The State of Church Giving in America

An Interview with John and Sylvia Ronsvalle

by Enrichment Journal

John and Sylvia Ronsvalle have been researching American church giving patterns since 1988. The results of their research are published annually in The State of Church Giving, which is now in its 24th edition. Enrichment interviewed the Ronsvalles to find out how much American Christians give to the Church and its mission and how to help them become more generous.

Let’s start with a personal question. You have been researching church giving trends since at least 1988. What motivated you to begin this research, and why do you think it is important?

Ronsvalles: First, thank you for the opportunity to address your readers. We also appreciate the chance to step back and reflect on the questions you raise. The process has led us to pray and think, both of which are always good activities to encourage.

As we completed our university work — Sylvia graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and John earning his Ph.D. — we felt a growing conviction that the Church was God’s answer to the world’s problems.

It was not easy to turn our backs on pursuing a general social movement and instead focus exclusively on the Church. To be truthful, we argued with God and each other. Yet, as Peter said, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). So we threw ourselves into encouraging church people to increase their help for others in Jesus’ name.

As we went out to tell church people about their potential to implement God’s will through increased giving and service, sometimes someone wanted more details about how much Christians currently give. That led us to explore further and analyze a number of available data sets.

Our goal focused on what the numbers meant: the difference between what was currently given and what could be given and applied to helping others in Jesus’ name, particularly globally. Our first book in 1984 reflected that idea: The Hidden Billions: The Potential of the Church in the U.S.A. In 1987, we went to talk to Bob Lynn, then senior vice president at Lilly Endowment. He provided the first of two Lilly grants that helped us further document what church people give.

For us, our research began with — and is still focused on — the question: What potential is there for Christians to impact, in Jesus’ name, global word and deed need?

The latest edition of The State of Church Giving ends with data from 2012. In that year, how much money did the average member of an American church give to his or her local congregation, both in current dollars and as a percentage of income?

Ronsvalles: In fact, in 2012, church members gave an average of 2.21 percent of U.S. per capita after-tax income to their churches. This number is based on congregational records of a set of denominations that included, as of 2010, over 100,000 of the estimated 300,000-plus historically Christian congregations in the U.S.

Giving to churches can be looked at from three points of view. First, in current dollars — the value the dollars have in the year they are given — church members gave $861.40 in 2012, up from $860.12 in 2011, and down from $875.71 in 2007, before the great recession that ended in mid-2009. In inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars, church members gave $819.40 in 2012, down from $832.47 in 2011, and from $899.87 in 2007.

Giving as a percent of income, a third way, is a useful thermometer to evaluate the warmth of church members’ hearts as they consider how much to give to the church and how much to spend in other ways. In 2012, church member giving was 2.21 percent, down from 2.28 percent in 2011, and from 2.51 percent in 2007.

You have access to data sets that go back for decades. What are the long-term patterns in American church giving?

Ronsvalles: In fact, the church lost “market share,” as giving as a percent of income decreased from 3.02 percent in 1968 to the low point in the period of 2.21 percent in 2012.

Eleven denominations have reported numbers dating back to 1921. For this group, giving was above 3 percent from 1922 through 1933. That period includes the first years of the Great Depression. In 1933, U.S. per capita income was at its lowest point in the 1921–2012 period.

Giving was also above 3 percent from 1959 through 1961. Unlike after 1933, there was no Great Depression or factors in the early years of World War II that might explain the decline in church giving as a percent of income that began in 1961.


How much of that went to congregational finances, and how much to benevolences?

Ronsvalles: When a church member gives a dollar to the church, it’s divided into two general categories. Congregational finances support internal operations of the congregation, from salaries to capital expenses, Sunday School expenses to utilities. Benevolences include support of denominational administration at all levels and spending through denominational channels, or directly for activities such as local and international missions, seminary, and school support.

Of the two categories, giving as a percent of income to congregational finances has declined at a slower rate than benevolences. Between 1968 and 2012, per member giving as a percent of income to congregational finances declined from 2.38 percent in 1968 to 1.88 percent in 2012, a decline of 21 percent from the 1968 base. In comparison, benevolences declined from 0.64 percent in 1968 to 0.33 percent in 2012, a decline of 49 percent from the 1968 base.

Interestingly, during this same period, church membership as a percent of U.S. population has shrunk as well. The composite data set represented 14 percent of the U.S. population in 1968, and declined to 9 percent in 2012.

A larger group of denominations provide membership data, although not all provide giving data. This group includes the Assemblies of God. This larger group of 36 communions represented 45 percent of the U.S. population in 1968 and 35 percent in 2012.

We think a case can be made that, as the Church turned inward to emphasize its internal operations, no matter how good the music and services offered, the larger society was losing interest in a Church that was doing less in the wider world in Jesus’ name.

Are there differences between evangelical and mainline Protestant giving patterns?

Ronsvalles: Within this data set, evangelical Christians gave a higher percent of their incomes to their churches than did, for example, mainline Protestants. However, between 1968 and 2012, the percent of income given shrank faster among evangelicals than it did among the mainline. So it appears that the level of resistance among evangelicals to forces that decrease giving has been weakening.

Are there differences between the giving patterns of different demographics, such as gender, ethnicity, age, or region?

Ronsvalles: The church member giving data we analyze does not include those demographics. However, we also look at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey data. This data includes giving to “church, religious organizations,” as well as “charities and other organizations,” “educational institutions,” and “gifts to non-consumer unit members of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.”

Regionally, in 2012, the South gave the highest portion of income after taxes to “church, religious organizations,” followed by the Midwest and the West, with the Northeast giving the least.

By income level, giving to “church, religious organizations” received the highest portion of income in each of the 12 income levels.

In every age group, giving to “church, religious organizations” received the highest portion of income. Of special note is something we have observed in the 2005 through 2012 data. The under-25 age group gave the smallest portion of income to charity. However, of the amount that they did give, the vast majority — in 2012 that was 73 percent — was directed to “church, religious organizations.” This finding suggests that those who give are learning their values in a religious context.

If the practice of philanthropy is weakening in the Church, as the giving patterns discussed above suggest, then those patterns may have important implications for the practice of charitable giving in the society as a whole. If the salt loses its flavor (Matthew 5:13), what happens to the soup that the salt is supposed to be flavoring?

What factors do you think account for these long-term patterns?

Ronsvalles: If we were going to summarize the many factors that account for these declining patterns, we would put them into two general categories. First, church leaders, including pastors but also denominational leaders, have not come to terms with the spiritual nature of money.

The second results from the first. Church leaders, including pastors and denominational leaders, have been spiritually blind to the fact that God has placed the current church in the U.S. in an age of affluence never seen before in history. That means we have been blind to both the potential for increased giving and the good those funds could accomplish in Jesus’ name. The leadership that church members need in order to come to terms with the implications of this age of affluence has not been forthcoming.

How would you describe the spiritual nature of money?

Ronsvalles: Money is a weapon in the spiritual battle that surrounds us. Philosopher Jacques Ellul pointed out that in Matthew 6:24, Jesus personified money as a being with an agenda. We must choose whom we will serve: God or money.

If money is not being used as a weapon for good in the spiritual battle, as a weapon to help implement God’s will on earth, money will be used as a weapon against us, leading us to put distance between us and God.

Consider observations by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He is an emeritus psychology professor at Princeton who won a Nobel Prize in Economics. He reflected on the work of Kathleen Vohs. Her studies focused on how the influence (“prime”) of money affects behavior. For example, the prime might be a computer with a screensaver of dollar bills floating in water. The participants in a room with a money prime displayed behaviors that could be described not only as “self-reliance” but also as “selfish.” For example, in one experiment, “[w]hen an experimenter clumsily dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, the participants with money (unconsciously) on their mind picked up fewer pencils.”

Kahneman writes: “[Kathleen Vohs’] findings suggest that living in a culture that surrounds us with reminders of money may shape our behavior and our attitudes in ways that we do not know about and of which we may not be proud.”

Although Kahneman may not have intended it, his comment is a good description of the spiritual nature of money’s effect on human beings.

What is the connection you see between the spiritual nature of money and church giving patterns?

Ronsvalles: Look at the emphasis on congregational finances compared to benevolences over the decades. Mammon continues to whisper, “There won’t be enough money to pay the bills.”

Jesus says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness …” (Matthew 6:33).

Surely the activities of the local congregation, as well as denominations, are important, good, and probably necessary in general. The problem is that we could be doing all those maintenance activities and also expanding missions. We are content to maintain the institutions and do missions at a merely adequate level. That’s a lukewarm approach to missions, and that’s a dangerous place to be.

What do you mean by dangerous?

Ronsvalles: It’s dangerous because lukewarm requires some heat in order not to be cold. Yes, we’re doing missions, but not anywhere near the scale that we could be doing them. And as a result, children under age five are dying physically around the globe — many in areas that are filled with people who claim Jesus as Savior — and many are dying spiritually around the world at a time when unengaged, unreached people groups are identifiable.

Our mission efforts can be described as lukewarm, and lukewarm is not a good place to be when Jesus says that a lukewarm church will be spit out (Revelation 3:16).

What connection, then, do you see between what you have labeled as blindness to the spiritual nature of money and what you term this “age of affluence”?

Ronsvalles: The late Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined a term: “uncorrected obsolescence.” Whatever you think of Galbraith’s economic views, we found his observation in the third edition of his 1958 The Affluent Society to be particularly useful. He was describing economic conventional wisdom — rooted in centuries of the majority being in poverty — that did not acknowledge the affluence spreading throughout U.S. society in the 20th century.

U.S. per capita after-tax income adjusted for inflation has increased over 200 percent since Galbraith wrote in 1958. Church leaders function in the context of uncorrected obsolescence, acting as though Christians are not in a position to impact, via increased giving and in Jesus’ name, global need at a significant level. That’s just not true.

As a result of our blindness, we are not in a position to embrace the promises of Jesus, for example, in John 14:12–14; 15:7; and 16:23,24, when Jesus promises that we can ask for anything in Jesus’ name. Think about it. Jesus repeats that promise in all three chapters. In John 14:12, Jesus says we can do greater things than He did while on Earth. If we are not doing greater things, is it because we are not asking God to do greater things through us?

Sometimes it’s helpful to think about what good Christians could do if they increased their per-member giving. So, if per-member giving averaged 10 percent in the local church — basically, if every member averaged a tithe — how much more money would be available for congregational finances and benevolences?

Ronsvalles: Our measurement of church member giving is based on a data set of full or confirmed Protestant church members. This analysis yields a higher estimate of giving than, for example, for all Americans who claim membership in a historically Christian church.

The higher giving level of 2.21 percent means a lower amount of additional giving to reach 10 percent, and therefore a lower potential giving number. The conservative estimate of potential giving based on the 2.21 percent figure yields $181 billion. To calculate the potential for all those who claim membership, average giving may be somewhat less than 1 percent of income, yielding an additional potential of as much as $677 billion at 10 percent.

In The State of Church Giving, you mention that foreign-born persons in America send money to family in their home countries at a much higher rate than church people give to international missions. How much more money would be available if American church members gave at those sacrificial levels?

Ronsvalles: Many people will immediately say that increased giving levels are unrealistic. However, as you note, consider the level of remittances — money sent to home countries — in 2012 by those in the U.S. who are foreign-born. The countries that received the most of these remittances sent from the U.S. included Mexico and the Caribbean, China, India, and the Philippines. These gifts averaged $2,538 per foreign-born person. Meanwhile, native-born church members in the U.S. gave about $94 a year on average to international ministries in 2012. If native-born church members had given at a similar level as foreign-born remittances, in 2012, there would have been an additional $397 billion more for international ministries.

We described that disparity to one woman who responded immediately, “Well yes, but those foreign-born people care about those people overseas.”

Exactly. When the world looks at the Church and then at the children dying, sometimes in the homes of Christian parents in other countries, can the world see we are Jesus’ disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:35), or that we love God and therefore love our neighbor (Mark 12:29–31)?

What additional good could be done?

Ronsvalles: We label two issues as global triage issues that could benefit from immediate intervention by the Church: reducing the rate of global child deaths, and engaging the unengaged, unreached people groups.

Many of the children under age 5 who are dying from preventable conditions are in areas where a majority of people identify themselves as Christian. In 2010, for example, there were 13 countries making no progress on reducing the rate of under-5 child deaths, in keeping with Millennium Development Goal #4. Of these 13 nations, nine had majority populations that identified as Christians.

The estimated additional funding needed per year to reduce the rate of child deaths in these and other countries is about $5 billion a year.

At conferences in 1990 and again in 2000, global government leaders identified reducing the rate of under-5 child deaths as a core agenda. In Luke 18:41, Jesus asked the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” to which the blind man replied, “Lord, I want to see.”

If the Church asks the world the same question, leaders have answered: “Help reduce child deaths.”

If Christians were to increase their giving through their own local churches, through their own denominational channels, the coordinated parallel action of these Christians could make a dramatic intervention, and do it in Jesus’ name.

The other issue of engaging unengaged, unreached people groups is purely a Church-related matter. An article in Christianity Today recently estimated that there were 127,000 international missionaries from the U.S., and 400,000 globally in 2010. How can this be, and yet, by one 2008 estimate, only 2,800 more missionaries were still needed to engage the remaining unengaged, unreached people groups? By one estimate, an additional $200 million a year could field the necessary workers to be dedicated to reaching these groups. Why are we not mobilizing with every ounce of energy we have to accomplish this goal now?

Neither of these needs begins to tap the potential giving available.

Consider that if 100 million church members increased their giving to their local churches even $50 a year each, designating it for reducing global child deaths through their own church channels, the $5 billion additional needed annually could be raised. The cost per church member, of course, goes up to about $200 if some subset, such as evangelical, were to take on the challenge alone.


The additional cost for fielding the additional missionaries for the unengaged, unreached people groups is much less per church member. We could be changing the world in Jesus’ name, providing dramatic evidence of God’s presence in the world through the body of Christ, for the price of a dinner out for two people once a year.

How can pastors use your data? In your opinion, how should your data change the way pastors think about the budgeting process, about teaching stewardship to members of their congregation, and about helping the poor at home and abroad?

Ronsvalles: For some 40 years, with growing clarity ourselves, we have understood the potential to do a lot of good, and observed that we in the Church are not doing it.

We’ve been correct in understanding this potential, and accurate in observing trends from the numbers. What we have failed to do is inspire anybody to mobilize more money in Jesus’ name on behalf of critical global needs close to God’s heart, at a scale that reflects the current reality. This is not due to lack of trying. Apparently, God has not chosen to make use of us in that capacity.

That means that the answer to how to help church people understand their own potential for good must be answered by church leaders, such as your readers. We can provide ammunition so that the weapon of money can be harnessed and increasingly focused on helping to implement God’s will. However, others must put the information to use.

To not do so is to abandon church members to mammon’s agenda for gratification of self, preached so effectively by advertising and entertainment. Those two entities of advertising and entertainment are not to be blamed. They are doing their jobs. The blame is at the feet of church leaders who have left the field to the opposition. We have sat in the stands and criticized those on the field, or even adopted some of their techniques. But we have not offered an authentic alternative to living for self. Read what Jesus says. It’s in losing our lives for Jesus’ sake that we will save them (Mark 8:35).

What can your readers do? Act like they believe God. Pastors can stop seeing their congregations and denominations primarily as institutions to be maintained, and instead see them as bases from which to wage the spiritual battle of our times. That will take discernment and courage. It will involve coordinating with other Christian traditions. Both Jesus’ prayer for oneness in John 17:20–23 and the parable of weeds in Matthew 13:24–30 are relevant. Under the banner of Jesus’ name, pastors and denominational leaders can lead church members to increase giving and then make sure that giving increase is directed to impacting global need. We have to believe God has placed us in this age of affluence to do greater things than Jesus did (John 14:12–14), and thereby bring glory to the Father through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.