Giving Up, Giving Down -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

A consistent theme in most congregations is stewardship.  Most of us take an offering each week as part of worship.  We sing some sort of doxology.  We talk about the good gifts that God has given us, and thus return a portion for the work of God.  The funds collected goes to pay for the heat and the cooling, salaries for people like me, and ministries that include outreach into the community.  Martin Marty writes this week about a slight drop in giving levels among religious communities.  I had heard that this was happening -- perhaps as a result of the economic downturn.  The decline in worship attendance and church membership doesn't help.  What has gone up is giving to education, arts, and animals.  The first two likely due to foundation grants, whereas religious giving comes from individuals who participate in congregations.  I invite you to read along and offer your thoughts on the value accorded religious institutions..

Giving Up, Giving Down
Monday | June 23 2014
                                                                                                                Photo Credit: lisafx / Depositphotos
“Giving,” as in “Charitable Giving,” is “up” for three causes: “Arts and Humanities” (6.3%), “Education” (7.4%), and “Animals and Environment” (6%). But giving to “Religion” was down 1.6% from 2012 to 2013.

Good news for those who have positive views of religion was the notice that “the religious sector continues to collect a greater proportion of total charitable giving—31 percent—than any other” according to a “Giving USA” report (see “Sources,” below). Less good news is the notice of even a slight decline.

Responsible commentators know how difficult it is to get, define, and interpret statistics in these areas. Lauren Markoe for Religion News Service (RNS) quotes generalizing experts about the big picture: “Behind the sad state for religious groups, experts say, is American’s declining interest in religious institutions.”

No argument there. But Markoe balances this quote with comment from a specific expert, Rick Dunham, CEO of Dunham Company, who knows enough to remark that “many religiously oriented charities are often counted in other sectors, such as education and human services.” Further, giving is “shifting from houses of worship to religiously affiliated charities that are counted in other sectors.”

Extended families like mine “give” charitably through alumni associations of any number of church-related colleges and universities and, like to many others, give directly to “human services” organizations, which are profoundly inspired by “religious” motivations but which don’t show up on congregational or denominational giving reports.

As such needs grow and at a time when the need to give to build new churches or synagogues is less urgent than in the boom-years, people of faith have not deserted the cause even as some of their cohort have stopped going to worship.

The first twenty comments to the RNS story were almost all from anti-religious commentators, who are so often first on the scene with issues like this. Some declare themselves to be atheists, and bring religious passion to their anti-religious declarations.

They think that churches or synagogues or mosques, etc., should not be tax-exempt because they are simply marketers at best and scam artists at worst. They do not see religious organizations providing “education” of the kind they would approve, or “human services” at all. Churches, et cetera, are not going to engage in strategies or public relations moves which will win positive notice from such observers from a distance or through rear-view mirrors.

The larger public, however, evidently has some understanding of the positives effected by individuals gathered in groups devoted to common texts and themes and causes. What keeps that 31% share of the charitable giving is not simply that some people like to build buildings and know they have to heat or cool them. They know that in the vast majority of cases these congregations perform often otherwise-overlooked services in child-care, inspiring young people to engage in works of mercy, and mutual care of the aged, including by the aged, which make up large percentages of these “giving” gatherings. 

One hopes that they are open to learning from “down trends,” no matter what their cause, so that more of them can confess to the shortcomings of religious groups, and join other citizens in responding to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of their nature.” And that they reject the themes which often inspire religious groups to engage in hateful dismissals of “the other” in a time when those “better angels” might still hover.


Markoe, Lauren. “Charitable giving to religious groups is down as philanthropy improves from the Great Recession.” Religion News Service, June 17, 2014.

Crary, David (AP). “Charitable giving surges for colleges, hospitals; flat for churches, social service groups.” US News & World Report, June 17, 2014.

Giving USA.

Photo Credit: lisafx / Depositphotos

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.


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