Survey: Churches Still Generous Despite Recession

Despite the recession, churches throughout the country have stepped up to try to prevent their charitable giving from going downhill.

According to a new study, released Tuesday, more than two-thirds of congregations reported that their fundraising receipts increased or remained the same in the first half of 2009 compared to last year, even as the economic downturn was worsening.

"While many congregations have been hit hard by the recession, this study underscores the remarkable resilience of congregations, as evidenced in the extraordinary and imaginative ways they are reaching out to meet the needs of their parishioners and people in their community," said William Enright, director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Center, which conducted the study with the Alban Institute.

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During 2008, about 36 percent of congregations initiated new activities, such as music festivals, church fairs and capital campaigns, to increase their fundraising success. Almost 10 percent strengthened relationships with their community through more outreach programs, such as increasing space used by outside groups and increasing programs for non-attending community members.

Amid a worsening financial climate, only about one-third of congregations decreased their 2009 budget compared to 2008 while nearly 42 percent increased it.

Additionally, nearly 40 percent of pastors preached or talked about charitable giving more this year than last year despite widespread financial fears in their congregation. Only 4 percent emphasized giving slightly less than they did last year.

"In the United States, none of us think we're rich and the truth is, we're all rich," Pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., told his congregation this past weekend. "This year you feel less rich than ever. ...but most of us really are still rich. If you have a household income of over 40,000 you are in the top 5 percent of top 4 percent of wage earners in the world."

"The point isn't 'yee haw, we're rich.' The point is 'what do we do about that?'" Stanley posed as he kicked off the megachurch's third annual "Be Rich. Do More. Give More." campaign.

The reason Christians are to be generous is not because they have more, because it's more fair, or because they ought to, Stanley noted. Rather, "we do this out of gratitude for what God has done for us in Christ."

"That is the fuel, that is the spark, that is the energy behind why we do what we do as a group of churches and why Christians serve and give."

North Point is a more than 22,000-member church but churches with much smaller attendance numbers were also found to be generous even while facing economic hardships.

"We frequently hear about the experiences of larger congregations and how they are coping with economic challenges, while the story of average and smaller congregations often has been wrapped in silence. This study breaks that silence," said Enright.

Among those surveyed in the 2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study, 40.5 percent of the congregations reported an average weekly attendance of between 101 and 300 people. Only 3.5 percent of surveyed congregations indicated an attendance of more than 1,000 people.

In other findings, congregations where the average age of congregants was younger were more likely to report an increase in giving this year; and nearly 22 percent of congregations have seen a decrease in their weekly attendance, while over 24 percent have seen an increase in their attendance since the onset of the recession.

The study was based on more than 1,500 responses. Researchers stress that it is not a nationally representative study of all congregations in the United States, but rather is drawn primarily from the Alban Institute's membership. More than three-fourths of respondents were from Protestant denominations.

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