Generosity among young adults linked to vision, not to institutions

Tuesday, May 18, 2021
Michael F. Haverluck (

Church offering

A nationwide analysis of church membership and church giving shows that as church membership in the U.S. declines, so does giving amongst young adults.

After analyzing youth behavior in America, empty tomb, inc. reports that religious settings are where young people learn philanthropy – leading its researchers to seek the answer to the question: "If young people learn to practice philanthropy in church, and churches are in downward trends, will philanthropy continue to thrive in the U.S.?"

Where does the money go?

Looking at data collected from the last 15 editions of its "State of Church Giving" series, empty tomb crunched charitable giving numbers published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE). The CE Survey breaks down giving into four categories:

  • Charities and other organizations
  • Church, religious organizations
  • Educational institutions
  • Gifts to 'non-consumer-unit members; of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.

It came as little surprise to empty tomb that Americans under 25 give charities a nominal part of their income. However, it was surprising to find that an overwhelming majority of this younger age group's donations are given to "church, religious organizations."

"In 2018, [the percentage of giving to church or religious organizations] was 71%," empty tomb reveals. "The average for this Under-25 data set over the years of 2004 through 2018 was 80%."

Yet the percentage of donations going to faith-based groups has declined significantly since 2004.

"[A]lthough still the largest category in 2018, the portion of income given to 'church, religious organizations' by the Under-25 set declined as part of their total giving, from 93% in 2004 to 71% in 2018 – a decline of 16% from the 2004 base of portion of Total Giving to 'church, religious organizations,'" the analysis shows.

Churches still on top of Americans' giving

After analyzing all the data, empty tomb finds one thing in common regarding Americans' philanthropic habits.

"[I]n 2018, Americans self-reported that 'church, religious organizations' received the highest portion of their donations in every age group, every income level and every region of the U.S.," empty tomb divulges. "This trend was observed in most other years, as well … [with] data suggest[ing] a relationship between philanthropy and religion."

But the amount going toward faith-based groups could drop in coming years, as surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018 and 2019 found that less than 50% of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) identified as Christian, while 40% of this group claimed themselves as "Unaffiliated."

Additionally, a shift from an earlier pattern of youth leaving the church but returning later in life was discovered by Ryan Burge – associate professor at Eastern Illinois University – when he analyzed figures produced by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

"For those born in 1970–1974, there was no increase in church attendance when they reached 36 to 45," Burge's research indicated, according to empty tomb. "Increased attendance was reported among those born in 1975–1979, but numbers for those born in 1980–1984 actually posted a decline in church attendance when reaching 36–45."

Furthermore, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy divulged in a 2019 report that households donating to charity decreased from 61% in 2010 to 53% in 2016 – a drop in 20 million American households … which could reflect a significant reduction in those practicing religion.

Why the drop?

According to Church Answers founder Thom Rainer – former president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention's Lifeway Christian Resources – young Americans donate their money to a vision … rather than to institutions.

"If a compelling vision is not clear – or if there are many competing visions and emphases – these younger adults may shift their giving elsewhere," Rainer points out, according to empty tomb.

Changing the tide?

In hopes of reversing this trend in giving, empty tomb developed the Mission Match project that combines congregational initiative with a focused vision as they make the choice to become part of the solution that ends, "in Jesus' name."

For example, when a congregation chooses a delivery channel and project to support based in one of 40 countries – with the goal of stopping 1.2 million annual child deaths by 2025 – it then applies for matching funds from Mission Match.

With empty tomb currently looking for ten leader congregations to apply for matching funds and one or more venture philanthropists to help fund Mission Match, more than 1 million lives could be saved – a project that could very likely have the side effect of getting younger generations involved in church and putting the faith into action.


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