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The ministry known as empty tomb, inc., is based in a modestly sized office building within walking distance of the University of Illinois at Urbana—Champaign. Founders John and Sylvia Ronsvalle describe it as a Christian research and service organization. That's an understatement on the order of saying the Salvation Army occasionally helps a homeless person.

For reporters writing stories about the state of giving in churches, empty tomb is the go-to think tank. The Ronsvalles crunch statistics so vigorously that in 2010 they will publish the 20th edition of The State of Church Giving, a challenging report of nearly 200 pages. They praise whatever progress they find, such as the decision of Francis Chan's Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, to devote half its budget to missions. They also catalog how little priority most churches give to worldwide evangelism or to fighting preventable childhood deaths in developing nations.

The Ronsvalles decided early on in their married years that they would tithe. "We were poor when we started," Sylvia said. "We had two rooms to live in and $75 a month in food stamps." They now tithe not only on all the donations they receive but also on the value of their medical coverage. John understands Matthew 23:23 as Jesus' implicit affirmation of the tithe as the starting point for a person concerned with righteousness.

After so many years of studying the world's needs and the church's poor giving patterns, the Ronsvalles struggle to reconcile the two. John said they sometimes think of Christians as two figures from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy: the slow-moving Ents and Theoden, the king who spends much of the narrative in an enchanted stupor.

"It's like people in ...

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November 2009

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