CHAMPAIGN — After many years of reporting the impacts of declining church giving, the Champaign Christian organization Empty Tomb and its leaders see the need for a divine spark to make a difference.
Christians could do much now to help a hurting world if churches would provide the hope and vision they’re lacking, according to Empty Tomb co-founder Sylvia Ronsvalle.
“We’re waiting for the spark of God to get it going,” she said.
Sylvia and John Ronsvalle and Empty Tomb recently released their 29th edition of the state of church giving report, this one comparing giving for the years between 1968 and 2017.
Downward trends have continued, Sylvia Ronsvalle said.
In 1968, church members gave 3.02 percent of their income to their churches, according to the report. In 2017, that figure had declined to 2.13 percent.
If that doesn’t sound like much of a decline, Ronsvalle said it’s a difference of billions of dollars.
The largest share of the 2.13 percent of income people gave to churches in 2017 went to support congregational finances, rather than to support outside charitable work.
“The richer we get, the more isolated we get,” Ronsvalle said.
Churches are in a good position to provide leadership and hope, she said, but they have become “cultural wallpaper.”
“The church is a — if not the — significant social institution in the United States, but it has not been acting like it,” she said.
Meanwhile, collective gross negligence has continued to foster 1 million preventable child deaths a year in dozens of countries, Ronsvalle said.
That’s not to say people aren’t acting charitably in their own communities. Empty Tomb harnesses Christian church members to help those in need, and Ronsvalle said she’s seen many of these church members doing good for others.
But, she contended, they’re not reaching their full potential.
What these local acts of charity say to her is that Christians will respond if they’re given a vision, Ronsvalle said.
“What the church has failed to do is the vision casting,” she said.
The latest church giving report contended Hollywood is doing a better job than churches are in understanding the kind of vision and hope people need. The highest-grossing movies in the U.S. as of mid-2019 have all been action/adventure stories with heroes taking on fierce opponents, the report says.
“People want meaning. They want hope,” Ronsvalle said. “Hollywood gets it.”
These top-grossing action/adventure movies “are tapping into that excitement generated by the spark of eternity placed in the human heart by God,” the report concluded.
“How then, is it that the church, with the all-time true Super Hero, is seen as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘boring’?” the report asks. “It can only be concluded that the contemporary church is not living out its story in a way that connects with the spark of eternity in the human heart as Hollywood seems to be doing so successfully.”
The Empty Tomb report also spotlighted declining church membership, and a Pew Research Center report released Thursday reinforced that.
Telephone surveys done in 2018 and this year found that 65 percent of American adults called themselves Christians when asked about their religion — a decade decline of 12 percentage points, according to the Pew report. The percentage of those who don’t claim a religious affiliation stands at 26 percent — up from 17 percent 10 years ago, according to Pew.
If church was an exciting place that was helping people make sense of the world, Ronsvalle said, people would flock there.
“We don’t understand our power,” she said. “We are the sleeping giant.”