Is the USA in a better position to finance missionaries than ever before?

January 1, 0001

Q: Where does the present day USA church rank historically as far wealth/affluence regarding potential to finance missionaries, overseas ministry? (theory: never has a church had more opportunity to finance overseas ministry). I think about this when I get the “we just can’t bring on any new missionaries” response. ~Z&K

Well, the answer is complicated and a little gloomy, unfortunately.

Has there ever been a year when American Christians gave more to missions than they did in, say, 2015? There is no precise, absolute answer because there is no aggregate total of Christian giving in the United States to missions for every year since the nation’s founding.

However, median personal income for men stood at $2,500 in 1950.

It had risen to $12,530 by 1980, then to $20,293 by 1990.

(Women earn less.) Given these significantly “lower” amounts it seems nigh impossible more was given before 2000 in terms of absolute dollar amounts.

The Atlas of Global Christianity tells us:

  • in 1910, there were 204 missionary societies in America, which collectively took in then US$9 million (not including Catholic and Orthodox mission sending societies).
  • In 2010, the total amount given to missions had risen to US$5 billion.

We can’t directly compare those two, because of inflation: the cost to buy, say, a loaf of bread was far less in 1910 than in 2010.

But an inflation calculator can tell us the US$9 million in 1910 is estimated to be worth about $200 million in 2010.

So, from that perspective, it seems doubly clear: in terms of absolute dollars, the church is certainly giving more to missions today than it ever has. Are individual people giving more, though? Perhaps those 1910 givers were more impassioned, and today all those nominals are less so.

In 1910 there were 84 million believers; in 2010, there were 257.3 million.

With this, we can compute per person giving.

In 1910, it stood at $0.002 per week per person, or the equivalent of $0.04 per person per week in 2010 dollars.

By comparison in 2010 they were giving $0.37 per believer per week. More is being given today on average per person. Still, $0.37 per person per week seems quite a small amount–about the price of a soda.

For a family of 4, it represents an average gift of about $6/month, or $75 per year. Barna says the average Protestant church size in America is 89; their total mission budget would be about $131/month.

About 2% of churches have over 1,000 adults; every 1,000 adults represents about $1,500/month in missions giving.

Depending on the size of the church and the amount it gives on average to missionaries, this could represent somewhere between, say, 1 and 15 missionary families.

(And remember some churches do not support missionary families directly; rather, they give to cooperative programs–this is the pattern for the Southern Baptists.) Might they do more? You might take a look at the size of the church and the number of families it supports and make an educated guess, but I don’t want to get in to judging congregations.

Rather, let’s take a different approach and ask what the root causes are.

Why might a church not give more? The church can’t give what is not given by their members.

Why might their members not give more? Economics is a sticky issue, and I’m no economist, but here are the statistics: In America, median annual household income is $50,500: half earn less, half earn more.

Of those <$50k, half (25% of all households) earn less than $25,000.

Of those >$50k, slightly more than half earn between $50k and $100,000.

So, in all, about 80% of American households earn less than $100,000 a year.

The 20% earning more than $100,000 in the USA is generally more likely to give large gifts toward big projects.

Giving to individual workers is more likely in the “bottom” 80%.

Unfortunately, those at the “bottom” of the economic pie have seen very little real income growth over the past forty years.

Households that earned $42,000 in 1967 earn about $50,000 (see the chart in Wikipedia from US Census data).

Yet over the same period of time, costs of living have gone up.

If you needed $40,000 per year to pay your bills, etc., in 1995, …

you would by contrast need $62,000 today (given inflation)…

but you would still be earning $50,000.

Looking at it from a slightly different, personal income view: 45% of all individuals aged 15 years or older earn less than $25,000, or $12/hour for full-time work (or less).

Based on MIT’s Living Wage Calculator (basic needs, incl.

food, child care, medical insurance, housing, transportation, and other basic necessities), this is a “living wage” for 1 person for most states.

If there are any additional non-working people in the household, $25,000 starts veering toward a poverty wage.

Remembering 50% of householdsare under the $50,500 line: $50k is $24/hour, which is a living wage for up to 2 adults and 3 children.

But 25% of households are under the $25,000 line, or significantly under this “living wage.” (And in fact, the number of households in poverty, or under US$2/day/person, doubled in number between 1995 and 2010, reaching 1.6 million, or about 1% of the population).

Finally, wealth is not geographically evenly distributed in the United States: see this map.

The so-called “Bible Belt” churches also tend to be in regions that are economically poorer off.

While many megachurches in urban centers are doing well enough, the “average” church undoubtedly feels the pinch of its members' financial straits.

So, one reason the majority of churches aren’t seeing significant increases in their budgets is that their members aren’t: the majority of American households are, based on the statistics, pretty strapped.

It’s not just too many movies and too many Starbucks coffees: it is a real economic condition of struggling to make ends meet.

If your wages aren’t going up but your costs are, it’s going to become progressively harder.

Younger people may have more disposable income in some cases, but not always. Any debt (credit card, student loan, car payments, divorce/child support/alimony) would simply aggravate the condition.

If you want to read more on this subject, see For most workers, real wages have barely budged for decades (Pew) Based on the data readily to hand, it seems a probable assessment: given that costs of living are rising but income is not, and most are close to the boundaries of what their bills demand monthly, it seems unlikely we will see a significant rise in charitable giving in the near future.

How might we alter this seemingly gloomy picture? Here are some possibilities:

Anecdotally I’ve seen a lot of workers have more success raising up individual partners than bringing on new supporting churches.

It’s probably far easier to build relationship with 10 individual donors than with 10 churches, just given the way many churches have to operate.

And, since churches tend to support some missionaries by default (“we can’t take any more on”) there are a fair number of believer households who haven’t “taken on their first missionary family” and might have space in their budget that churches do not.

  • Individual churches might be persuaded to consider a “bring a dollar to church Sunday for missions” - 1 dollar per 4 person family (or even better 1 dollar per person) would be more than a doubling of current missions giving (and if a church of 500 did this and saw 100% participation it would be a significant missions budget!).
  • Megachurches (>1000) and middle-sized churches (>500) are doing quite well and may be sources of funding.

Again, obviously, relationship is key.

  • New people entering the market (e.g.

the young growing up) are potential new partners.

  • Another possibility is to look at the very large number of nominals in the USA, most of whom are likely not giving to missions.

If discipleship programs resulted in a decrease in nominalism, it would likely correlate to an increase in giving.

Churches that see even a 5% improvement in this area would likely see giving rise by a similar if not greater amount.

  • Finally, I often think about Kevin Kelly’s “Thousand True Fans” idea - for the artist, writer, programmer, whatever, these are people who give/purchase $100/yr worth of goods from you.

(In his mind, you don’t have to be a celebrity to have a thriving business: you just need about a thousand raving fans.) We often think of needing a small number of churches or people who give large amounts ($500-$1000) per month toward the work; but we might be better off thinking in terms of a larger number of smaller gifts (bigger prayer network, bigger referral network, bigger pool of wisdom, smaller risk if someone has to drop out).

  • There’s always the possibility that “we can’t take on any new missionaries now” doesn’t actually mean that; it might be code for some other reason for refusal.