- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

In philanthropy, the single largest recipient of giving is religion.

But religious giving is down and slipping further.

Some blame the September 11 terrorist attacks for the slowdown.

But researchers said the paucity in donations began well before the attacks and reflected a greater malaise, especially among the young who were not keeping up with their parents in giving levels. Surveys show about three in 10 baby boomers and Generation Xers attend church.

"The church is not training people to be generous or to live up to their potential," says Sylvia Ronsvalle of Empty Tomb Inc., a Christian think tank in Champaign, Ill., that studies giving patterns.

"The World War II generation was trained to do the right thing. But after that, there was a void of teaching in the churches as to what the right thing was to do. Baby boomers have asked what is the right thing, but if they can't see the content, they will not give."

Catholics, particularly, aren't generous, Villanova University professor Charles E. Zech reports in his book "What Catholics Don't Give and What Can Be Done About It."

"People sit in the pew and say, 'What's the difference they're not going to miss my money,'" he says. "When you've got a whole parish saying that, you've got a problem."

As September 11 has demonstrated, people do give when asked, but it is with a "felt needs" approach toward tangible goals, like building improvements or extra staff.

"People like big buildings and staffs," Mrs. Ronsvalle says, "so churches have transformed their message into making people happy rather than transforming their society. People are not using their money as a way to impact the community.

"Most denominations do an abysmal job insofar as providing practical feedback to congregations as to what their money accomplishes, so people just give to what they can see, such as a new organ."

Para-church organizations likewise have seen drops in giving. Focus on the Family, the giant evangelical Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, dropped plans to stage a three-day 25th anniversary celebration at the U.S. Air Force Academy football stadium. Part of the reason was a drop in donations to the ministry, founded by psychologist James Dobson. Instead, the celebration will be an invitation-only event in Denver, featuring Christian speakers and musicians.

The Ventura, Calif.-based Barna Research Group, which monitors church statistics, says the median church operating budget is $123,000, less than what some Americans take home as a single salary. Their calculations showed church giving in dollars went up 78 percent between 1987 and 1997, perhaps the result of older church members donating to religious causes instead of saving for their families.

But what happens when these older members are gone? David Keneman, a spokesman for the Barna Group, says baby busters people in their 20s and 30s are simply less likely to give to anything, especially a local congregation.

"Baby boomers, in their mid-30s to mid-50s, are generous donors but do not assume they ought to give to churches," he says. "They are value donors, giving to organizations they perceive to give them personal benefits or significant, unduplicated value to society.

"Unlike their elders, boomers and busters do not automatically make a lifelong commitment to one nonprofit organization. Boomers and busters evaluate every dollar they give. Just because you got something from them in 2002 doesn't mean you'll get a donation in 2003."

Empty Tomb's annual report on church giving, released in December, shows levels well below the biblical standard of 10 percent. Using 1999 figures, which are the most recent available, Empty Tomb says people are giving 2.58 percent of their annual net income, a drop of 17 percent from the 3.1 percent people were donating back in 1968.

In the past three decades, giving to churches has increased in terms of dollars, Mrs. Ronsvalle says, but it has declined as a portion of income. Thus, while their figures showed dollar amounts went up 55 percent, disposable income from 1968 through 1999 shot up 91 percent, adjusting for inflation.

"People these days are giving to arts and education," she says, "but human services and religion are going down as a percentage of income. Denominational structures say they want to turn church members into givers but there's no sign they want to. People will pay to keep the lights on in a church, but that's all."

Christian giving to charities outside their churches has declined even further. Since 1968, charitable giving declined 39 percent from 0.66 percent of one's income to 0.4 percent in 1999.

Muslims are taught to give to the needy by donating 2.5 percent of their net income or "zakat," one of the five pillars (requirements) of Islam.

Jews pay yearly congressional dues instead of the free-form giving so prevalent in churches. But they also donate outside their local synagogues, giving heavily to hospitals, universities, homes for the aged and anything having to do with Israel. The unofficial estimate of total Jewish giving in the United States is $2 billion.

Jewish giving, says Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, is higher than that of Catholics (1.5 percent of net income) but lower than mainline Protestants (2.9 percent) and evangelical or charismatic Christian groups that average out from 4 percent to 8 percent. Because Jews tend to be wealthier than the general populace, he says, their giving packs more of a wallop.

"A disproportionate number of Jews give at the highest level to philanthropies," he says. "While the percentage of giving in relation to income might be lower, the amounts are higher."

Mrs. Ronsvalle thinks Muslim and Jewish groups have better luck with their donors because giving is an accepted topic of discussion.

"Our studies have shown ministers have avoided talking about the topic of money," she says. "It's even controversial as to whether the pastor should even know what people give, so there's no accountability as a consequence.

"Can you imagine belonging to a country club and people not being aware of whether you are up on your dues or have made contributions there? But in church, we feel it is not appropriate to hold people accountable in a place where their values are being formed."

The Barna Research Group says church giving may be down because pastoral ineptitude in fund raising. A Barna survey of senior pastors released Jan. 7 shows that 37 percent said they were "average" in terms of raising money. Thirty-one percent claimed to be above average whereas 23 percent said they were "not too good" or "poor" at that job.

"The pastor is generally allowed to talk about this once a year," Mrs. Ronsvalle says, "usually in the fall and in the context of raising the church's budget. But in terms of integrating faith and lifestyle, no one asks whether instead of taking your kids to Disneyland, you should increase your missions giving."

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