The US economy has remained recession-free since the financial crisis of 2007-2009. During that period, approximately 8.7 million jobs were lost, and the GDP contracted by 5.1%. This marked it as the most severe recession since the Great Depression.* Subsequent to those challenging times, significant improvements have occurred. Millions of jobs have been reintegrated into the economy. And as recently as last Friday, the jobs report highlighted the initial signs of real wage growth since the Great Recession. However, is there a lingering church recession?
While the broader economy flourishes and analysts discuss forthcoming recessions, why does it still seem like many churches are grappling with the effects of a recession?
Churches in Recession
In 2015, a total of $119.3 billion was donated to ministries, synagogues, mosques, and temples.** While this sum is certainly noteworthy, it signifies a 50% decrease from the levels observed in 1990. This is precisely why the sense of a continuous church giving recession persists. The decline in ministry giving, as a percentage of overall non-profit donations, has been unfolding over decades. At the same time, charitable contributions on the whole have consistently risen since 2009.
This predicament places numerous churches in a precarious situation. The available financial resources are diminishing, while the operational expenses of ministry remain unaltered. Consequently, many churches are exploring innovative approaches to counter this ongoing trend, as traditional methods do not appear capable of reversing it.
Interestingly, even amid this general recession, there are instances of individual ministries defying the trend. These are churches successfully securing a more substantial portion of the shrinking donation pool. This leads us to a pivotal inquiry: “What sets these churches apart, and what insights can we glean from their experiences?”
After excluding national ministries endowed with extensive media budgets and renowned speakers, three fundamental areas of concentration emerge as catalysts for counteracting this recession. Importantly, these areas are adaptable to churches of diverse sizes, stages of development, and traditions:
1. Simplifying Onboarding
Historically, a strong link exists between congregation membership patterns and giving behaviors. Contributions tend to rise alongside an increase in the number of individuals identifying themselves as part of a specific church community. Those churches achieving financial growth amid a broader giving recession are those diligently dedicating efforts to streamline their onboarding procedures.
A notable example illustrating the transformative impact of this approach is Mill City Church in Fort Collins, Colorado. Their success lies in offering a weekly “connect” class, one of four rotating options. To facilitate attendance, they provide childcare and meals. This is an effort to simplify the process for attendees to stay after the service and commence their integration into the ministry. Importantly, members aren’t obligated to take the classes sequentially. Mill City Church stands as one of the most rapidly expanding congregations in the United States.
KEY QUESTION: What obstacles are we unintentionally erecting for potential parishioners? How can we enhance the experience of considering oneself a part of our church community?
2. Simplifying Ministry Programming
During the 1980s and 1990s, the spotlight was on megachurches. These congregations aimed for a wide array of ministries, expansive budgets, and elaborate facilities. However, in contrast to that era, today’s ministries that are experiencing a positive net gain in giving are opting for simplification instead of expansion. Rather than rushing to diversify ministries, they are focused on maintaining a sense of simplicity.
Eric Geiger has extensively explored the concept of the “Simple Church.” This doesn’t signify a dilution of quality, but rather a judicious and discerning approach to adding programs and ministries. The underlying principle holds true: “You bear the costs of your creations.” For well-established churches, this might entail the uncomfortable task of pruning ministries that demand more effort to sustain than they contribute to the ministry’s mission.
KEY QUESTION: Which funds currently allocated to programs and ministries with dwindling impact could be reallocated to address more pressing and influential needs?
3. Simplifying Giving Methods
In the era of emerging giving technologies (such as online, text, and kiosk giving), both churches and non-profit organizations have eagerly embraced these advancements, aiming to reach new donors. The notion is that offering multiple avenues for giving will naturally translate into increased donations. However, the actual results defy this assumption.
A 2016 survey conducted by State of the Plate revealed that nearly half of the churches that introduced digital giving since 2010 reported no observable rise in overall giving. Conversely, churches experiencing a net gain do indeed provide an array of giving technologies. This is coupled with thorough training tailored to their preferred method of donation. A decade ago, Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, took a bold stride by discontinuing the in-service collection of offerings.
Instead, they installed prominent mailboxes at the rear of the worship center. They called them “joy boxes.” Following the service, an announcement is made that these boxes are available for anyone wishing to give an offering. Impressively, the crowd’s enthusiastic response to this announcement can often be heard in recordings. Mars Hill further complements these physical “joy boxes” with an equivalent digital option called “joy boxes online.” By offering multiple giving avenues, they ensure that the culture of giving remains uniform in both language and practice.
KEY QUESTION: What array of giving choices are you providing to individuals? How might you streamline the process to minimize the number of decisions they need to make?
Key Question for Churches in Recession
This overview captures the strategies that ministries are adopting to navigate the challenges of the church giving recession. If your church finds itself grappling with this recession, we strongly urge you to engage in meaningful conversations with your leadership about implementing measures within these three focal areas.
*The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) officially marks the commencement of the recession as December 2007. According to data from the Department of Labor, around 8.7 million jobs were lost between February 2008 and February 2010, accompanied by a 5.1% contraction in GDP. This characterized the Great Recession as the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression.
**Referring to a 2016 study conducted by the Giving USA Foundation.
***While more than 4 in 10 churches (41%) that introduced digital giving options experienced a rise of at least 5 percent in their total giving for 2016, an almost equivalent percentage of churches (39%) reported that their giving remained steady. The remaining portion (20%) stated that their giving declined by a minimum of 5 percent.
Interested in discovering more about enhancing giving in your ministry? Schedule a Discovery Call with the experts at DonorWerx today.