“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”- Helder Camara, Archbishop of Recife (1909-1999)
I’m often taken to task by city and county officials. They say I tend to focus too much on what’s wrong and not enough on what’s right. I suspect they feel singled out when I write about our 27% poverty rate, slum lords, high taxes, neglected properties, or the great social and economic gulf between our haves and have-nots.
They may or may not believe it, but I have some measure of understanding of what they’re going through. I don’t believe they like our 27% poverty rate, nor are they in the business of finding ways to make things worse. I’m sure they’d like nothing better than to see our household incomes above the national average, our poverty rate at zero, and a community of well-maintained homes with wrap around porches that are the envy of the nation.
Isn’t that what we all want?
If that’s true, and I believe it is, how have we gotten so far off track? And, how do we solve the problem?
With that in mind, I think it’s time to shine the light in another direction – toward our churches. In doing so I realize I risk incurring the wrath of many people I share a common faith with. But, I believe it’s time for people of faith to reclaim their God-given responsibility to share more generously from the wealth and grace they’ve been given.
Since the days of the Great Depression there’s been a tremendous shift in how we Americans allocate our financial resources, particularly when it comes to solving problems like poverty. Up until that time the Church was the nation’s primary instrument for support of the poor and downtrodden. That changed in one very dramatic way with the advent of New Deal programs like Social Security, the W.P.A., the Civil Works Administration, etc. The primary burden bearer for the poor, the elderly, and the unemployed became the government.
Over time, right to the present, the government’s role as the nation’s primary social benefactor has grown and the Church’s role has diminished. Today, if you were to ask someone from within or outside the Community of Faith whose responsibility it is to solve the problem of poverty, well over half would say, “The government needs to fix things.” The Church is now seen as a backstop.
The reality of the shift begs three questions. Can the Church solve the problem? Isn’t the Church being generous enough already? Does the Church have the resources equal to the massive task?
The answer to the first question is obvious. Of course! The Church is a community of faith. It’s not a static faith, but an animated faith that not only believes, but also acts.
There are two answers to the second question. First, government hasn’t solved the problem. In fact, the problem has gotten worse over time. Statistics like Emporia’s 27% poverty rate aren’t figments of overactive imaginations. Second, it depends on the measuring stick that’s used to measure generosity. During the height of the Great Depression the average church goer gave 3.3% of his or her income to charity. These days that number has declined to 2.6% (John L. Ronsvalle, “The State of Church Giving”) If one were to judge solely by that standard it could be argued that Christians today are about as generous today as they were a few generations ago.
But, the Church has, or should have, a far different standard of measurement. As it’s written, “To whom much is given, much is required.” When seen in that light the trends are troubling. The Francis Schaeffer Institute of Christian Leadership has reported that 17% of adult Christians claim to tithe (give 10% of their income), while 3% actually do. According to statistician George Barna, Protestant Christians give, on average, $17 per week to their church or other charities.
When giving is measured against that standard, it’s clear that there is plenty of room for growth.
Does the level of current giving reflect a lack of resources? Far from it. In 2000, according to David Barrett and Todd Johnson (“Interpreting the Annual Christian Megacensus”), the United States’ total Christian income was $5.2 trillion. Today that number is well over $7 trillion. And, that number doesn’t include the trillions invested in facilities or the billions held in endowments.
The truth is, if the Church would move from its current level of giving to the standard/ideal, hundreds of billions of dollars could be freed up to find meaningful solutions to the problem of poverty. It’s not a matter of whether or not the problem can be solved. It’s simply a matter of willingness to solve the problem.