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The Association of Religion Data Archives: Churchgoers give far less than they think
August 30, 2012 8:15 PM   Subscribe

"Parting with treasure easier said than done: Churchgoers give far less than they think" is the latest feature article from the Association of Religion Data Archives, which "strives to democratize access to the best data on religion." The site includes a browsable archive of religious survey data, a quick statistical roundup, international religious profiles, feature articles on topics like the rise of Mormons, Muslims and nondenominational churches in the USA ("nondenominational and independent churches may now be considered the third largest religious group in the country...Only the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are larger"), links to sources like the 2010 U.S. Religious Census, a Religion Research Hub (with tutorials and helpful advice on best practices when theorizing, conceptualizing and measuring religious behavior) and lots more.
posted by mediareport (25 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
From the first link:

A quarter of respondents in a new national study said they tithed 10 percent of their income to charity. But when their donations were checked against income figures, only 3 percent of the group gave more than 5 percent to charity. The people most likely to misreport high levels of giving were those who said faith was very important to them and those who attend services more than weekly...
posted by mediareport at 8:15 PM on August 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is doubly interesting given the standard insistence that churches and charities will make up for any social services we cut. Also the standard "Well if government would just stop making me pay all these taxes I'd give so much more to charity than I already do!" line.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:39 PM on August 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


Usually, the non-religious turn out to be the third largest group in the country. As far as I can tell, that hasn't changed, but the survey doesn't count non-religious people at all.
posted by hoyland at 8:54 PM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Possibly worth pointing out that the study only recognizes money as "charitable giving," while most congregations would define "time, talent, and treasure" as meaningful ways of contributing to their church. When my wife and I were struggling financially, we couldn't give very much in the way of money to our church, so we gave "time and talent" in the form of volunteer work -- tech support, doing the newsletter, working at yard sales, etc. Many of the poorest members of the congregation were the most generous in these ways. So I find it a bit irksome that people in this article conclude that churchgoers are ungenerous simply because they're not giving money.

But yeah, I don't think anyone who's been a member of a small church, the kind that don't have their own coffee shops, could argue that it's not agonizingly difficult to get people to open up their wallets. Humans are selfish to the core; no amount of religion can change that about some people, especially those whose reasons for attending church are selfish (or merely rote) in the first place.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 9:01 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Possibly worth pointing out that the study only recognizes money as "charitable giving," while most congregations would define "time, talent, and treasure" as meaningful ways of contributing to their church.

It may be meaningful generally, but you can't deduct anything but "treasure" when you're talking to the IRS. I don't want to disparage people who have an excess of time, and who devote that time to church projects, but your spare time isn't going to pay your mortgage any more than my spare time is going to pay mine, and I don't particularly care to have my taxes subsidize your church (or anyone else's) on a dollars-to-spare-time basis.
posted by spacewrench at 9:16 PM on August 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


So I find it a bit irksome that people in this article conclude that churchgoers are ungenerous simply because they're not giving money.

Jesus disagrees with that criticism:

"And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, 'Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.'"

10% is 10%, and the poor and rich alike should, ideally, give everything they have (cf the story of the rich young ruler).

Anyway, if people specifically say they give 10% of their income but actually give more like 5% or less, then it doesn't really matter whether they also give time or talent because that wasn't the question.
posted by jedicus at 9:21 PM on August 30, 2012 [9 favorites]


Possibly worth pointing out that the study only recognizes money as "charitable giving," while most congregations would define "time, talent, and treasure" as meaningful ways of contributing to their church.

Equally worth pointing out that money donated to your church is considered "charitable giving", even though the primary goal of the money in most cases is to enable the church to provide you with a personal service related to your own well-being. (And the secondary goal is typically outreach/recruitment).

If I spent every Sunday morning in taking a Dale Carnegie course or singing in a choir or in a yoga studio, it would help connect me to my community, help me focus on my values, and even give me better career prospects or voice or abs. But paying money to support the instructor, and rent the space, and put up posters wouldn't be donations to a charity, so much as fees paid for a service rendered.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:24 PM on August 30, 2012 [11 favorites]


Well, now, that does give an interesting counterbalance to the recent "religionist charity > atheist charity" meme that surfaced during the lead-up to the RNC.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:39 PM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


the survey doesn't count non-religious people at all

Yeah, the ARDA folks make it clear the data for that article comes from the 2010 U.S. Religious Census, done by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies; it's specifically called the "Religious Congregations & Membership Study" and used only data from "religious groups."

The ARDA itself does discuss questions about non-belief, for instance:

Dynamic ‘nones’ hold key to future of American religion

A growing body of evidence reveals a complex portrait of Americans who do not identify with a particular religious group. What research is increasingly showing is that “nones” are a dynamic group whose members cannot be simply characterized as either atheists or in other popular categories such as “unchurched believers” or “spiritual but not religious.” There are people who appear to be consistently secular in their beliefs. However, the nones also include a large group of people who switch their preferences over time, and continue to attend a particular congregation and express belief in God.

posted by mediareport at 9:41 PM on August 30, 2012


Far be it for me as an atheist to try and decipher what a god might mean, but I suspect doing things that help the church itself (newsletter, maintenance, manning the drinks table, polishing the pastor's cadillac) as opposed to doing things that help the poor (distributing food or clothes, physically aiding the sick or infirm) probably don't count as "charity" as such, do they?
posted by maxwelton at 9:43 PM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


(Whenever I see a megachurch where millions were clearly spent, I think "hm...pretty sure Jesus would not be as impressed with that as the congregation probably is." I know I'm distressed if I give money to, say, an environmental group, and later discover it has a fancy HQ and sends its directors to lots of distant conferences but doesn't actually do much for the environment.)
posted by maxwelton at 9:48 PM on August 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


Also cathedrals.
posted by XMLicious at 10:11 PM on August 30, 2012


Cathedrals were like the NASA of enlightenment & renaissance architecture, though.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:23 PM on August 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Although these days, not so much.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:23 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


The survey talks about giving money to charity generally, not just to churches. I don't think it's a very good article, though; it jumps around different definitions and explanations without following through any, and seems to cherry pick whatever date/quote supports their "Christians don't give a whole lot" thesis. Some of these sentences are so confused I can hardly dissect them, and they give no indication of the breadth of some of the surveys.

"A quarter of respondents in a new national study said they tithed 10 percent of their income to charity. But when their donations were checked against income figures, only 3 percent of the group gave more than 5 percent to charity. The people most likely to misreport high levels of giving were those who said faith was very important to them and those who attend services more than weekly..."

I'm sure that, as religiosity correlates with poverty, some of those frequent-attenders who say they tithe 10% but in fact end up giving less are people who budget 10%, but then have the car break down, or get their hours at work cut and need to feed the kids, or can't afford school clothes and a 10% tithe in the same month. In good months they give 10%, as they intend to; in bad months they give what they can. They don't make nearly enough to bother itemizing, so it's not like they're reporting something wrong to the IRS.

I mean, if your survey asks me what my total mortgage payment is, I'm not going to say "$1800, plus an extra $500 that one month I had to make up escrow because of the unusually large change in property tax rates this year ..." I'm just going to say "$1800" even though that's technically incorrect. I'm thinking in terms of monthly budget, not special circumstance.

They attempt to tithe and sometimes, monetarily, fall short. I have a lot of students in my community college classes who are members of a tithing church, and many are quite poor. They would describe themselves as tithing (meaning 10%), but I also know they often simply can't afford to and keep a roof over their heads and food on their table. I don't read that as hypocrisy, which is what you seem to be implying is the proper reading; I read that as a good-faith effort to give two mites.

The article also notes: "10 percent of the respondents to the generosity survey reported tithing 10 percent of their income to charity although their records showed they gave $200 or less."

So it's the respondents' own records they're using for this data. If you're not itemizing, which most people don't, why would you keep exact records? Even though my accountant wants me to act like I'm going to itemize, so that he can figure out if I ought to, I never manage to keep very good records, and half the time when I do get a donation receipt/letter for a larger donation, I manage to misplace it by tax time. I've made five donations this month I didn't bother to get receipts for; I made one just today. Not very big ones, but they add up.

I know a shocking number of people who only give money to their churches in cash in the collection basket (because writing a check is like bragging or asking for special treatment). And I know several who refuse to write off charitable donations because they believe it "doesn't count" as charity if you get a benefit from it.

Ugh, there are so many more things in that first link I want to argue with -- I'm familiar with the Notre Dame research and I believe it is badly summarized here -- but the article is so confusing and scattered it's hard to know where to start.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:29 PM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


("nondenominational and independent churches may now be considered the third largest religious group in the country...Only the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are larger")

There are tons of these in my area, and they have some really great tautological names. I still don't know what's stopping them from merging into the "Christian Bible Church of Jesus for People Who Believe in God".
posted by dunkadunc at 11:23 PM on August 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Cathedrals were like the NASA of enlightenment & renaissance architecture, though.

A gem-encrusted solid gold reliquary would be a work of art and exemplary craftsmanship too, but I still think that maxwelton is correct that the Christ depicted by Christianity would be more impressed by a small act of love or charity or kindness than by the grandest bling or the most gnarly narthex. Not saying that it's of no value, just that it's not really for God that it's made.
posted by XMLicious at 11:47 PM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm sure that, as religiosity correlates with poverty, some of those frequent-attenders who say they tithe 10% but in fact end up giving less are people who budget 10%, but then have the car break down, or get their hours at work cut and need to feed the kids, or can't afford school clothes and a 10% tithe in the same month.

I think you're partly correct (and also raise a good point on the methodology and cash-in-the-basket aspect); that's not the only thing happening here, though. It's not just financial hardship; people are capable of a high level of self-delusion.

One of my personal favourite papers (I cited it during my thesis defence, and I'm a civil engineer) is a 1993 paper by Hadaway, Marler and Chaves [PDF]. They picked a small, somewhat rural county (Ashtabula, Ohio) and did a phone survey, asking people's religious affiliations and church attendance. Based on what people told them, they calculated that 22,830 people attended a Protestant service in Ashtabula on any given Sunday.

They then went to extraordinary measures to actually count how many people went to Protestant services, including driving every paved road in the county looking for churches (they found 44 churches not in the best compilation of churches available), and sitting outside on Sunday morning counting people if churches didn't have or wouldn't give attendance records. Total attendance? Barely half the stated attendance: 13,080.

They found the same effect with Catholics in major cities; 51% reported attending church, the average attendance from church records across 18 cities was 28%. The only diocese where church records of Catholic attendance came close to the self-reported survey numbers was Omaha. So they went to Omaha, attended masses and found attendance a fraction of what was in the books; a parish that reported 4700 attendees had 2900 when the researchers counted. In all, they concluded that actual church attendance was roughly one half what people report they do.

But this is by no means a religion-only phenomenon; 91% of people say they wash their hands after they use the bathroom; only 82% do (and this was in a public bathroom with a stranger - the researcher - present; surely that drops when people are alone).

Another study (part way down, search for "Loyalty") asked how people "usually" commute to work, as well as the specific trips they made on an actual day. Of the people who reported that they usually took an environmentally friendly mode -- walking, biking or taking transit to work -- 15-20% actually went by car. 40% of the people who said they carpooled actually drove alone. This didn't work the other way; 93% of people who said they usually drove alone actually did (and virtually all of the rest drove with someone else).

There are so many unfulfilled good intentions out there, you could practically pave a road with them.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:49 PM on August 30, 2012 [12 favorites]


XMLicious: " gnarly narthex"
OMG best band name EVER
posted by notsnot at 5:06 AM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


They attempt to tithe and sometimes, monetarily, fall short.

I'm sure you're right that the above describes a significant number of givers.

I'm familiar with the Notre Dame research and I believe it is badly summarized here

Can you be more specific? Because the concerns you note seem to me as much methodological issues inherent in the study as journalistic issues about the presentation. I personally didn't make any implication of hypocrisy; the closest we get to that is a direct quote from a book co-written by one of the study authors:

There is “in many American Christians … a kind of ‘comfortable guilt’—that is, living with an awareness and feeling of culpability for not giving money more generously, but maintaining that at a low enough level of discomfort that it was not too disturbing or motivating enough to actually increase giving,” Smith, Michael Emerson and Patricia Snell report in their book, “Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money.” “Many Christians did not have clean consciences about money. But neither did they seem prepared to change their financial dealings in ways that would eliminate their modest levels of guilt.”

Anyway, I tried to find the new Notre Dame study but the publications and news pages at ND's Science of Generosity site don't seem to have been updated yet to include it. If you have a link that'd be cool.
posted by mediareport at 5:11 AM on August 31, 2012


And I know several who refuse to write off charitable donations because they believe it "doesn't count" as charity if you get a benefit from it.

This certainly matches my experience. I'm not religious, but my parents are and have tithed for as long as I can remember. Although they'd claim deductions for general donations, like to the Salvos or Red Cross or what ever, they'd would not claim what they gave to our church. Dad said you had to tithe and pay taxes. "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's".
posted by adamt at 5:49 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


This isn't news for anyone who has anything to do with receiving donations. Most of the churches and denominations I've been involved with estimate their membership's annual giving rate at around 3%. 5% Tops. My current church is an exception--we think we're right around 8-10%--but the denomination as a whole is definitely in the 3-5% range.

This isn't totally scientific data, but it's not self-reporting either. If anything, it tends to overestimate the rate. What happens is that congregations know how many members they have and how much money they receive. Most congregations have a pretty good idea about what their members do for a living, and in many cases that gives a pretty good idea about what people make. There's a tendency to underestimate people's income though--we know you work as an [x], but we might well have no idea about your non-wage earning or moonlighting gigs.

Thing is, most denominations and churches I've been involved in don't actually talk very much about tithing. It's sort of--declasse. We see the televangelists and shysters talking about giving money, and we don't want to look like them, so we really don't talk about tithing. We might occasionally have a special offering for a particular purpose, but only when there's a pronounced need like a natural disaster or a medical emergency. It's sort of weird.
posted by valkyryn at 6:03 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


XMLicious: "...but I still think that maxwelton is correct that the Christ depicted by Christianity would be more impressed by a small act of love or charity or kindness ..."

Not to derail but this is the attitude that a lot of quiet Christians take. We (also quietly) bristle when we hear LOLXIANS, but we keep doing our part in a very local, very "retail-as-in-retail-politics" way. Some of that is works, some of it is giving.

So: at my church last weekend, the (totally awesome) Little Sisters of the Poor* came by to beg. They stood mutely at the doors of the church with baskets, and as people filed past the baskets were filled with cash.

Now, this same church lets me donate electronically against my credit card each month, and I don't put an envelope in the basket each Sunday. I do get a statement each winter for my taxes -- but the cash I gave that nun in starched whites last week won't be on that summary for the IRS. *shrug* So what? I gave because they do good work, not because I needed that last little bit for next April. And there will be plenty of other times that I chip in a fiver here or there, but it's untraceable cash and I don't want the accounting of it anyway: "don't let your right hand know what your left is doing" (Matthew 6:3) and all that.

Note: The Little Sisters survive by begging for everything. Everything. And they provide care & housing to the elderly. They're very selfless, very kind, and they quietly kick ass.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:01 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Where does the 10% requirement come from? It seems like quite a large ask for a family or someone poor. Especially when you think that housing costs are usually about 30% of household income (more if there's a boom or a bubble). If the church is caring for widows and orphans in a small community that seems reasonable, but in a modern society it seems to me like employers requiring tips instead of paying a decent wage in the first place. I suppose it's like someone mentioned above, people expecting charity to fill the role of government.
posted by harriet vane at 9:27 PM on August 31, 2012


"Tithe" means "10%." The "one-tenth part" is mentioned specifically several times in the Hebrew Bible. Wikipedia's got your back.

A lot of churches don't ask for a specific percentage tithe (but may still call it tithing), and many ask for your "time, talent, or treasure" as someone mentioned above. Some churches, mostly on the more fundamentalist end of the spectrum, consider 10% tithing Biblically required. Others consider a literal 10% tithe morally praiseworthy or a goal to strive for, but not required. As I suppose all of America knows by now, active Mormons in good standing tithe 10%.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:42 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


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