GAINESVILLE, Ga. -- The news that tithing declined by about 62 percent last year presents the church with both a warning and a challenge, say several experts in Christian financial and seminary circles.
In mid-May, the Barna Research Group reported the results of a survey of 1,010 adults last January and February. It showed that the proportion of households tithing -- giving 10 percent of income -- to churches dropped from 8 percent in 2001 to just 3 percent in 2002.
"Different challenges have caused people to choose not to tithe," researcher George Barna said. "For some, the soft economy has either diminished their household income or led to concerns about their financial security. For others the nation's political condition, in terms of terrorism and the war in Iraq, has raised their level of caution."
However, in a series of interviews with Baptist Press, various leaders said the root of the problem stems from a failure to educate people about God's plans for stewardship.
Howard Dayton, chief executive officer of Crown Financial Ministries in Gainesville, Ga., said the church has made a strategic error. By focusing solely on how members should handle 10 percent of their money from God's perspective, church leaders neglect the other 90 percent and leave people unprepared for comprehensive stewardship, he said.
"People don't know what God says about how to earn money, save it, spend it and invest it," said Dayton, who wrote Crown's small-group studies, which are used by some 5,000 churches nationwide. "Others aren't motivated to give because they don't know what God says about giving."
Several leaders noted that this failure to teach people about proper stewardship sounds an ominous warning for the church over the coming 10 to 15 years.
During the 1990s, one Southern Baptist pastor told Dayton that members over 65 accounted for 58 percent of his church's donations. As the average senior died, it was taking five people under age 35 to replace that elder's giving.
"His question to me was, 'What's going to happen when these dear old saints go home?'" Dayton recalled. "He said, 'We won't be able to fund the work.'"
This trend affects parachurch ministries as well, Dayton added, mentioning one whose average supporter was age 34 in 1992 and age 52 a decade later.
However, there are tangible results showing that education can reverse this trend.
Within the past year, Crown surveyed 60 churches. It discovered that within three years of completing its biblically based study, the average participant had reduced debt by $20,000, saved $10,000 and increased giving by 62 percent.
One example is ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tenn. There, participants in one small group collectively paid off $150,000 in debt, according to Gary Aylor of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"Another way the average church misses it is that the only time the pastor speaks about money is when they have a capital campaign or a stewardship Sunday," Dayton said. "That's totally wrong. If you seek to equip people and there's no asking for money when you get to the end (of the message), people are more receptive to God's Word."
Such an emphasis should include more than money, said Jack Wilkerson, vice president of business and finance for the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee.
A trained Crown financial counselor, Wilkerson said a believer has a stewardship responsibility for the wise use of time, talents, temple (physical body), testimony, truth (God's Word) and treasure.
The latter includes all possessions and begins with the idea that God has given to Christians so that they can give to others, Wilkerson said. Giving will not impact Christians' lives until they embrace the principle that God owns it all and experience the blessing of biblical giving to others through the ministry of a local church, Wilkerson said.
While some argue that tithing is an Old Testament principle, the executive officer said that Jesus never taught against it, pointing out that in Matthew 5:17 Jesus said He came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. Wilkerson added that Jesus actually affirms the practice of tithing in Matthew 23:23 while warning not to neglect the practice of "justice, mercy and faithfulness" [NASB].
The New Testament teaches and encourages generous giving, Wilkerson said. He said 1 Corinthians 16:2 sets out four principles for giving -- it should be regular, personal, proportional and voluntary.
"All of the arguments against tithing are people looking for reasons not to give," the SBC official said. "We don't give out of duty, we give out of obedience and love. If someone is giving solely out of a sense of duty, they might as well keep it."
Wilkerson believes the challenge facing the church is to continue teaching biblical principles. Too often churches are looking for ways to garner funds instead of telling people the reasons for giving to God first, and then trusting Him to take care of their needs, he added.
Such teaching needs to address the prevalent worldview that the way to happiness is by acquiring possessions and property, Wilkerson said.
"For most people, the recession is not a big problem, but problems do exist because their debt levels are so high," Wilkerson said. "Most people live in too big of a house, drive better cars than they can afford, and are killed by improper use of credit cards. We want it now and decide to pay for it later."
Thom Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., sees decreased giving to churches as a symptom of a two-fold problem:
-- The first is generational, with older people more faithful in giving. That was a factor mentioned in Barna's report, which noted that people over 60 who had the habit of tithing are diminishing in number.
-- The other is expectations, which Rainer sees as equally serious for the church's future.
Over the past 30 years many people have approached church with a consumer mentality, a selfish outlook that asks what services can be found there, Rainer said. As churches focused on meeting people's needs instead of challenging them to go on missions, giving has dropped, he said.
Rainer said another reality churches must face is that young adults are less committed to the institution of the church and more concerned about how their giving fulfills a particular purpose.
"I believe the younger generation can be motivated to give and see the mission of the church as important in society and the world," Rainer said. "But leaders must understand we have dumbed down membership to where it means nothing.
"The motivational shift from the institution to mission or purpose is in some ways a healthy shift. It has forced churches to ask, 'What is our purpose? Why are we here?' This may be a healthy wake-up call."
Despite the argument that tithing is a legalistic, outdated standard, Rainer believes it should be retained as the foundational base for giving.
The New Testament standard can be seen through Acts 2:41-47, where people gave beyond their income -- to the point of selling possessions so they could help meet others' needs, the dean said.
Rainer, who has served as an interim pastor several times during his seminary experience, encouraged pastors to regularly call on members to deliver testimonies about the joys of tithing.
"Stewardship is as important to the life of the Christian as healing and salvation," Rainer said. "It should be right up there with the rest of them."