The good news is that charitable giving was up last year; the bad news is that donations to churches dropped ... again.
Apparently Giving USA's annual report on charitable giving in the United States was released last week, but I just found out about it this morning. Contributions to charities increased by 4.4 percent in 2013 as compared to 2012 but remained lower than pre-recession levels. In 2007 (before the recession) Americans donated $349.50 billion to charitable causes while they gave $335.17 billion last year. However, since the end of the recession in 2009, contributions to charities have increased 12.3 percent.
On the other hand, giving to churches has continued to dwindle. In 2010, 35 percent of charitable giving was channeled to churches. In 2011, the percentage fell to 32 percent and last year it was down to 31 percent.
As disheartening as these numbers are for those who support church work, there was another figure that really grabbed my attention. According to Gregg Carlson, chair of the Giving USA Foundation, just over a decade ago, churches received over 57 percent of total charitable giving in this country. As of last year, again, that percentage was down to 31 percent.
That's obviously a huge shift in giving patterns in this nation just in the last 10 years. Carlson says that Giving USA attributes this shrinking percentage to the ongoing nationwide decline in church attendance that has continued for years, and this is, no doubt, a big factor. But aren't these trends (declining church attendance and declining giving to churches) indicative of a more fundamental change?
It's clear that, generally, church involvement in the traditional sense just isn't as important to Americans as it used to be. This isn't a new message--there has been abundant evidence for years that things have been moving in that direction. For the most part, within churches, we have done little more than tinker here and there with old formulas hoping that we might reverse these trends. Obviously that's not working in most cases.
I'm not trying to be the bearer of doom and gloom here. Make no mistake, I'm very confident about the future of the church. Jesus stated his intent to build his church and he said that not even the gates of Hades would prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Christ's church will not only survive, it will succeed. However, the church may well look quite a bit different than many of us are used to going forward.
Meanwhile, traditional expressions of church continue to do a great deal of good in this country. People by the millions worship, support important mission causes, engage in spiritual formation, and form transformational relationships in churches that operate in traditional ways. The "old ways" of doing things in church largely remain a valid means of faithfulness to the New Testament ideal of Christian community. But there are new expressions of Christian community springing up in our culture that are very different yet equally valid.
It's not my purpose to explore these new expressions of church here. I'm just underscoring the obvious in light of a new bit of evidence. The church landscape is changing in this country and it's changing really fast.
That may be scary to many who are heavily invested in traditional expressions of church in this land. Yet I'm convinced that the command that Jesus gave to his followers in the gospels more than any other still echoes loudly through the Holy Spirit to his followers of this culture: Don't be afraid. In these fast-changing times, as individual followers and as part of the community of faith that is the church, remain faithful to the Lord along your journey of faith and don't be afraid.