When you give to your church, where does your money go? For generations, American churches have amassed enormous assets in the form of land, buildings and cash investments. It began early in the nation’s history with the simple human desire to have a place to gather, to sing, pray, educate and support the young, cherish the old and bury the beloved dead.
Over the years these individual faith communities multiplied, now dotting the landscape of every community, urban and rural, with cumulative wealth and resources. Buildings were built, land was purchased, investment accounts begun. Members have left gifts to their churches in their wills, others tithing weekly, all to assure the continuation of their community assets for future generations.
As someone who participated in this future building, I understand the impulse to preserve and protect these community assets. But I have been wondering of late if it might be the time for congregations with this historical wealth to stop stockpiling it for some mythical future. To wake up to the important religious changes right in front of us and restructure the purpose of these investments. The spirit of God is calling us to move in new directions.
For the first time in 80 years, the level of church membership across the country has dropped to fewer than half of American adults. In all previous years of Gallup polling, the percentage of religious membership averaged 70%, even as late as 1999. In the last 21 years, just one generation, that membership has now dropped to 47%.
The decline is clear in every category: Catholic, Protestant and Jew, Democrats and Republicans, each major region of the country, and across education levels. The largest decline in church interest and participation is seen among young, unmarried, non-college graduates. Democrats represented a 25% decline, while Republicans 12%. Membership on the East Coast declined 25% in 20 years, while the West, Midwest and South are not far behind at 19%, 18%, and 16% respectively.
The church is just one of our culture’s core institutions that has lost credibility and status since the widespread use of the internet, commonly dated as around the year 2000. The proliferation of alternative sources of influence, information and persuasion has led to commonplace discrediting of accurate journalism, scientific research, diplomacy, political leadership and historical facts.
While the church could have been a stabilizing influence in the midst of cultural change, the rapid loss of trust in religious authority was propelled by a failure of most church communities to confront historical sexist and racist practices and compounded by the revelation of widespread child sex abuse in ranks of Christian clergy, particularly within the Roman Catholic male priesthood. As our culture changes, the church’s historic failures have been repeatedly unmasked.
With a full third less people affiliated with church, synagogue or mosque, what is the call of God upon current communities? In more familiar terms, what would Jesus do? Who is your neighbor and what resources does your congregation have to share? I wonder how more of us can use our imagination to cast a new vision for this accumulated wealth so that we might be agents of human renewal. I believe we are being led to shift our fiscal perspective from future to present, from conservation to application.
I know of some congregations who have built, maintained and staffed tiny home communities for the unhoused in a portion of their parking lot. I know of others that tutor children, provide childcare, parish nursing services, adult daycare, free community meals, overnight sheltering, racial reconciliation programs, youth sports, unemployment services or mental health counseling in their modest church buildings. These are churches that have risked their comfort for the sake of the needs of their neighbor. And this shift did not come easily.
To break the conservative habits of generations is difficult emotional and legal work. It means more of us, not less, have to step into positions of lay leadership alongside our clergy to create systemic change. It means having difficult conversations about foundations, estates, property, and legacy with those who have invested in a particular view of the future. We need those of us with compassion for the past and a vision for the present to be courageous leaders. We have to show up to meetings, speak and vote for change.
If we fail to respond to this call of ministry, we will find in another 20 years that there is precious little that looks like kingdom life in our churches. We will have spent our savings on maintaining a preferred future for a decreasing number of people while ignoring the needs of neighbors immediately beyond our closed doors. God is calling us out into the world in new and challenging ways. It is time the church stops overfunding its future and spends down its wealth for the sake of the world.