Recently published mission statistics offer good news and bad, depending upon how the numbers are crunched, say a pair of church analysts. The good news: The 1987 budgets for international ministries of 692 denominational and parachurch agencies listed in the newly released edition of Mission Handbook totaled $1.7 billion, an increase from 1983’s estimated total of $1.3 billion.

But a second look at some of the figures in the handbook, published by the Missions Advanced Research and Communication Center and Zondervan, provides little reason to rejoice, according to John and Sylvia Ronsvalle of empty tomb, inc., in Urbana, Illinois. When they calculate giving to overseas ministries per church member, and compare it with overall trends in U.S. per capita income, they find that missions are losing ground.

“The church in the U.S. is not living up to its potential,” said Sylvia Ronsvalle. And its failure, she said, is jeopardizing “the church’s ability to continue the rich heritage of word and deed ministry around the world.”

In some instances, the Ronsvalles found increases in per-capita giving, sometimes as high as 20 to 40 percent. But overall they were “grieved, and not surprised,” at the decreases they found, Sylvia said. “There is a strong indication that as U.S. per-capita income rises, church members give a smaller percentage of their income.”

The analysis of recent statistics bears out the findings of an earlier comparison by the Ronsvalles. Their previous study showed that while U.S. per-capita income rose 31 percent from 1968 to 1985, church members actually gave 8.5 percent less to their congregations. (In terms of dollars adjusted for inflation, while income rose by approximately $2,500, giving increased by only about $50 per member.)

According to the Ronsvalles, the negative trends show up in evangelical as well as mainline denominations (see chart), though they downplay denominational comparisons. Instead, they emphasize the contrast between giving to missions and other expenditures.

“Consider that in the same year (1987), Americans spent almost the same amount—$1.7 billion—on Nintendo, as was spent on world missions,” Sylvia said. “If we can find $1.7 billion for a product which did not even exist the year before, can we in the church continue to say we are just not capable of giving any more?”

*From MARC Mission Handbook, Thirteenth and Fourteenth editions.

Source of analysis: The National Money for Missions Program, empty tomb, 1990.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.