The Dangerous Moment When Attendance Drops but Giving Stays Strong

I’ve noticed a recent trend among churches. The evidence is more anecdotal, but I have no doubt the phenomenon is occurring on a national scale. While more than half of all churches are in some form of attendance decline, a segment of these declining churches experiences either stability in giving or an increase in giving at the same time people are leaving.

This phenomenon is even more amazing when considering general giving trends. Overall, charitable giving is on the rise in the United States, but churches are receiving a smaller portion. In 1987, religious organizations received 53% of all charitable donations. In 2014, religious organizations received only 32% of all charitable giving, a 30-year dramatic downward slide.

What’s happening in churches where giving remains strong while attendance drops?

The economy is good (for now). The latest bull market run is the longest in our nation’s history, though significant December declines gave everyone pause. We’ll see if it continues. Regardless, our nation’s economy is doing well, which benefits giving at churches. Some churches have committed members who are giving more even as their churches decline in attendance. But should the bears overtake the bulls in the markets, fewer churches will experience the phenomenon of increased giving during a season of decreased worship attendance.

Established churches can have older, institutional givers. The giving phenomenon is occurring at established churches with long-term members who are in the older generation of loyal, institutional givers. I have these givers in my church, and they are a key part of our financial stability. Even the ones that can no longer attend regularly make sure to mail their tithe every week. They don’t attend because of health, but they still give.

Attendance frequency is decreasing at the same time digital giving is increasing. The most common reason why worship attendance declines is attendance frequency. People who once came to church almost every week are now attending every other week. In fact, a weekly average attendance of 500 will become a weekly average attendance of 250 when people attend every other week as opposed to every week. Your church feels like it is half the size even though people are still coming (just not as much)!

At the same time, digital giving enables people to give even when they are gone. Some people who give through the offering plate do not make it up when they miss a Sunday (although I’m thankful for those who do!). However, those who have automatic deductions through digital giving typically do not miss a week of giving even when they miss a week of attendance—giving every week but not attending every week, same as those who are homebound but for different reasons.

Here is what it looks like in the real world. I recently helped a church that has experienced a ten percent decline in attendance over the last several years but saw giving go up by almost twenty percent during the same timeframe. Where you can tell the most is in the per capita giving metric, which measures the amount each attendee gives each week. Their per capita giving over the last few years has risen sharply.


Weekly Per Capita Giving













On the surface, the above figure looks good. The numbers are going up! But scratch the surface and you’ll find it’s more a problem for the church than anything else. Strong giving is masking the underlying issue of an inward focus. Obviously, this trend comes with many other dangers, like how a church can become complacent since the money is there even when the people are not. I’ll have to explore these dangers in a future post. I realize a lot of churches would love to have a year in which giving goes up, but it’s not always a sign of a healthy church.

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Sam Rainer III

Sam serves as lead pastor of West Bradenton Baptist Church. He is also the president of Rainer Research, and he is the co-founder/co-owner of Rainer Publishing. His desire is to provide answers for better church health. Sam is author of the book, Obstacles in the Established Church, and the co-author of the book, Essential Church. He is an editorial advisor/contributor at Church Executive magazine. He has also served as a consulting editor at Outreach magazine. He has written over 150 articles on church health for numerous publications, and he is a frequent conference speaker. Before submitting to the call of ministry, Sam worked in a procurement consulting role for Fortune 1000 companies. Sam holds a B.S. in Finance and Marketing from the University of South Carolina, an M.A. in Missiology from Southern Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies at Dallas Baptist University.

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comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you Ed for sharing your insights into the Church Growth Movement. I have my reservations with Church Growth models because it has done more damage than good in the Body of Christ. Over the years, western churches are more focused on results, formulas and processes with little or no emphasis on membership and church discipline. Pastors and vocational leaders are burnt out because they're overworked. I do believe that the Church Growth model is a catalyst to two destructive groups: The New Apostolic Reformation and the Emerging Church. Both groups overlap and have a very loose definition. They're both focus on contemporary worship, expansion of church brand (franchising), and mobilizing volunteering members as 'leaders' to grow their ministry. Little focus on biblical study, apologetics and genuine missional work with no agenda besides preaching of the gospel.
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comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you for sharing such a good article. It is a great lesson I learned from this article. I am one of the leaders in Emmanuel united church of Ethiopia (A denomination with more-than 780 local churches through out the country). I am preparing a presentation on succession planning for local church leaders. It will help me for preparation If you send me more resources and recommend me books to read on the topic. I hope we may collaborate in advancing leadership capacity of our church. God Bless You and Your Ministry.
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