Why Money Has Stopped Going to Church

Why Money Is Going To Places Other Than Your Church

Your young adults are pledging to Public Radio, but not to your church.  Why do you suppose that is?

It is that time of year again where I live – my local NPR station is soliciting for contributions to sustain their on-air programing.  They do this twice a year. It is as predictable as the vernal and autumnal equinox.  Every spring.  Every fall.  They are asking for future commitments so they can make decisions about their broadcast schedule.  The jovial hosts are even so bold as call these requests for money pledges.  “Make a pledge during this half hour to support quality programs like Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, Fresh Air, The Moth or Prairie Home Companion,” they plea, “…so that these wonderful shows you have come to count on don’t go away”.    

There isn’t any apology for the request.  It is made with passion and a promise: There is value in what you receive for your contribution. It is at one level, transactional: You give us your money, in return, we give you your favorite programs.  The request is polite, but direct.  Incentives are offered.  Different size gifts are rewarded with different levels of perks – from coffee cups and tote bags to special concerts or tours of the studios.  Make a pledge and you even get to hear your very own name over the radio, if you are so inclined. 

This is the point where it leaves simply being transactional and becomes relational: being named as a contributor is actually encouraged.   There is an appeal to “be in the WUOL family” and to encourage your friends to join you in your decision to support the station.  Challenge grants are offered.  If you give this much, someone else will match your gift and give it twice the power.  Stories are told of someone hearing the name of an acquaintance from high school making a pledge and feeling the need to do the same (almost as if not to be outdone doing good – as you might understand Paul’s argument in 2 Cor 8:1-8).

Beyond being relational, there comes the feeling of being philanthropic (for the benefit of others – benevolent).  Yes, let’s be sure not to discount the altruistic nature of supporting a broadcast media that (at least on the surface) is not driven by big business or unbridled political ambition.  Your public broadcaster can say “We can tell the real news story and not worry about upsetting our sponsors – because we don’t have any!” (Public Radio and Television have underwriters, whom, we are led to believe, are simply being as altruistic as we are with their donations — just on a grander scale.) You feel good making a pledge to public radio – I know this personally because I have done it.  I have made a pledge in the past.  I could not have imagined my Saturday morning without Car Talk so of course I was motivated to give.  It was clear that I was getting something in the deal and securing this entertainment for others as well as myself.

Knowing what I am getting is the core issue as to why it is easier for my 30 something children to make a financial commitment, not only to public broadcasting, but the Habitat for Humanity, the local food bank, the battered women’s shelter, the American Red Cross or any one of hundreds of organizations whose mission is clearly focused and in some manner is bent on improving the world.  My kids know exactly (or at least approximately) what they are getting for the money they invest because they can see some sort of result.

One more point that should not escape our notice: my NPR station has made it easy to give.  I don’t need cash nor do I need to locate my check book.  They can handle electronic transactions, including the monthly debiting of a bank account.

 In the church, we have failed to communicate with effectiveness just exactly what people get  for their offerings (read: how the world is made different) .  We have not made the connection between ministry and mission nor have we been able to demonstrate what a difference these activities make in the lives of the faithful and the communities we serve.  We have become apologetic even about having to ask, as if we were placing an imposition upon those who worship with us.  “You know we hate to ask, but it takes money to run this place – if you could consider making a gift, well that would really help us out…”

In the church, we often have neither passion nor clarity.  Our budgets list personnel and property, copier leasing and communion supplies; rather than highlighting life sustaining mission and the transformative work of God in Jesus Christ.  If I stop giving to public broadcasting, I know what I (and my community) will potentially lose.  If I stop giving to the church, I have no idea what difference it will make and I have been offered little in emotional investment or relational motivation to give, save perhaps guilt.  Guilt is one emotion the church has used, and to be honest, it hasn’t worked terribly well.  Giving with guilt usually causes some level of resentment and rarely leads to true generosity.

Then, of course, there is that thorny issue of gratitude – not as the motivation for giving, but from the receiver who expresses genuine appreciation for the gift.  My public broadcaster knows how to thank me, and to let me know in continuing ways throughout the year how my gift is working and how grateful they are that I chose to make a contribution.  Make a gift to the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, or the American Cancer Society and see how quickly your gift is acknowledged.  Make a gift to the church – and well…not so much.  I have even had a pastor tell me that they are not going to thank people for doing their duty!

Yes, I am aware that giving is a spiritual discipline; that giving, not to be thanked but rather out of thankfulness for what has been received is at the heart of the Judaeo Christian Tradition.   The Church has always espoused that it is less about how I feel and more about who I am in the context of community that is the motivating factor for giving. The problem of course, is that we have failed to communicate these values and teach them in a way that would have placed them at the center of our members’ lives and the core of their decision making about matters of finance.  And what is wrong with feeling good about your gift?  Our competitors have done a more effective job of inspiring generosity than we have and we therefore should not be surprised that gifts that once naturally flowed to the church now flow elsewhere.

Rather than be discouraged, I am hopeful because there are tools at our disposal and some congregations are becoming more aware of how to use these to their advantage.  Narrative budgets1 can tell the story of our mission and ministry, thus connecting dollars given to the work they do.  Churches are becoming less apologetic about the asking – and instead of seeking funds to “pay the bills” they are intentional about seeking resources for “living the vision”.  Savvy pastors are letting generous lay people take the lead in talking about generosity, capitalizing on their passion and commitment.  In some places we are learning how to say thank you.  This is a greater challenge in some communities due to the culture of secrecy that exists in many of our churches.  Secrecy around matters of giving is to be discouraged, but it is hard to break the silence where it has long been practiced2.  Churches are also moving toward being able to receive gifts electronically, making it easy for donors to make a contribution.3

The best advice we can offer is to look around and learn from the people who do fundraising well.  Stewardship is not fundraising, it is a spiritual discipline; but it can best flourish in a culture that understands the way people give in the 21st Century.  Be prayerful.  Be intentional.  Be hope-filled.  Proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, engage faithfully in mission – and with the help of these best practices, the rest will take care of itself.



1.          For more information on Narrative Budgeting, visit the Center for Faith and Giving website.

           Narrative Budgeting

2.          For discussion about the culture of secrecy, we recommend the book Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate by J. Clif Christopher.

3.          For more information on electronic giving, visit the Center for Faith and Giving website.

           Electronic Giving