WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 (RNS) -- Americans are giving slightly more for the day-to-dayoperations of their churches, but giving to missions beyond the localchurch has hit a 31-year low, according to a new report.

The annual report on church giving between 1968 and 1988 wasreleased by empty tomb, inc., an Illinois firm that has trackedchurch giving and membership in Protestant and Catholic churches since1972.

The report found that giving to churches lags far behind the rate ofgrowth in personal income, especially for "benevolence" funds that go tomissions beyond the local church, including global projects anddenominational support.

According to empty tomb, after-tax U.S. income rose 91 percent overthe two decades, but giving to congregational finances rose just 66percent, and benevolence giving rose just 15 percent, a 31-year-low.

While overall giving was up, giving as a percentage of personalincome fell dramatically. Churches affiliated with the NationalAssociation of Evangelicals saw giving as a percentage of income dropfrom 6.15 percent to 4 percent, a 35 percent drop. Mainline churchesaffiliated with the National Council of Churches saw the same rate dropfrom 3.31 percent to 2.96 percent, a drop of 10 percent.

Sylvia Ronsvalle, who co-authored the study with her husband John,said the most troubling trend is that of the increased money given byparishioners, more is being earmarked for day-to-day operating expensesand not for mission and care-giving projects. For every dollar ofincreased giving, 94 cents went for operating expenses that benefit justthe congregation, while only 6 cents went to benevolence funds, such asfeeding programs and disaster relief.

"Our giving patterns really are an indicator of our spiritualcondition, and what the number suggests is that our temperature iscooling toward our religion," Ronsvalle said.

Ronsvalle estimated that if church members gave the biblicalstandard of 10 percent of their incomes back to the church, donationswould surge by an additional $131 billion. The responsibility falls onchurch leaders to push for big projects, such as hunger relief, thatwould create the incentive to give, she said.

"If people are not being challenged to do something great, they loseinterest," she said. "They put the church on the same par as any otherconsumer purchase and they will not sacrifice for something that isn'tcapturing their imaginations."