It appears that attendance in North American churches may not be the only thing in decline.

According to a recent study of Protestant churches in the US, financial support for the church has reached an all-time low in recent years.

The percentage of a church member’s income given to the church dropped to 2.3 percent in 2011 (the latest year for which numbers are available), down from 2.4 percent in 2010, according to the Empty Tomb study.

In 1968, church members gave an average of 3.1 percent of their income.

Giving has declined for four consecutive years, according to the report. The only other period of prolonged decline in giving per member was from 1928 through 1934, almost entirely during the Great Depression.

In 2011, the 23 denominations researched by Empty Tomb received $22.94 billion. In 2010 they received $22.88 billion.

However, in Canada where I expect the giving trend in churches is similar to the US, overall charitable giving has remained relatively steady. The Globe and Mail reported in 2012 that

The level of charitable giving in Canada remained steady through the uneven economic recovery, with about 84 per cent of the population donating to a charity or non-profit organization.

Almost 24 million Canadians made a financial donation in 2010, for a total of $10.6 billion, Statistics Canada said Wednesday. Both the percentage of the population donating and the total amount of donations were little changed from 2007, before the recession. The average annual donation was $446 per donor in 2010, similar to three years earlier.

So, it appears that churches may be facing a stiffer financial challenge than other charities.

Financial support for churches has no doubt declined in part due to a reduction in the number of people who regularly attend worship services. But, even for those who attend church regularly, giving seems to have dropped in the past decade.

There are significant economic challenges currently confronting most people that mean there is less disposable income available to the average person today than there was in the past. Household debt has reached levels that would have been unimaginable thirty years ago. According to an RBC Royal Bank 2012 poll, average Canadian household debt above mortgages, is $15,000. And 75% of Canadian households are currently carrying a debt load in excess of their mortgage.

This is simply a reality that it would be churlish and insensitive to ignore when considering levels of financial support in the church.

But there has also been a massive shift in institutional commitment in churches in the past fifty years that may contribute to the drop in financial support we are experiencing. It is not that the people who attend church have lost their faith or given up their commitment to their spiritual lives. It is simply that they are less firmly committed to the institution that tries to give communal expression to that faith and attempts to provide opportunities to nurture the spiritual life.

People shift from one church community to another in a way that was unheard of fifty years ago. The pressures of life make people less able to put in long volunteer hours doing church work and participating in church activities than was true in the past.

We who work in the church may rail against the decline in institutional commitment all we want. We may resort to the blunt instruments of guilt, shame and manipulation in an attempt to generate more involvement and corporate support. But our complaints and abuse will not change the reality of peoples’ hearts. We simply can no longer rely on the deep pool of human commitment to the life of the church institution that was characteristic in the fifties. We must accommodate our community life to this reality and learn to live joyfully with the resources that are readily available.