Wanted: Cheerful givers to change the world

The number 2,701,802 stands out in bold relief at the top of the website.

Almost moment by moment, the figure steadily ticks upward, compelling virtual visitors to empty tomb, inc., to reflect on the number of children under 5 who have died since the beginning of 2013.

John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, directors of the Champaign, Ill.-based research organization, placed the number front and center to remind church members that faithful giving is about much more than keeping the lights on in their sanctuaries.

This month, in a new initiative to reverse decades-long declines in benevolent giving as a percentage of income, the Ronsvalles issued a call to mobilize church leaders in a campaign to ask 100 million Christians to donate $50 a year for three years to save the lives of global children.

It will not be easy. After years of a recessionary economy, many congregations still struggle to balance their budgets.

In the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey, 29 percent of congregations reported an increasing financial base and 16 percent reported a declining financial base. Those numbers were nearly reversed in the 2008-2009 survey, with 29 percent of congregations reporting a declining financial base and just 12 percent with a brighter foundation.

Even in better times, empty tomb has found, the percentage of income donated by churchgoers has been declining. Their annual studies gathering data from major Protestant denominations has found giving as a percentage of income dropped from 3.1 percent in 1968 to 2.4 percent in 2010.  The decline has been particularly steep in giving to needs outside the local church, such as global missions.  Per member giving for benevolences as a percent of income was about half as much in 2010 as it was in 1968.

So who are the cheerful givers, and do they share traits that congregations can nurture among their flocks?

The 2008-2009 wave of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey offers insights.

The two leading predictors of people who donate at least 5 percent of their net income to their congregation are age – people over 54 give substantially more – and involvement in the congregation. Having conservative theological beliefs was also a key indicator.

In analyzing data from more than 64,000 worshipers, US CLS researcher Deborah Bruce also found women, worshippers without kids at home and those who attend with a spouse or partner are more likely to fill church coffers.

Many of the non-demographic indicators were related to spiritual development and congregational life.

Frequent worship attendance, being in small groups, participating in congregational decision making, having a strong sense of belonging, sensing their spiritual needs are being met and agreeing that to a great extent worship helps them with daily living were linked to a greater likelihood of generous giving.

In a more focused survey on giving among 853 US CLS respondents, a sense of gratitude for God’s love and goodness was the No. 1 influence on financial choices. Half of the respondents said God’s love was a major influence on their giving. In comparison,  just 6 percent said the congregation’s or the leader’s urging to give was a major influence.

While an active faith is associated with greater giving, the issue of how well religious individuals walk the talk was raised recently when comedian Ricky Gervais, an atheist, mocked people sending their prayers to the victims of the Oklahoma tornadoes, tweeting, “I feel like an idiot now … I only sent money.”

Yet the idea of personal faith being the foundation empowering the service of others is ingrained in most traditions.

Consider this declaration in a sermon “On the danger of increasing riches” from John Wesley, a founder of Methodism: “Do not you know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessaries for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud your Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?”

In a world where so many millions of people die from a lack of food or clean water or medical care, strengthening that historic sense of mission remains critical, as the Ronsvalles remind us.

The last time I checked, the number of children under 5 who have died this year was 2,832,174.