People who love the church — in some semblance of the way we have come to know it in the past 100 years — have cause for concern about how long that model will be sustainable. Attendance is generally down, for one thing, as postmoderns and younger generations show less allegiance to the institutional church, and as older members became less active and gradually die off.
Where many churches are feeling the pain most, however, is in finances. I know personally of multiple churches that have reshaped their budgets in painful ways, often cutting staff members or reducing their hours, just in order to make ends meet. Churches sometimes call a new pastor and make financial promises that they ultimately can’t fulfill unless the pastor is really successful at recruiting new members who tithe. In those situations, the pastor becomes like a missionary who has to raise his or her own funds.
Large facilities built to accommodate rapid growth in the 50s and 60s are aging and requiring sacks of cash just for maintenance, even when they’re rarely used. Some downtown churches in big cities have resorted to completely remodeling their buildings, taking advantage of their location and property value to rent out part of the building for office spaces or erect parking garages as a means of producing income.
An additional truth, obvious to anyone who is paying attention, is that older members attend more and give more in support of the church budget — but they won’t be around forever. A government study in 2005, cited by The Empty Tomb, showed a direct correlation to age. After taxes, those who contributed the greatest part of their incomes were 75+ (2.54 percent), and 65-74 (2.11 percent). From there the percentage falls rapidly: 1.45 percent for the 55-64 group, 1.17 percent for people 45-54, and 1.09 percent for ages 35-44. Young adults between 25 and 34 contributed 0.80 percent of their incomes to church causes, and adults under 25 gave 0.62 percent.
Of course, those figures reflect the entire population, not just church-goers, and many people in each age group give zero. Those who attend church would give a higher percentage, but it does reflect the trend.
Consider a couple of specific examples. Teddy Ray, a United Methodist minister in Kentucky, reports on his blog that he asked the business administrator at a large Methodist church to figure how much of the church budget came from people over 55. The answer was 70 percent. When he asked him to run the same numbers for the church year a decade earlier, the result was 50 percent.
That’s right: in ten years, the percentage of the church budget shouldered by members 55 and older had gone from 50 to 70 percent.
Think that’s scary? I recently talked to an active member in one of North Carolina’s most active, stalwart, healthy Baptist churches. An internal study there showed that 73 percent of the church budget was contributed by members who are 70 years old and up.
That’s 73 percent of the budget from members who are over 70.
And funerals are conducted on a regular basis.
If your church hasn’t conducted a similar study, it might be worthwhile. Despite the ragged economy that has already savaged church giving, if younger adults were more aware of the fiscal realities facing the church, could they be persuaded to share more of the costs? Will more churches need to find creative ways to raise funds aside from member contributions?
Scary to think about, I know — but a fear we have to face.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.