"Empowered to change, changed to empower," Senior Pastor Sean Wise preached one Sunday in March from the pulpit of Calvary Baptist Church at 16th Street and Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia. "For though membership has its privileges, membership has its responsibilities."

The band played, the choir rejoiced, and the deacons and deaconesses, men and women in charcoal suits and black dresses, arranged baskets for the envelopes in which

Who's Giving to Church?

  • 66% of all adults donated to a church or religious center during 1999.

  • 17% of adults claim to tithe, while 3% actually do so.

  • 16% of born again Christians gave no money to his or her church in 1999.

  • 8% of those making $20,000 or less gave at least 10% of their income to churches, while 1% of those making $75,000-$99,999 gave a similar amount.

  • 27% of people who do not attend church made no donations to nonprofits in 1999.

    Source: Barna Research Group studies from 1997, 1999, and 2000
  • the congregation sealed their tithes and offerings. On the envelope were the words of Malachi 3:8-11, "'Try me,' the Lord said. 'Give me a tenth of what you have and see if I do not flood you with an abundant return.'"

    Tithing--giving 10 percent of one's income to one's church as commanded by Scripture--is encouraged at Calvary Baptist and elsewhere in the Christian world, notably in black churches.

    A check of the situation, though, shows that beyond black churches statistics are hard to come by, and that tithing customs and definitions can vary greatly.

    Fully 45 percent of African American church members tithe, according to a newly released survey that the Gallup Organization conducted for the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), a consortium of African American seminaries located in Atlanta.

    Another survey, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Program for the Study of Organized Religion and Social Work, found that African American churches derive almost half their income from offerings and a third from tithes and dues.

    "There is more and more data that black churches are more involved [in tithing] than white churches, because the laity is more theological," the ITC's Stephen Rasor said. "One does not separate the secular from the religious."

    At Calvary Baptist, Mr. Wise said he had seen tithing levels increase in his 2 1/2 years as pastor.

    "There are times when money is tight, but in a real spiritual sense it is all God's income."

    "We believe in the Scriptures that say we are not the owners of anything," he said in a phone interview. "God is the owner...And I think you'll see similar increases in tithing across the board, in the suburbs as well as in the city."

    Halfway across the country, David Rustad of the Lutheran Brotherhood in St. Paul, Minn., streamlines tithing for Lutherans. Lutheran Brotherhood, an independent, not-for-profit provider of life insurance and mutual funds, has an electronic system that funnels money into Lutheran coffers directly from members' bank accounts.

    Though Rustad does not know how many Lutherans tithe a full 10 percent, he believes the figure is increasing. He attributed the growth to a nationwide spiritual rejuvenation, citing secular bookstores' now selling spiritual literature and the Bush administration's emphasis on faith-based social programs.

    "One thing that motivates people to give is when they see their money used efficiently," he said. "And with the advent of e-mail, we feel connected to the ministries we support."

    Rustad said he and his wife tithed, dividing the amount between their church and medical missionaries in Peru, Uganda and Afghanistan.

    "We give our dollars off the top and don't miss what we don't have," he said. "We believe that God said to give the first fruits of our gifts to him. Sure, there are times when money is tight, but in a real spiritual sense it is all God's income."

    The notion that Americans are giving generously to their congregations, whether in Philadelphia or in Minnesota, has its skeptics.

    Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb, a Christian research and service organization in Champaign, Ill., said "benevolences," or giving money to soup kitchens, missions and food pantries, were at a 31-year low. She correlates that to America's saddling credit-card debt.

    "There are people who won't give because their credit-card payments are too high," Ronsvalle said. "But that is a choice. And the Bible says that where your treasure is, there is your heart. And we're finding that pastors are not trained to deal with issues of money and faith."

    Ronsvalle wants to know how people define tithe, and whether pastors really know how much congregants give.

    "If you ask someone how much they give, that is a self-report," she said. "There are people who say they tithe 3 percent. A tithe is 10 percent. We found people overreport how much they give.

    "We surveyed 100,000 congregations between the years 1965 to 1998 and found that giving has not kept up with the growth of the economy. That most of what people give to churches they give to themselves" by merely making the structure more luxurious.

    She quoted an Argentine pastor named Juan Carlos Ortiz who said: "I have built a fat church, not a strong one."

    "The gloves come off when people talk about money and churches," Ronsvalle said. "There is an unwritten rule that pastors don't want to know how much people give because they don't want it to affect their ministry. And as we have become a more affluent culture, we found church members formed their attitudes toward money based on advertising. Churches are keeping people happy rather than transforming them. People are paying dues to a club, not for God's heart."

    The Catholic Church generally asks parishioners to give 5 percent of their income to the church and 5 percent to a charity of their choice, said the Rev. Kenneth Hallahan, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Church in Camden.

    The parish bulletin labels the amount of money the Camden church collects each week as "tithe"--but Father Hallahan said donations had plummeted as demographics had changed.

    "It was the parishioners aged 50 and older who donated generously, people whose children moved out from home," Father Hallahan said. "But as whites leave, we have failed to attract younger Hispanic and black populations. And because they are younger with children and bills and work at entry level, we have to find a way to bring more people in...We need to encourage people to look at their income and decide on a number they can give."

    Stephen Rasor is a sociology professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center, where theologians and seminarians from seven predominantly African American denominations study and conduct research. Ninety-five percent of pastors interviewed in the ITC/Gallup poll stated that some of their members tithed.

    "Within the black churches, there is an emphasis on tithing because of the pastors," Rasor said. "And their main reason is to call on church members to keep their covenant with God by supporting the church...

    "Unlike other churches, black pastors do know how much people are giving. They want to know," he said. "And amongst the Baptists and the Pentecostals, tithing has mushroomed because of the pastor's emphasis on the covenant."

    Calvary Baptist Church of Philadelphia closed its Sunday service after distributing communion from silver trays. As members prepared to step into windy snow, Roy Johnson of Sicklerville, chairman of the deacon board, sat at a table surrounded by children wrapping scarves and women pulling on gloves. He accepted a bottle of grape juice.

    "I think giving a tithe has freed me up," he said. "Everything else seems to fall in line. My phone has never been shut off. I guess it's an act of faith that gives me a freedom you just won't have until you experience it."

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