digital world… online, social, and mobile. Consider regular weekly communication that shares what God is doing in the lives of those the church is reaching—both congregants and those in the community. And if you can use video to tell that story, all the better.

Tell the story, connect that outcome to the support the congregant provides, and then challenge the recipient of the email/social post to continue making such stories possible through his/her support. Provide a link or button to click that will take them to a donation form so they can fulfill that giving transaction.

  • Make giving easy

Second, in a recent survey, 40 percent of evangelicals said they preferred to give online versus 32 percent who preferred to give through the mail or by check. People are more inclined than ever to give online, so you need to make it clear how to support your church or organization online. And it has to be simple and quick.

During the offertory of every service, an announcement needs to be made and there should be a slide on the screen to show people they can pull their phone out right now and give. Or at least show the URL of where to go to give online.

  • Focus on continued giving

Finally, consider an emphasis on recurring giving. Take a month to campaign for congregants to set up a recurring gift through your website. Recurring donors give more, give longer, and have a higher lifetime value.

While giving to religion might be declining as a percentage of the whole, it doesn’t have to be that way for your church. Being passive means a decline in giving will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, lean into your responsibility to challenge and inspire God’s people to support His work, and then make it easy as mentioned above.

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