Church Membership Becoming A Consumer Choice

“Biblical times” is a term often used to denote an event or custom that is disparate to the ways of today, millennia later. Congregations throughout the United States need not look too far into the past to see drastic change. Changes in church missions and congregants’ consumer behaviors have resulted in membership declines all while the proportion of members’ overall disposable wealth given to congregations trends steadily downward.

“The State of Church Giving Through 2015,” a new book by Empty Tomb, Inc. of Champaign Ill., depicts a U.S. population that has morphed in its religious identity, particularly among Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church expanded from 47.5 million full and confirmed members in 1968 to 70.4 million in 2015. The increase was slower than the national population increase, resulting in a decline relative to the U.S. population of 23.6 percent to 21.9 percent. The Evangelical population similarly jumped in overall number, 15.1 million in 1968 to 21.6 million in 2015, but saw a portion of the overall population decline from 7.5 percent to 6.7 percent.

Mainline Protestant groups saw declines both in overall numbers and as a percentage of the U.S. populations from 26.5 million and 13.2 percent, respectively, in 1968 to 15.6 million and 4.8 percent of the population in 2015. Empty Tomb projects that, should trends continue, the 10 major Protestant groups in the country will represent about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population by 2050.

“Church has become more and more like one more consumer and choice and that religious impulse of doing something great is what has challenged the church to be really different hasn’t been there,” explained Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president.

Ronsvalle attributed the overall decline in church membership, in large part, to cut-backs in mission-related activity outside the four walls of the church that began in earnest among Protestant congregations in the 1960s. Deemphasizing the overarching vision of churches has, as a consequence, made church membership more of a consumer choice than philanthropic choice in the minds of congregants.

The decline might be more pronounced among Protestant churches, but the effect is universal in that the sense of community around a church has changed. Individuals who aren’t getting the consumer experience they want from one church are more willing than in decades past to travel to one that they like, she said.

The book, in addition to membership trends, also examines giving behaviors among membership. Per-member giving, adjusted for inflation using 2009 dollars, increased by 76 percent from $470.10 in 1968 to $828.74 in 2015. Despite the overall increase, congregations have not rebounded from the 2008 recession as well as other organizations. Per-member giving topped out at $899.75 in 2007 and was followed by six consecutive years of decline before year-over-year increases of 1.0 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively, in 2014 and 2015.

Giving USA data, measuring overall philanthropic activity, reported then-all-time highs in giving in both 2014 and 2015, with year-over-year inflation-adjusted increases of 5.4 percent and 4.0 percent, respectively.

The 76 percent increase in per-member giving is considerably less than the 145 percent increase in after-tax income among members during the same span, the book notes. More specifically, giving to benevolences, the larger mission of the congregation, increased at a much slower pace from 1968 to 2015 (32.9 percent) than general congregation finances (87.7 percent). As a percentage of income, giving to congregation finances as part of overall income decreased by 23 percent from 1968 to 2015, from 2.38 percent to 1.82 percent – decreasing year-over-year 55 percent of the time.

Percentage giving to benevolences relative to overall income decreased year-over-year 77 percent of the time from 1968 to 2015, starting at 0.64 percent and dropping to 0.34 percent.

Churches were, at one point, much more resistant to economic declines, Ronsvalle said. Back in the mid-1970s, and early 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, congregational giving remained flat or even increased during times of economic strife. She attributed recent slow recovery to the notion that churches are, cumulatively, not giving congregants something worth sacrificing other consumer behaviors to help achieve.

Like was the case with diminished membership, Ronsvalle attributed the decline in giving as a percentage of income to donor behaviors and a lack of an exterior mission. Americans are, overall, more affluent with more comforts now than in decades past, she said. Churches asking for, in essence, spare change to help with institution and maintenance does not strike the same sense of purpose as previous church goals, such as assisting starving children in foreign countries.

“This trend with benevolences will impact overall giving,” she said. “People come to church for aspirational reasons and if the church is not offering a vision . . . people don’t see it as a good reason to give.”

Benevolences, in particular, have dropped because missions are no longer there or are less emphasized. Addressing this issue will need to come from national church leadership, not at the local level, she said. There is a concern among local pastors that drastic changes in church focuses will lead to congregants fleeing or the pastors, themselves, having their roles placed in jeopardy.

The greater impact might be larger than the religious community, the book asserts. Ronsvalle pointed out that a strong majority, typically between 70 and 75 percent, of individuals associate their philanthropic giving with their religious institution. The context and impulse to give grows out of one’s congregation. As membership and giving decline, the consequence might be that the next generation of donors might not have that same context and impulse to give.

“While the numbers are very specific, the implications are much broader,” Ronsvalle said.