Are Our Offering Plates Passing Us By?

The landscape of giving to religion has been changing for decades.  It’s like we are on a train that has pulled out of the station.  The scenery looks different, because it is different, and chances are will not get back that way again.

Just thirty years ago, sixty percent of all charitable giving was to religion.  Today giving to religion is still the largest segment of charitable giving, but in significantly smaller proportion (33%) than in decades past.  The fact is, there is greater competition for the U.S. charitable dollar.

There are more than 370,000 churches and 1.8 million nonprofit organizations, nearly twice as many nonprofits than in 1995.

Has our “you should give to our congregation because we really need the money” message so dulled the impulse to be generous, that our congregants are simply letting the offering plate pass them by without a second thought?

The simple answer is YES.

Contemporary American culture and industry are driven by mass consumption.   Add to that our prevailing cultural value of individualism and tendency to distrust institutions, we find ourselves impacted and influenced by an almost inescapable way of life.

There is greater diversity found on the religious landscape, with a mix of beliefs and teachings about stewardship, ranging from secular financial management to biblical tithing.  Clergy consistently report discomfort or resistance in taking an active in congregational stewardship.  There seems to be a general lack of connection between generosity, giving behavior, and religious identity.  Many of our congregations are caught in the “pay the bills” scarcity mentality rather than the more expansive “fund the vision” mindset that would inspire greater generosity.

As open as western culture can be about a wide range of subjects, money persists as one of our most taboo topics.  Technology has opened may doors to systematic charitable giving, however there is general avoidance of using electronic means of giving by congregants.

According to the anecdotal research conducted in Passing the Plate , authors highlight a number of factors that impact congregants’ motivations and purposes for giving, despite the clear religious teachings.   There is a heightened level of complexity and inconsistency between what people profess to believe, and their behavior.  Ambivalence about faithful giving persists among those who self-identify as “religious.”  Clearly there is a need to foster generosity as an appropriate practice for acting on one’s religious beliefs and values.

Some ideas for sparking generosity and motivating people to give to their faith communities:

  • Leaders boldly articulate ways to “Live the Vision”
  • Leaders model generosity through their own giving to the congregation
  • Congregants are invited to give generously and regularly
  • Communication about giving money is clear, positive, and enthusiastic
  • Provide several ways to contribute, including online donations, systematic electronic contributions, spontaneous giving opportunities, special offerings, etc
  • Stimulate generosity by giving a proportion of the offering or congregation’s budget for mission and outreach
  • Facilitate small group conversations and learning experiences about money and giving.
  • CELEBRATE the successes in the congregation’s fundraising—even if the goal isn’t met (yet!)

To revisit the summary of responses to the Giving Speaks “Sharing the Offering Plate” poll:

Sources for this post:

Barna, George.  How to Increase Giving in Your Church.  1997.  Regal.

Christopher, J. Clif.  Not Your Parent’s Offering Plate.  2008.  Abingdon Press.

Schaller, Lyle E.  The New Context for Ministry.  2002.  Abingdon Press.

Smith, Emerson with Snell.  Passing the Plate.  2008.  Oxford University Press.

Relevant resource: