The way people give is changing.
If your church hasn’t felt the results of those changes yet, you will soon.
If you are feeling them, you may be scrambling to figure out what’s happening, why, and what to do about it.
The good news: everyone is experiencing this, or is about to. So you’re not alone in it.
The bad news: everyone is experiencing this, or is about to. So even the usual lifeboats (denominational support, and so on) are less likely to be there when we need them.
Since these changes in church giving patterns are so universal, the sooner we understand and adapt to what’s happening, the better.
Let’s take a look at 4 major shifts that are happening in the way people give to their local church.
(This article is part of an ongoing series, Money and the Small Church.)
1. A Drop In Per Person Giving May Not Indicate A Problem (But It Probably Does)
One of the first financial principles I was taught about pastoring was to keep an eye on the church’s giving patterns. Not because ministry is about money, but because a church’s offering patterns are like the canary in the coal mine. They’ve always been one of the earliest, most accurate barometers of congregational displeasure, dysfunction or anger.
Before people tell the pastor they’re unhappy, they stop or slow their giving down. Often subconsciously. So a drop in per person giving was always a cause for concern. Not just because it made the bills harder to pay, but because it was an accurate early warning signal of underlying problems.
While it’s still true that people stop or slow their giving when they’re unhappy, that is no longer the only reason for a drop in giving.
In the church I pastor, for instance, every other indicator of health and strength is up, from overall attendance, to new believers, to ministry involvement, and more. But giving has not just flattened out, it’s dropped every year for six years – until this year. (I’ll talk about how we made that course-correction in a future blog post.)
Here are some of the reasons why an otherwise healthy church might be experiencing a financial downturn.
Reaching Younger People: New generations are giving less money than previous generations did. And for different reasons. (You can read more about this trend in my previous article, People Won't Commit to the Church Any More? Don't You Believe It.)
Reaching the Unchurched: Churches filled with second, third or fourth generation believers will take in more money per person than churches who are reaching new people.
Changing Neighborhood Demographics: If your church demographics are a reflection of your neighborhood, then you’ll feel what the community feels financially. This is especially true in rural churches right now. As new generations move into the city, and businesses go with them, the financial plight of many rural areas – and the healthy churches that serve them – is dropping precipitously.
A Caution: We need to be careful not to use these possibilities as an excuse to say “Oh well, our funds are down, but that doesn’t mean anything’s wrong.” In the majority of cases, a drop in per person giving is probably signaling some kind of dysfunction. So we need to deal with that first.
2. New Believers May Not Realize How The Church Is Funded
Facebook is free to its users. So is Google, YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest.
Ten years ago it would have been unimaginable to have such amazing tools, games and entertainment at our disposal for free. But today, we’re so used to it that we don’t even pause to think about how they get paid for.
Since we also receive most or all of the services of the local church for free, many new believers don’t think about how the church’s bills get paid any more than you spend thinking about how you get email for free.
Apps and websites pay for themselves through advertising, of course. But most churches rely entirely on donations.
But many folks, especially new believers, may not know this. I’ve had several recent conversations with new believers who thought that when the church passes the plate it’s like the public school having a bake sale. They think there’s some unknown entity paying the main bills, while the money they give is for extras.
We can’t assume anything any more. New believers need to be informed of the church’s financial realities and their biblical responsibilities.
3. Telling People About The Need Is Not Enough Any More
In previous generations, presenting a need was enough to get people to give. Not today.
Because of a growing distrust in all of our institutions, including the church, people need more information to convince them, not just that the need is real, but that it’s worthy of their hard-earned money.
The good news is, if we connect them to good people and great causes, current generations will give just as much of their time, talents and finances as previous generations did.
4. Telling Them Once Is Not Enough Any More
There’s a public caricature that most pastors are financial money-grubbers, taking three offerings in every service. But the vast majority of us actually have the opposite tendency. Most pastors don’t teach about finances often enough – usually because we’re so concerned not to come across as spiritual hucksters.
Most of us have heard the old joke about the wife who complained to her husband that he never tells her he loves her. His response is “I told you once. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”
That’s how a lot of us approach the church’s finances. Once a year, we have a missions drive, or we present the church’s budgetary needs to the congregation. Maybe we take pledges. Then we pass the plate every week, but say nothing else about it until next year.
That used to be enough for previous generations. If grandma pledged to tithe, then give an extra $10 a month to missions, she never needed to be reminded again.
Today’s attention spans are shorter. Immediate needs often trump long-term pledges. The challenge for today’s pastors is to remind them without coming across like we’re after their money.
So how do we pull that off? I’ll talk about that in an upcoming post, 9 Ways To Reverse A Downward Giving Trend In An Otherwise Healthy Church.
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