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Barna Research:  Churches Stand to Lose Several Billion Dollars Due to Economic Downturn

Orginally published on Monday, December 01, 2008 at 7:49 AM
by Todd Rhoades


As Joan Rivers would say, "Can we talk?" Headlines like this drive me crazy! There's nothing you want to hear more on a Monday morning than a dismal financial outlook for the church. But the new outlook from Barna Research, released this morning, is not very optimistic:

20% of households have decreased their giving to churches.

Of those 20%, 22% have said they have stopped giving altogether.

George Barna says: "Most non-profits and churches count on the fourth quarter of the year to produce at least one-third of their annual income. Deficit spending is common during the first three quarters, with the expectation that holiday giving will enable the organization to meet its budget projections. This year is likely to be very different. The giving patterns weíre witnessing suggest that churches, alone, will receive some $3 billion to $5 billion dollars less than expected during this fourth quarter. The average church can expect to see its revenues dip about 4% to 6% lower than would have been expected without the economic turmoil. We anticipate that other non-profit organizations will be hit even harder."

I guess I take issue with George’s premise that deficit spending in churches is commonplace during the first three quarters of the year because churches know that they’ll make up for it in year-end giving.  I’ve been a part of church ministry for over 20 years, served on several boards, and watched church finances closely.  I’ve never heard that theory in any of the churches I’ve worked in.

Now, according to Barna, last quarter giving will be down 4-6% in churches, amounting to $3-5 Billion (with a B) lose to the church.

Barna continues, “With a large share of congregants expecting the nationís economic woes to drag on for several years, it would be wise for churches and non-profits to reconfigure their financial models and plan to spend more cautiously over the coming two or three quarters… Even if a congregation continues to grow numerically, this is not a good time to use dated financial projections and models. Peopleís attitudes about generosity have been altered, as shown by their immediate donation behavior. We anticipate that a greater percentage of church-goers will decrease both their giving levels and frequency over the next year or so. This is a time for church leaders to demonstrate restraint and wisdom in their financial decisions.”

In the end, Barna calls for wisdom and restraint.  That is wise.  Most of the churches I’m tracking are being prudent.  Many are freezing spending and budgets for the next year.  Many are cutting travel and extra expenses.  Some are freezing hiring and salaries.  But no leader I’ve talked to is taking quite as dire a reading as Barna.

Let’s face it.  There is plenty of money out there to fund God’s work.  We all know that.  And it could be that the 22% of the 20% who have stopped giving entirely to the church are those who give way less per capita than most others.  (In fact, that’s my guess… with no research to back it up).

Bottom line:  I get tired of all the doom and gloom.  Maybe it’s just my optimistic attitude., but I don’t see what value the study brings to the table.  It’s an economic crisis.  What do we expect?  My guess is that the biggest effect this release will have is that pastors everywhere will use it as an excuse/crutch when their own giving goes down.  It is a time to be pro-active, not re-active to be sure.  And those who are, I think, will be just fine.

Case in point:  the numbers are in from Black Friday:  Black Friday Spending Up 3% There’s plenty of money for the mall.  I’m sure God’s church will do just fine.

I’d love your input on this this morning:

1.  Does your church spend more money than you take in during the first three quarters of the year since you know you’ll make up for it in the fourth quarter?  If not, have you ever heard of this method of church budgeting before?

2.  How concerned are you about effects of the current economic crisis in your church?  What are you doing differently today than a year ago?

3.  Do you think Barna’s read in this report is overly pessimistic, overly optimistic, or about right?

You can read Barna’s press release here...


This post has been viewed 1242 times so far.


  There are 23 Comments:

  • Posted by Peter Hamm

    Todd asks

    1.  NO, we do not engage in deficit spending. No one should, imho. You shouldn’t at home, in business, or in your church.

    2.  We seem less affected than others, but we are affected somewhat. I will be careful about my budget even more next year than this. (I always balance my ministry budgets. That is simply the way it must be, imho.)

    3.  I think he’s right about right, I think.

  • Great post, Todd. Your color commentary had great perspective. We need to get a grip.

  • Posted by

    1. Maybe. In a previous church which was primarily agrarian, our budgeting assumptions included a “Harvest Offering” held once a year that was often more than 10% of our total annual income. Fiscal year was Jan - Dec, in mid summer the YTD giving was usually less than income, In August the “Harvest Offering” (when the farmers followed the Biblical model of firstfruits giving) would make up the deficit and create an abundance to finish out the fiscal year and carry over to the next year. In my current and previous churches our YTD expenses often exceed YTD giving going into the 4th quarter, but surplus from the previous year’s 4th quarter keeps us solvent. So yes we use “deficit” spending if you consider YTD reports, but no we do not use “deficit” spending if you consider total liquid assetts.

    2. We are concerned, but not fearful. We are budgeting a little more conservatively than in previous years.. 3. Yes, Barna is overly pessimistic in his projections.

  • Posted by Gary Rice

    1.  Deficit spending? I’ve never been a part of church that operates with this model. There are seasonal expenses of course, and seasonal offerings - (actually our lowest offerings are on days with the largest attendance, like Easter and Christmas).

    2.  Concerned? Actually, yes. Our giving is down and at least one peson a week is losing their job or overtime. We are feeling the pinch and must re-work the budget for ‘09.

    3. Barnaís reposrt is pessimistic, but I too was waiting to see what Black Friday looked like. 3% is good, but I heard that Saturday and Sunday spending was down this weekend, so I can’t rely on the BF numbers just yet. Besides, my trust is in the Lord. Always has been, always will be.

  • Posted by Eric

    1. We don’t spend more than we take in. My last church did and they had financial problems… go figure. A good or bad economy is irrelevant to a church with bad stewardship (or good stewardship for that matter.)

    2. Of course I’m concerned. But not from a “will we be able to pay the bills?” perspective. My concern is that members of the church understand the importance of stewardship. I don’t apologize that financial giving and stewardship is a real part of our faith. Right now, giving has been good for us. But I think, like most churches, it can be better if the church does a good, respectful job of educating its community that stewardship is a part of our faith and expected if you join.

    3. Barna does a pretty good job of presenting the facts. I think my #2 answer addresses this.

  • George Barna has lost credibility in my eyes.  I used to appreciate his cultural analysis, but in recent years, his writing has developed an obvious negative take on the local church.  I am all for reporting the facts and sharing trends, but Barna and his organization have nothing positive to say about the local church these days.

  • Posted by Gman

    Seems to me that Barna is Crying Wolf far too many times. If it isn’t the ole Teens leaving the church ... then it is giving is down. Then it is ....

    Wonder when Barna will publish a book on something the church is doing right, Umm that might be a sign we’re in the
    End Times. (Wait a minute we are ... one day closer today than we were yesterday)

  • Posted by Rick McGinniss

    I think he’s off base. People’s attitudes are changing about money in general. Black Friday may have been “up” but overall, spending (and consumption) is way, way down.

    I just finished a six-week series on generosity (which had been on the calendar for months before the recent crisis). I was tempted to bail on it because of the economy but I’m so glad I didn’t. Much to my surprise, people are more ready than ever to seriously consider the biblical plan for financial management ("give/save/live and in that order” - kudos to Stanley).

  • Posted by

    I’m actually encouraged that we are experiencing economic decline.  We are in a very very well to do community that doesn’t need God.  They have everything.  And now they are worried.  And they are starting to come to church.

    I say Praise God, people need Him now!

    And I’m also really grateful that my God is bigger than Barna research.  smile

  • Posted by

    Barna’s overall advice for churches to rethink giving patterns and budgets is extremely sound.

    What I question are his research-polling techniques and tactics.  I’m never really sure the guy is doing polling as technically accurate as say a Gallup might be.  Barna seems to just spout out these platitudes that track with his own personal beliefs.

    How many people does Barna employ?  How many people work on his surveys?
    Have any of you ever been surveyed as part of a Barna survey? 
    How does he define and find the people he wants to poll?

    I’d like to know what the big boys (Gallup, Zogby, etc) think of Barna’s work.  It might be quite good.  I just don’t know though.

  • Posted by Rick McGinniss

    @Paul ... here’s a quote from a recent article I read in the Kansas City Star.

    “A survey released this week by Federal Way, Wash.-based World Vision indicates that 2008 could actually be a better-than-usual Christmas for the nation’s charitable organizations.

    The telephone survey, conducted in late October by Harris Interactive, found that seven in 10 adults plan to spend less money on holiday presents this year, but about half say they are more likely to give a charitable gift than a traditional present such as clothing or an electronic toy.”

    Here’s the link if you are interested in the whole article. http://www.kansascity.com/440/story/901932.html

    And for the record, we have slashed our 2009 budget dramatically. We are even calling it (internally) our “depression budget.”

  • Posted by IndyChristian

    I wouldn’t venture a guess about church economics today, but I would share this observation from working with a very evangelistic church…

    Personal one-on-one, evangelism-training ministry was what this church was known for (nationwide, even globally)… But the evangelism budget was nearly a net-zero, because everyone was so passionate about it that they personally subsidized most of the costs.  Moreover, generally speaking, they were the hearty tithers.

    The best things in life are free (or nearly-so)… eternal life, Bible-reading, prayer, caring about your neighbor, sharing Good News with people.

  • Posted by

    Perhaps *gasp* some people will have to make tents. What a great EXAMPLE to shrink your churches fiscal footprint and let the church (the people) handle the ministry… like it’s supposed to for cryin’ out loud!!!

  • Posted by New Fairings

    When facing a situation like this, what is left to do is just reorganize expenses and simplify to get the best out of the little money we have.

  • Posted by Gman
  • In hard times like this I think the church should be giving to the poor and not the other way around

  • Posted by

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  • the economy is effecting everything now chruch. i have to agree me and my wife have not given that much to the church because we are broke. the economy is hurting us.

  • What I question are his research-polling techniques and tactics.  Iím never really sure the guy is doing polling as technically accurate as say a Gallup might be.  Barna seems to just spout out these platitudes that track with his own personal beliefs.

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  • Posted by wow gold

    thank you very much haha

  • Posted by

    What a good day!

  • What a good day! I like it very much

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