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    It’s the season for giving — not only to friends and relatives but to charitable causes and non-profits, as well. There are two trends of special concern as we look at where tax-deductible charitable dollars are going at the end of the year. The first is that even though charitable giving has declined nationwide during the Great Recession, the amount of funding to church and other religious and faith-based organizations increased. Although people are giving less overall, religious charities are seeing greater donations. But this makes the second trend even more striking: while “church” and “religious organizations” are getting a larger share of a smaller pie, local congregations are seeing donations decline.

    This is the basic picture we get from “The State of Church Giving,” a study released earlier this year by Empty Tomb, Inc., which looked at numbers for 2008 in its twentieth annual report. Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb, says that the 2008 data “suggests it’s possible that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.” For various reasons, people seem to increasingly view places other than their local congregations as the place where their charitable dollars ought to go.

    This seems to be another bit of data showing that Americans in general, and Christians in particular, are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with a host of social institutions. Churches and denominations are no exception. If we look at the numbers for 2008, the general level of trust in social institutions declined significantly over a thirty-year period. As related by the General Social Survey, which has tracked polling data for more than three decades, those expressing a “great deal” of confidence in organized religion fell from 32 percent in 1976 to 20 percent in 2008. Every other major social institution (except the military) also saw declines during that same period, including the “scientific community” (48 to 40 percent), banks and financial institutions (40 to 19 percent), and the press (29 to nine percent).

    The fact that people are more often bypassing their local congregations as places to support financially is troubling, and for churches it ought to signal that their budgets are often out of step with the concerns of their congregants. If churches do not have spending priorities that are aligned with the convictions of their members, it is to be expected that this will show up in the balance sheet. This shows that there is some basic accountability inherent in the donor/charity relationship, and while that model may not be the best way of characterizing the relationship between the individual member and the local congregation, there can be some positive results.

    For one thing, if the congregation pulls back its support because it feels that its priorities are not represented in the church’s spending, this can be an important check on the temptation for church leaders to be bad stewards of the church’s finances. Empty Tomb’s analysis of its data emphasizes a “long-term turning inward of congregations,” which is to say that congregations are increasingly spending more money on themselves and their own institutional maintenance than on evangelism and outwardly focused works of service. Consider here the cautionary tale of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this year amid financial and ministerial turmoil. Multi-million dollar building campaigns, designed to accommodate the perceived desires of affluent Americans, can quickly go off-track when funding for missionaries, benevolence ministries, and poverty programs suffer.

    If local churches hope to take up their rightful place of priority in their congregation’s charitable giving, then they will need to show that they are being faithful and obedient stewards of their mandate. In many cases that will mean a revitalization of the office of deacon. As Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef contend in their Deacons Handbook, the deacon is the “executive agent for good stewardship in the Church.” Consider here the positive example of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. Redeemer Pastor Tim Keller speaks of the importance of the church having “an excellent diaconate that works with those in need within our community.” Berghoef and DeKoster write, “A congregation well furnished with plant, facilities, and staff is a richly leafed tree. How well that congregation, through its diaconate, cares for its own needy and for the poor within its reach is one key measure of the fruit which this tree bears.”

    There are corresponding responsibilities at work here, and if the problem of declining donations to local churches is to be resolved then both parties need to meet their obligations. First, individual Christians need to see their local church as the first place where their charitable donations go. This is part and parcel of what it means to be visibly connected to others as the Body of Christ. And they need to trust and hold accountable the leadership of the church, especially the diaconate, for the good stewardship of those funds. Second, the church leaders and administrators, especially the deacons engaged in the face-to-face and front-line ministry work, need to be committed to using those funds entrusted to them in a manner obedient to the gospel imperative. The deacons must be, in Berghoef and DeKoster’s words, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”

    In this relationship between a community of “cheerful givers” (2 Corinthians 9:7) on the one hand and faithful stewards on the other, we see the biblical picture of a people who lets its “light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 NIV).

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    Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy at First Liberty Institute.