Magazine article The Christian Century

Incredible Shrinking Church?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Incredible Shrinking Church?

Article excerpt

A CHRISTIAN research organization that tracks trends in religious giving says the institutional church in America might be dead within 200 years, but other religious researchers say reports of the church's demise are greatly exaggerated. A report from empty tomb, inc., headquartered in Champaign, Illinois, falls short of flatly predicting the end of local congregations and denominational bureaucracies. But it warns that church giving patterns point in that direction.

"The extinction of the national and regional structure of the church as it is constituted today is not inevitable. The financial giving data suggests, however, that it is entirely possible," argues the report. The report, titled "The State of Church Giving Through 1991," adds, "Nor do congregations escape the current patterns unscathed." Data show a tendency of withdrawal from national to regional to congregational levels, according to empty tomb. "The next stage," the research group warns, "may be from the congregation to the individual."

Two well-known researchers in the field of church membership and organization have challenged the reports conclusions and methodologies, however. William McKinney of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut called suggestions of reaching absolute zero in giving, on the basis of extrapolated statistics, "silly." And Lyle Schaller, an authority in the field of church growth, called the report flawed for assuming that all money given to congregations and denominations shows up in church treasurer reports.

Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice-president of empty tomb, defended the report in a December 4 interview and said her hope is that it will create a "healthy anxiety" about church giving that will ultimately lead to a healthy and dynamic church. The report shows a steady decline in church giving from 1968 to 1991. In 1968, church members gave 2.44 percent of their income to the local congregation and .65 percent to church work beyond the congregation, including national church structures. By 1991, empty tomb said, those figures had declined, respectively, to 2.09 percent and .44 percent. EXtrapolating from those figures, the report projects that by the year 2048 giving to the denominations will reach zero. By 2187, it says, giving to local congregations could dry up.

McKinney, coauthor of the 1987 book American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future, maintained that the report is critically flawed because a purely statistical analysis fails to take into account the strongly held beliefs of some Christians that compels them to give. …

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