Should Churches Resort to Renting Pews? comment (0)
January 30, 2014
By Bob Terry
The question posed by the title sounds ridiculous but it illustrates how desperate church finances are becoming. In many churches, members are asking what can be done to raise enough money to pay the church’s bills.
The first response of most Baptists is that people should tithe. The truth is few Christians tithe. A Barna study found only 5–7 percent of Christians practiced biblical tithing (giving 10 percent of one’s income to God through the church).
Evangelical Christians do better than the national average with 24 percent self-reporting as tithers. Still that percentage is far short of the 96 percent of evangelicals who reported giving money to a church during the year of study.
As a percent of income, church members as a whole gave only 2.3 percent of their income to a church during the most recent year of study according to Empty Tomb, Inc., an organization that studies church giving.
The percent was down from 2.4 percent the previous year and marked the fourth consecutive year giving as a percent of income declined.
In fact, the percentage was 26 percent lower than giving to churches in 1968, the base line of the study, when the percentage of income given to a church stood at 3.1 percent. While evangelical Christians gave a slightly higher percentage of income to the church than Mainline or Catholic Christians, the rate of decline in giving for evangelicals was steeper than for other groups, the Empty Tomb study found.
Giving to causes beyond the local church suffered more than church giving. The study reported, “Per member giving to benevolences (defined as causes outside the church such as missions and education) as a percent of income declined from 0.68 percent in 1968 to 0.34 percent in 2011, a decline of 48 percent ... and the lowest level in the study period.”
That finding confirms what Southern Baptists have experienced. In the 1980s, cooperating churches gave an average of 10.5 percent of undesignated receipts to causes beyond the local church through the Cooperative Program (CP). That percentage fell to 8.73 percent in the 1990s. For the first decade of this century, the percentage fell further to 6.8 percent and for the last year of record the percentage is down to 5.41 percent.
As reported in the Jan. 23 issue of this publication, Alabama Baptists gave $39,740,200 in 2013 through the CP. That figure is just a little better than what Alabama Baptists contributed in 2002. However, total gifts from cooperating churches in 2002 were about $619 million. A decade later total gifts were reported at about $754 million.
Churches are not less missions-minded. Expenses such as insurance, utilities, maintenance and other costs have gone up during the decade. There are a number of churches in our state where the pastor and other staff members have not had any salary adjustment in four or five years. Many churches are pinching pennies just to pay their bills.
Members are giving less, in part because of the slow economy. Others give less because they have become “grazers” — a term for people who go to church irregularly, who listen to podcasts of a church service, who do worship on their own or with a small group of people.
So what is a church to do? Some churches (not Baptists) still practice assessments whereby church leadership assesses families a certain amount annually based on the ability to pay. Even in Alabama, stories still circulate about deacons canvassing local merchants soliciting donations to help pay church bills. Churches have resorted to everything from church suppers to raffles to high-pressure campaigns to get people to give. At one time, churches even rented pews so active families would have a reserved place to sit each week.
All of this reflected a lack of attention to the biblical principles of stewardship and that may be part of today’s problem.
Some churches are reluctant to emphasize biblical stewardship. Their position is that the pastor should focus on preaching Christ and giving will take care of itself. If you get the heart of the person, you will get the pocketbook, the reasoning goes. Certainly giving is supposed to be a part of Christian discipleship. Giving should never be the result of some gimmick or manipulation. Still Christians must know what the Bible teaches about stewardship of possessions.
A recent study by Christianity Today called “State of the Plate” found that 42 percent of churches that experienced an increase in giving during the last year of record did so after the church conducted financial/generosity teaching initiatives through sermons, classes, seminars and distribution of devotionals about the subject.
As people grew as Christian disciples in their understandings of biblical teachings about stewardship, they responded, the report concluded.
There is no question that the Jews who lived under Old Testament law were required to tithe. As Christians we live under grace. Our giving is to be motivated by love (1 Cor. 13:3). Our giving is to be done regularly (1 Cor. 16:2), generously (2 Cor. 8:2) and cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:7). Of course, giving one’s money follows giving God one’s self (2 Cor. 8:5).
As Christians we are responsible to God for all that we are and all that we have, not just the tithe. But before one can go beyond the tithe, one must start with the tithe.
If Jews living under the law were required to give a tithe, how can Christians under the grace demonstrated at Calvary give any less? How can any serious Christian give less than a tithe?
Is it time to call Christians to teach and practice the principles of Christian stewardship or would we rather resort to renting pews?