“This  was the second year in which [North American] tithe fell, and the troubled United States economy was blamed for much of the shortfall.”—Adventist World, January 2011, p. 12.*
“We are budgeting for 2011 in an economy that’s giving us less money than we need.”—Adventist News Network, Jan. 18, 2011.
Bill Clinton’s 1992 U.S. presidential election victory was credited, in part, to a recognition of the pressing issue of the day: the struggling U.S. economy. Riding the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid,” the Clinton campaign seemed to get it.
This slogan has come to mind, but in a different way, over the past few months as I’ve read explanations of diminished tithe returns in North America. (Tithe is dropping about 2 percent per year, even though membership is rising by about 2 percent per year.) Everyone seems to be attributing the diminished giving primarily to the struggling U.S. economy.
Now, there’s no question that the economy plays some part here. Many church members have seen their wages cut, or have lost their jobs altogether. But I’m concerned that the deeper issue is being ignored: the number of church members who don’t pay a full tithe—or pay tithe at all.
Here, for example, are the final North American membership and tithe figures for 2009.
2009 membership: 1,101,158
2009 tithe returned: $877,932,667
2009 tithe returned per member: $821
A tithe return of $821 per member means that if all the (baptized) church members in North America were paying a full tithe of their income, their average annual income would be $8,200—well below the poverty line of $10,830.
Obviously, not all church members (e.g., newly baptized teenagers, stay-at-home parents, retirees) have full-time incomes. So for the sake of argument, let’s assume that only half of the North American baptized membership has a full-time income.
This would double the average tithe return per member to $1,640, indicating an average annual income of $16,400. This figure is still remarkably low. Is it possible that the average income for an Adventist working full-time is only $16,400? Of course not.
The primary problem with giving in North America isn’t that because of the economy members are giving less than they used to. The problem is that many members aren’t giving at all.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means pastoral hiring freezes. It means district pastors who used to shepherd two churches now must shepherd three. It means painful pay and staffing cuts.
Is there a silver lining in all this? Yes, diminished giving means that the denomination may be forced to consider streamlining a four-tier administrative structure that some believe should have been streamlined years ago.
Even so, it would be refreshing to see church leaders, in whatever areas they’re leading, stand up and speak squarely to this issue. Rather than blame giving patterns only on the economy, we have to find our voices and call a new generation to commitment; give them something to believe in.
The Adventist Church is not just another denomination. We have plenty of problems, but we have a special calling. We are wholistic. We are Judeo-Christian. We exist to point all people to the return of Christ. Our own members need to be reminded of that.
* Tithe in North America for 2010 showed a modest improvement over 2009 of slightly more than 1 percent.
Andy Nash is a journalism professor, lay pastor, and author of Paper God. This article was published March 27, 2011.