Americans Donate Billions to Charity, But Giving to Churches Has Declined


Research Releases in Culture & Media • April 25, 2005

Americans give away enormous sums of money every year. The annual survey of religious behavior conducted by The Barna Group shows that Americans continued that pattern of generosity in 2004, but that even though their giving to non-profit organizations and churches is significant, it is not increasing.

In 2004, nearly four out of every five adults – 83% – donated money to one or more non-profit organizations. That is similar to the percentage that has donated funds throughout the past decade. Barna’s national study found that the people least likely to donate any money at all were those under the age of 25, people who never attended college, residents of the Northeast, atheists and agnostics, Asians and Hispanics. A quarter or more of the people from each of those segments failed to give away any money in 2004.

The average amount of money donated per person was $1232. That suggests that the typical individual gave away about 3% of their income.

Church Donations Are Substantial

Churches receive the largest share of the money donated each year. In 2004, two-thirds of all adults (65%) donated some money to a church or other place of worship.

The people most likely to have given money to a religious center in the past year were Protestants (76%), upscale adults (77%), political conservatives (80%), born again Christians (85%), and evangelical Christians (97%). Those least likely to support church work included atheists and agnostics (18%), residents of the Northeast (55%) and Asian-Americans (43%).

The average amount of money donated to churches was $895 per donor in 2004. On the face of it, that sum appears healthy: it is substantially more than the average amounts over each of the past several years. However, when inflation is factored in, the current dollar average is actually less than the amount that houses of worship received in the late 1990s. From 1999 through 2004, cumulative annual giving to churches increased by $89 per donor, representing an 11% rise since before the turn of the millennium. After factoring in inflation, however, churches are actually getting about 2% less than the current value of the money contributed in 1999.

Protestants continue to give more generously to their churches than do Catholics. Protestant adults gave an average of $1304 to churches in 2004, compared to $547 given by the typical Catholic. The most generous donors of all, however, were evangelicals, who averaged $3250 in church giving.

Tithing Is Uncommon

For a number of years, The Barna Group has also been following the practice of “tithing,” which is donating at least ten percent of one’s income. While Christians dispute whether tithing refers to giving the entire ten percent to churches or whether that sum may include money donated to churches and other non-profit entities, the survey data reveal that no matter how it is defined, very few Americans tithed in 2004. Only 4% gave such an amount to churches alone; just 6% gave to either churches or to a combination of churches and parachurch ministries.

Although generosity, stewardship and tithing are higher profile issues among born again Christians than to other people, relatively few born again adults – only 9% – tithed to churches in 2004. That behavior was most common among evangelicals (23%), and much smaller among non-evangelical born again Christians (7%), notional Christians (less than 1%), people of other faiths (1%) and atheists and agnostics (none). Overall, 7% of Protestants tithed to churches – divided into 5% among people associated with mainline churches and 8% of those affiliated with other Protestant congregations. Tracking data show that tithing among all born again adults (i.e., evangelical and non-evangelical, combined) has stayed within a range of 6% to 14% throughout the past decade, varying by a few percentage points since 1999.

Several people groups stood out as particularly tightfisted when it comes to financially supporting churches. Less than 2% of adults under the age of 40, Catholics and Asians tithed in 2004.

A different way of considering “tithing” is by measuring whether the individual donated at least one-tenth of their income to non-profit organizations, including but not limited to churches and other houses of worship. If the data are evaluated from that vantage point, the percentage of adults who tithe is 6%. Again, the most prolific givers are those whose contributions flow primarily to churches. More than one-quarter of evangelicals (27%) fit this criteria for tithing, compared to 10% among non-evangelical born again Christians, 1% of notional Christians, 2% of adults aligned with non-Christian faith groups, and 3% of atheists and agnostics.

Why People Do Not Give More

Related studies by The Barna Group offer additional insights into why Americans do not give more money to churches. “There are five significant barriers to more generous giving,” according to the study’s director, George Barna. “Some people lack the motivation to give away their hard-earned money because the church has failed to provide a compelling vision for how the money will make a difference in the world. These are donors who can find other uses for their money and are not excited about simply handing money over to a church. The second group,” he continued, “are those who see their giving as leverage on the future. They withhold money from the church because they do not see a sufficient return on their investment. The third segment is comprised of people who do not realize the church needs their money to be effective. Their church has done an inadequate job of asking for money, so people remain oblivious to the church’s expectations and potential. The fourth group is composed of those who are ignorant of what the Bible teaches about our responsibility to apply God’s resources in ways that affect lives. The final category contains those who are just selfish. They figure they worked hard for their money and it’s theirs to use as they please. Their priorities revolve around their personal needs and desires.”

Barna indicated that often people fit within two or more of those categories, making it even more challenging for churches to encourage generosity. “It helps when church leaders recognize the underlying issue related to each of these barriers,” the best-selling author continued. “The absence of a compelling vision to motivate generosity is a leadership issue. The perception that donations do not produce significant outcomes is usually an efficiency or productivity issue, sometimes compounded by poor communications. Churches that struggle because they do not ask strategically have a process issue. When the problem is people’s ignorance of scriptural principles regarding stewardship, there is a theological or educational issue. And cases where people focus on themselves rather than other people reflect a heart issue. The reality is that Americans are willing to give more generously than they typically do, but it takes a purposeful and well-executed approach to facilitate that generosity.”

Research Source and Methodology

The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1003 adults conducted in late January of 2005 by The Barna Group. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Similar surveys have been conducted every January since 1991 by the company with random samples of adults ranging from 1001 to 1205 people. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 contiguous states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents in the survey sample corresponds to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. The data were subjected to slight statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” Being classified as “evangelical” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“Notional Christians” are individuals who describe themselves as Christian but who are not born again.

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (www.barna.org).

© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.

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