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Home > Church Family > Sermon Summaries > 3 Nov 2001, Dr Rob McIver - Tithing > Is the Church Facing a Financial Crisis? (Record, June 9, 2001)

Is the Church Facing a Financial Crisis?

Record, June 9, 2001 - Dr Robert McIver & Stephen J Currow

Tithe has increased each year in the South Pacific Division.  That is good news, or it would be except for the fact that wages and costs have been increasing at a  faster rate.  This article will put forward some rather sobering evidence that tithe in Australia has been falling behind wages and costs for at least 20 years.  It will then consider the impact that this is having on the whole South Pacific Division.

Early in 1999 the youngest member of the executive committee of the North New South Wales Conference (NNSW) said, "My age group is not giving tithe.  We need to do some research into the future financial viability of the Church in this conference."  That one remark has sparked a number of inter-related initiatives.  This article will report on two of them: Census data, and the results of an analysis of tithe receipts held in local churches.

Census Data Shows Tithe has Fallen Approximately 40% in the last 20 years relative to the income of Australian Adventists

Our research did not begin with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), but it is a logical place to begin sharing our results.  Since the 1971 census there has been a separate check-box for Seventh-day Adventists in the question asking about denominational affiliation.  For a modest fee, the ABS was able to supply us with the numbers of those living in Australia since 1976 who said they were Seventh-day Adventists.  As well as this, they were able to provide the number who were in each age group, and an estimate of their incomes.

Of course, not everybody that identified themselves as an Adventist on the census attends Church every weekend, and perhaps there is a small number who attend church who do not identify themselves as an Adventist on the census.  But there must be a considerable overlap between the two groups, and the numbers in both groups are increasing at about the same rate.  This means that the Australian census figures are not just the best available estimate of Adventist income that there is available, they might actually be a relatively accurate estimate.  A full tithe would be 10% of income, and it is possible to plot this 10% against tithe receipts thus:

Although church figures for tithe are available since the church began in Australia, it proved convenient to graph tithe receipts back to 1951.  Tithe receipts have shown a continuous upward trend, and the Church has been rightly proud of the faithful tithe stewardship of its members.  Yet, if one compares 10% of actual income earned by Australian Adventists since 1976, it is clear that income has been increasing faster than tithe receipts.  In 1976, the actual tithe is about 86% to what might be estimated as 10% of total Adventist income.  By 1996 this had dropped to 50%.  It is easier to see the real state of affairs if 10% income is kept constant, and a graph of receipted tithe as a percentage of that figure is drawn.  The graph looks like this:

In other words, for the last 20 years there has been a steady decrease in the percentage of Adventist income that is returned to the Church in tithe.  This decline is in the order of 40%.  As almost all tithe is used by the Church in wages, this has meant that the Church has been unable to employ the same number of Church workers per Church attender.

There are any number of factors which might be put forward to explain why tithe receipts have fallen so markedly against actual incomes, but the results of an analysis of tithe receipts from local churches in NNSW shows that one of the significant contributing factors is that there is an age-related difference in tithe giving patterns.

Age Related Differences in Tithing Patterns

It was clear from the first, that the tithe receipts held by the various local churches would provide valuable insights into the patterns of tithe return.  Yet, a procedure had to be put in place to ensure the continued confidentiality of the tithe giver.  As a result of widespread consultation and a submission to the Human Research Ethics Committee of Avondale College, it was decided that the best way to do that would be to have the Church treasurers perform the actual analysis, given that they were already knew the identities of tithers.

Peter Colquhoun, the NNSW conference president, wrote to church boards requesting permission for the Church treasurer to provide the data.  Where permission was given, the church treasurers then used a list put together by the pastor of those that attend church twice a month or more, together with their ages.  They then reported how many from each age group on that list returned tithe, and totaled up the amount of tithe that came from each age group.

Church treasurers are volunteers, and the analysis they were asked to do was very time consuming and tedious.  Nor was the task a trivial one for pastors of larger congregations.  It is remarkable that so many were willing to participate in the research, which represents an analysis of thousands of receipts.  In fact, the data provided represents the tithe-giving of those attending 23 churches.  Between them, there are 5,152 members on the rolls of these churches, or 53% out of the total conference membership of 9,760.  More than 2,529 worshippers attended these churches at least twice a month, with between 270 and 459 in each ten-year age bracket.   19 of the churches reported tithe totals from the various age groups.  These totals amount to 43% ($1,697,674) out of  the $3,955,877 tithe that is receipted through local Churches in the NNSW conference.

We thus had access to figures that gave an age-related breakdown of tithe contributed, as well as percentages of those who tithed in each age group that attends Church.  The most significant finding arose from a comparison between  percentage of total tithe contributed by a particular age group, when compared to percentage of total income earned by that age group.  We compared the two numbers by subtracting the two  percentages.  This procedure would give a zero if that age group was contributing an amount of tithe that corresponded to its income.  The results are as follows:

Comparison of Tithe & Income by Age group, NNSW Conference








Income (ABS)







Tithe (NNSW Survey)














When the differences are graphed the result looks like this:

This graph reveals a striking difference in tithe-returning behavior between the under-50-year-olds, and the over-50-year-olds.  It is true, that the younger you are, the less likely you are to return tithe, but superimposed on this trend is a dramatic difference that occurs at age 50.  This difference shows in the percentage of tithers in the two age groups as well:


50 and above



One thing that should be said, though, is that while these results are significant for the whole group of church attenders, they do not give the ability to predict who returns tithe.  One cannot go up to somebody under 40 and say, "you are not tithing," because a considerable number of them are faithful tithers, and do so at considerable sacrifice.  Nor can one say of somebody that is over 50, "you are a tither," because 38% of them are not.  But by and large, there is a significant difference in the number of tithers in the two age groups.

This age-related difference in tithe-returning behaviour explains why tithe receipts have decreased against wages earned for the last 20 years.  The group now aged between 40 and 50 have most likely always contributed less tithe than their elders, as has each younger group.  As these groups represent more of the salary and wage earners in the Church, tithe has declined compared to wages.

How Important is this for the South Pacific Division?

According to the latest figures available, in 1999, only 16% (49,644 out of 317,560) of the Church membership lived in Australia.  Perhaps the fall in tithe in Australia is not important to the Division.  It might not be, except for the fact that 63% ($36,680,463 out of $58,499,950) of the tithe receipted in the Division comes from Australia.  Thus what happens to tithe and other giving in Australia has a very significant effect on what the South Pacific Division is able to do to fulfill its mission.

Does this mean that there is a financial crisis in the South Pacific Division?  No.  The Adventist membership continues to be very generous with its tithes and offerings, and the Church still has significant financial resources available to it.  Nor should one downplay the significant financial contribution to the Church made by Sanitarium Health Food Company.  But, because most tithe is used in wages, it has meant that there has been a slow erosion of the number of denominational employees it is able to find out of tithe received.

Is There Only Gloomy News?

Is the news all bad?  No, indeed not.  There are still a large number of faithful tithe returners in the younger age group.  Moreover, we are about half way through a research project seeking to understand what motivates members to return tithe involving surveys of church attenders.  There are several encouraging things that are emerging from that survey.  For example, so far, 57% of those answering the survey who did not tithe, or did not tithe a full 10% checked this box: "I think I should tithe, but I need to get into the habit of tithing regularly."  There is a very deep well of good will towards the church, and a continuing conviction that tithing is a biblical principal which shows that perhaps it is not too late to slow or even reverse the downward trend in tithe.

One thing is for sure, though: the issue of tithing will probably be talked about more often than it might have been in the last few years.  In future articles, we hope to bring back further reports on our research into what motivates members to tithe, and perhaps looks more closely at the biblical data on tithing.

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