Amid widespread reports that churches are suffering from decreased giving over the past year, a new study from the Barna Research Group helps to explain at least part of the problem. The proportion of households that tithe their income to their church – that is, give at least ten percent of their income to that ministry – has dropped by 62% in the past year, from 8% in 2001 to just 3% of adults during 2002.
Born again adults, who represent 38% of the nation’s population, also sustained a decline in generosity during the past couple of years. In 2000, 12% of all born again adults tithed. The percentage rose to 14% in 2001, but dropped to only 6% in 2002.
The Barna study discovered that several people groups are more likely to tithe than are others. Groups with the highest proportion of tithers were people 55 or older, college graduates, middle-income individuals, Republicans, conservatives, residents of the South, evangelicals, Protestants, and those who attend mainline Protestant churches.
The group that had the highest proportion of households tithing was evangelicals. While that group represents just 6% of the public, nearly 9% of the group tithed in 2002 – roughly three times the national average.
Several population segments emerged as highly unlikely to participate in tithing. In fact, there were five segments identified among which less than one-tenth of one percent tithed in 2002. Those segments included Hispanics, liberals, downscale households (defined as earning less than $20,000 and not having a head of household who graduated from college), Catholics, and parents who home-school their children.
The research indicated that three other groups that were significantly below average in their likelihood to tithe were people not registered to vote, those registered as independents, and residents of the Midwest.
Reasons for the Decline
When asked to explain the reason for the decline in tithers, researcher George Barna indicated that the drop is due to a combination of factors. “Different challenges have caused people to choose not to tithe. For some, the soft economy has either diminished their household income or led to concerns about their financial security. For others the nation’s political condition, in terms of terrorism and the war in the Iraq, has raised their level of caution. The scandals involving Catholic priests last year reduced some people’s confidence in church leaders and, consequently, reduced their giving as well.” The author of more than 30 books regarding faith and cultural trends, Barna also pointed out the demographic shifts affect church giving. “We are losing many of the people who have a habit of tithing – people in their sixties and beyond – while the proportion of homes headed by younger adults, who have never tithed and don’t plan to, is growing. Also realize that the fastest growing group in the country is Hispanics, among whom very few give generously to their church.”
Asked about the steps that churches could take to encourage more people to give at least ten percent of their income to their church, Barna noted that the most effective strategy is to ensure that congregants make their life decisions on the basis of a biblical worldview. That is a long-term approach, however, and he noted that in the short-term it is helpful to give evidence of the ministry needs people’s money would be devoted to, show how efficiently the church uses money, demonstrate the life-changing impact of the church’s ministry, and establish trust and confidence in the leadership of the church.
Several of the groups mentioned in the study as being particularly unlikely to tithe surprised some observers. Barna noted that among those, the infrequency of tithing to churches among liberals is not surprising since they tend to give a bigger share of their donor dollars to non-religious non-profit organizations. As for the infrequency of tithing among home-school households, Barna cited research showing that they tend to have below-average household income levels and less disposable income than the typical household.
Research Source and Methodology
The data in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted by the Barna Research Group from its interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The OmniPollSM survey involved interviews among 1010 adults during the last week of January and first week of February. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.
“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.”
“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. Being classified as an evangelical is not based on church attendance nor on the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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