At its best, research should help leaders see the reality on the ground more clearly and then make better decisions for the future. Some of the best questions to bring to a set of data are: What’s the context of the research? What are the strategic implications? And what can we do in response?
1. What’s the Context
of the Research?
Because the giving landscape is changing, Barna researchers believe there is extraordinary urgency behind this research. The shifting landscape of generosity means that church leaders not only should grapple with these questions, but also they must do so. There is no time like the present— when things are as good as they are likely to get—to explore the current and future efficacy of funding models for churches and church planters.
It is unlikely the landscape will become more favorable in the next decade. This isn’t meant to be a downer—just a recognition that the trends for money and ministry are more likely to be headwinds than tailwinds.
• Younger generations are rethinking generosity. Millennials and Gen-Xers have less financial margin than older generations had at the same stage of life. They are deeper in debt and many do not have reliable, livable wages as their parents did at their age. To top it off, many young adults are waiting to marry and start a family, which means they will not become a reliable giving household until later in life. While they are more likely to give by electronic methods, younger adults are less likely to give to congregations (as opposed to other charitable causes), to give regularly or to give large percentages of their income (such as tithing). We anticipate the next decade or two to be the final years in which churches can count on the generosity of Boomers and Elders. The implication of these generational giving patterns is that the planting community must develop a “new wineskins” approach to funding ministry, and redouble our efforts to teach younger generations the importance of tithing and the spiritual discipline of generosity —even as we find ways to help them be wise with their money, meager though it may be.
• Views and practices of generosity are changing. Beyond mere generational changes, the charitable landscape is shifting. People have many options to which they can channel their charitable dollars, putting pressure on churches and ministries—traditionally the primary recipients of philanthropic giving. People want to see their donated funds produce life-change and transformation, and church leaders are not typically skilled in how to communicate value to donors, especially in a competitive marketplace. Although it is unlikely to change in the near future, there are questions about the long-term availability of tax deductions to givers. This is especially concerning in light of questions about “social extremism”—that is, the concerns being raised about whether religious organizations and churches are forces for good or, in fact, something less helpful for society.
• “Regular” church attenders are not so regular anymore. Another factor that affects the future economic viability of church planting relates to changing levels of church loyalty. People are less likely today, compared to decades past, to be relationally connected to the local congregation as their social hub (a trend we expect to deepen). Thus, they feel less responsible for the church’s financial well-being. Increasingly, people think of themselves as “regular churchgoers” even if they only attend once a month. But that means the typical church has fewer Sundays per year when a giving household is on the campus of the church.
• The Bible is seen as less authoritative. Millennials and Gen-Xers, in particular, tend to be more skeptical than older generations about the Bible’s authority—which means church leaders have a harder time simply relying on scriptural imperatives to inspire generous giving.
• Skepticism is increasing the need for transparency. Any church is just one bad social media moment away from a funding disruption, especially if the leadership is not vigilant and even overzealous about honesty and transparency. In decades past, parishioners may have trusted church leaders to deploy their funds wisely, but today people are skeptical. Transparent financial reporting is now a nonnegotiable.
On the other hand, there are certainly some positive realities that may provide a sort of “tailwind” for church giving.
• The strength and resilience of the “super committed.” The most generous givers to churches provide the lion’s share of support, and it’s quite probable that, as pressure increases on churches, these stalwarts will step up even more to support the work. It’s a church startup version of “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
• Although the next 10 to 15 years will see the inevitable loss of older givers, the next two decades will also provide a significant transfer of wealth to younger generations, as tens of millions of Boomers and Elders pass on. If we can instill spiritually rigorous giving practices now in younger adults, there will eventually be plenty of resources to bridge from here to there.
• There is a growing effort to find future funding models for churches and church plants, which means that people are bringing their entrepreneurial skillsets to this vexing problem.
• God is sovereign and will always provide for his people exactly what they need at the time it’s needed. He is a God who provides, and we must never let our awareness of trends change our foundational understanding of God’s character.
Still, we shouldn’t let potential favorable realities cloud our thinking or delay our planning. It’s likely to get tough in the next 10 years, and we have a God-given responsibility to think and plan for the lean years ahead.
Now that we understand the context, we can use this data to get ready.
2. What Are the
Implications For Us?
In addition to understanding the broader context, leaders must consider the “so what?” question. Here are some strategic questions organizations should ask themselves to apply the findings of this study to their own ministry.
These questions address the organization’s systems. In light of the research, what systems need to change?
Recruiting, Selection, Training and Launch of Church Planters
• What’s working best when it comes to bringing in and sending out new planters?
• What needs to change in order to both broaden our recruiting base and target specific demographics?
• How can we get to the point where planters are prepared for all facets of ministry and leadership?
• What would happen if we found alternate ways to manage church startup administration, relying less on ministry leaders?
Funding Church Startups and Church Planters
• What’s working best when it comes to raising and maintaining the flow of funds?
• What needs to change in order to raise the average household income of planters?
• How can we ensure startups in less stable environments, such as urban centers, get greater levels of support?
• What would happen if we went back to the drawing board on funding new churches? What would it look like to make a whole new model?
This set of questions address the ministry’s people. In light of the research, what should people do differently?
Developing A Culture of Generosity
• What’s working best when it comes to cultivating habits of giving in new and younger stakeholders?
• What needs to change in order to demonstrate and communicate how financial support transforms lives and communities?
• How can we inspire buy-in and ownership of not just the mission but also providing the resources needed to accomplish the mission?
• What would happen if we considered training in generosity an important aspect of discipleship?
Supporting Church Planters and Their Families
• What’s working best when it comes to making sure planting is a whole-church affair, with weight distributed beyond just the planter’s family?
• What needs to change in order to limit the impact of unnecessary financial struggles on planting families?
• How can we strengthen marriages to weather the ups and downs of birthing new churches, and start churches in a way that won’t undermine leaders’ marriages?
• What would happen if we gave planters permission and support to prioritize their families?
3. How Should We Respond?
Finally, Barna encourages leaders grappling with this research to consider a number of “big picture” conclusions.
• Embrace complexity and the challenge of change. It is a remarkable opportunity to lead during this era, but only those who get comfortable with complexity will navigate these times.
• Realize this era of change requires entrepreneurship and new partnerships. We won’t be able to respond to the changes we face without working together in new ways and finding new ways of working. This is a time to take risks together, to dare greatly.
• Establish practices to see and shape reality. In order to lead effectively toward a vibrant future of church funding, we need effective tools to examine what is true about our context and about our results. If we can’t see what is, we won’t see what might be.
• Revise our “impact scorecard” to focus on changed lives. We need a better set of metrics than cash and congregants. We must look for ways to measure transformation in lives of the people we disciple and communities we serve.
• Love the right things. Finally, in order to be effective as leaders within the church planting community, let’s work hard at loving the right thing—Jesus—for the right reasons—the flourishing of God’s people. And then teach others to do the same.