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The Secrets of a Giving Church

By member size, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) is no powerhouse. Its membership of 251,727 is 16 million fewer than the Southern Baptist Convention, and it's about a tenth the size of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.

But the CRC is no second-string player when it comes to members' giving. A new report found that CRC members gave 6.1 percent of their incomes to the church.

That's significantly less than the biblical "tithe" (tenth). But it's dramatically higher than other Protestant denominations' giving. In its most recent survey, the giving research firm empty tomb inc. found that members in eight other denominations belonging to the National Association of Evangelicals gave, on average, 3.7 percent of their income. Denominations belonging to the National Council of Churches did even worse, with members giving 2.6 percent.

The CRC wasn't part of empty tomb's survey, but the new figures were published in June's Spiritual and Social Trends and Patterns in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, from Calvin College's Center for Social Research. And while CRC researcher and Barnabas Foundation consultant Rodger Rice is quick to observe that comparing statistics—especially medians to means—can be messy, he doesn't discount the CRC's strong record of generosity. Giving rates weathered the economic crash; the last CRC survey reported the same median number in 2007.

While celebrating existing stewardship, the CRC wants to make such rates sustainable in the long term. The survey also queried members on their personal and congregational spiritual health (tracking 11 priorities like "centrality of the Bible" or "disciple making"), and concluded that the denomination's health and giving could suffer years down the road.

So what do denominational leaders think is the secret to building long-term giving here and now?

The CRC Sets Expectations...

Too often, Rice said, the stewardship leadership teams he consults shy away from setting expectations for giving out of "a fear of legalism." But Rice thinks that standards set by the churches themselves are a primary key to improving giving.

CRC congregations generally don't encourage members to give 10 percent to the local church. Instead, they encourage givers to split their funds between the church and other ministries. The denomination especially encourages parents to devote part of their income to educating their children at Christian schools.

But CRC churches can be serious and public about the giving standard they do set, which is usually about 5 percent to 6 percent, Rice said. Giving is recorded and broken out by income bracket. Those figures are then regularly distributed to church members on handouts. The survey findings "are a result of this kind of standard," Rice said. "Lo and behold, it turns out that way, that we usually give about 6 percent."

...Without Being Legalistic.

Rice said that tithing is expected, but "certainly not mandated" in the CRC. In fact, he says, focusing too much on giving won't get people to give.

"Money follows mission," he says. The best way to encourage giving, he says, is to focus on congregants' spiritual development. And that, he notes, is the focus of the new report. It's also part of the CRC's Healthy Church initiative, which uses another survey to determine spiritual strengths and weaknesses in each congregation.

More devotions, prayer, and congregational unity around God's purpose drives giving in the CRC, Rice said. After all, the CRC report found that those who were "daily nourished" by prayer, Bible reading, and similar practices gave 7.7 percent of their income, compared to 5.9 percent for those who were "undernourished."

"Generosity," Rice said, "is just a natural outcome of spiritual health."

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The Secrets of a Giving Church