In Part II of my blog on Dr. Robert Wuthnow’s book, The Crisis in the Churches: Spiritual Malaise, Fiscal Woe (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1997), he places some of the burden on the clergy for not relating to the working lives of their congregations: “Many pastors seem to be unaware of how little they understand the work lives of their parishioners.”(p. 112)
But is it just the fault of the pastors? No – the congregation bears responsibility too! Stewardship is falling. “Religious giving as a percentage of family income has been on a downward course for the past two decades, dropping from an average of 3.1 percent in the late 1960s to 2.5 percent in the early 1990s. … Average per capita giving is probably less than the 2.5 percent estimate reported because the number of people contributing has been underestimated. Indeed, when other data on giving – such as self-reports in surveys – are examined, religious contributions appear to be closer to 2 percent of family income if only those who contribute are considered, and closer to 1 percent if everyone is considered.”(p. 14-15) In my church, only 40% of the members financially contribute and Wuthnow’s estimates correspond to other churches I have attended.
The demise of stewardship means that churches have less money to pay salaries, building maintenance, utilities, mission and other expenses. While congregations need to be discipled more than ever, churches have less funds to operate. To put it in perspective, church giving is “far less than the average family spends on vacations each year. Most people could double their giving by foregoing the purchase of a new camcorder, stereo unit, or television set.”(p. 16) Although his comments are dated since the book was published in 1997, we could easily forego the latest electronic device or designer clothes.
Why is this so? First, it starts with a theological understanding that all we have comes from God. We enter this world with nothing and will exit with nothing. Appreciating God’s gifts brings gratitude and joy, not greed and materialism. In Genesis, God commanded us to be good stewards of our world. Using God’s gifts wisely means giving generously out of abundance. Joyful giving should come from spiritual reflection and diligent prioritization.
The second reason is that our secular world is pounding us with materialism almost every waking hour. “Churches need to expose the secular messages that push middle-class Americans to engage in well-meaning but excessive, self-interested behavior.”(p. 137) I once counted the number of commercials between two segments of the NBC Today show. I asked my wife how many commercials were broadcast between segments and she guessed 5. After the next segment finished, we counted 12.
We lived in London during the 2012 Olympics and watched the BBC. They showed all the events live and commercial-free rather than shortened highlighted events (i.e., usually just the Americans winning) replete with seemingly never-ending commercials. What a joy it was to watch sporting events without commercialism.
Christianity has always been a contrast community. Once our faith mirrors the secular world, we no longer represent Christ in the world (or the new creation has come). It would be far better for the church to become smaller as a contrast community than to grow into another secular-like institution. “All things considered, the middle-class church needs to be half its present size and twice its present strength.”(p. 240) Rather than following Rome, the early church grew exponentially when it offered a different way. Dr. Wuthnow clearly articulates The Crisis in the Churches. It is up to the faithful to reflect and reconsider within our own churches.