Every baptized Seventh-day Adventist commits “to support the church by [their] tithes and offerings.” And I’m sure any Adventist 10-year-old could tell you that tithe is 10% of income.
But as I considered the tithe conundrum in part 1 of this series (why can’t 10-15 tithe-paying members support one pastor?), I questioned to what extent Adventists are actually living up to this commitment. In this article, we’ll look at factors 2-4 of the tithe conundrum to discover whether lack of tithing on the part of members might reduce funding for the church’s mission.
Fortunately, I am not the first to consider these concerns. From 2006 to 2012, Dr. Robert K. McIver, a seminary professor at Avondale College in Australia, undertook a massive study of tithing practices among Adventists in several countries, first at the request of the North New South Wales Conference, and then under the auspices of the General Conference.
McIver collected detailed surveys from thousands of Adventists and compared that data with tithe receipts at the churches they attended. In the United States, his research focused on the Northern California Conference. Assuming that these results approximate general trends across North America, several troubling conclusions emerge regarding the church’s tithe income.
McIver’s research reveals that factor #2 in the tithe conundrum is indeed a significant problem. Fully one-third of active members are not returning tithe at all! Many others are not giving a full 10%. (These are people who attend church at least once a month, not absentee members, who could hardly be expected to tithe.)
Young adults are especially negligent in returning tithe. The churches McIver surveyed had more than 800 members in their 20s, but only about 250 attended regularly, and less than half of those had contributed any tithe in the past year.
Based on their reported income, the 20-something church attendees should have returned 4 times as much tithe as they actually did! Older church members, however, need not smugly pat themselves on the back. Most of them gave only 40% to 60% of the tithe they should have.
The graph below shows how much tithe the average person in each age group would have returned if they had given a full 10% of their income (based on self-reported income in the survey). “Actual Tithe” is the amount of tithe turned in per person, on average.
Why are so many active church members neglecting something as fundamental as tithing? McIver’s survey asked people who didn’t return a full tithe what would need to change for them to do better.
I was surprised at the responses. Most of these Adventists were not concerned about the church’s handling of money, disgruntled over church theology and practice (either conservative or liberal), or dissatisfied with the level of pastoral care they received. Only a quarter felt they couldn’t afford to pay tithe. Hardly anyone asserted that “I need to be convinced from the Bible that Christians should return tithe.”
So what was the most common reason for not tithing?
Yes, a full one-third of the survey respondents admitted that “Sometimes I forget to tithe.” An even larger group affirmed, “I think I should tithe, but I need to get in the habit of tithing regularly.”
Young people in their 20s and 30s were twice as likely as senior citizens to forget their tithe. In fact, the most common tithing frequency for people in their 20s was twice a year, even though the vast majority of them said they intended to return tithe at least once a month.
In other words, many Adventists, especially young people, believe they should tithe. They fully intend to tithe. But they simply don’t follow through.
What could be done to change this reality?
I’ll consider possible steps we can take as individuals in a separate article. In addition to our personal responsibility, McIver believes the church should do more to make tithing convenient for members, especially as financial transactions become increasingly digital.
Online giving has been available for several years, but the church has finally taken the next step by launching an e-giving mobile app earlier this year. (To download it, search for Adventist Giving in the App Store or Google Play Store.) Text-to-donate is another option worth considering. Reminders about online giving in church email newsletters, on social media, and during the worship service could nudge people’s consciousness.
But some potential solutions are controversial, given Adventists’ avoidance of financial transactions on Sabbath. I can only imagine how many eyebrows would fly up if my church installed credit-card readers in the foyer so attendees could make donations on the spot. But outside the Adventist world, roughly one in five large churches offers payment kiosks on site.
Or picture an offering call where the elder says, “If you didn’t come prepared to put a tithe envelope in the offering plate, just pull out your phone and submit your donation now while the deacons go down the aisles.” Too much commercialism in the church service?
Asking for money in church has always been a sensitive subject, but McIver points out that there’s more to the equation than a financial transaction. Adventists who spend more time in Bible study, prayer, and other spiritual activities are more likely to be faithful tithers. So as the church nurtures its members into a deepening relationship with Christ, it will likely reap a financial benefit.
I’ll Send My Tithe Wherever I Want!
What about factor #3: Diversion of tithe to entities other than the organized church? McIver’s study looked at this topic as well. He found that at least a third of church members thought there was nothing wrong with giving tithe to fund the local church and school, support overseas missions, or help needy people, rather than sending it through officially approved church channels (to the local conference via the local church).
At least half of Adventists in the Northern California Conference had given tithe to “unauthorized” projects within the past year—most commonly the local church budget. The graph below shows just a few of the destinations for tithe.
Although McIver’s research doesn’t show what percentage of tithe is diverted, it’s clear that this factor reduces the amount of tithe that local conferences receive. Interestingly, those who felt it was OK to use their own discretion as to where they sent their tithe were also less committed to returning tithe in the first place. So their decision to divert tithe seems to stem less from zeal to make sure their tithe is used effectively and more from a lackadaisical approach to tithing.
The church might be hard-pressed to prove from the Bible that the local conference (as opposed to the General Conference or some other church entity) is the “storehouse” of Malachi 3:10, as stated in the church’s official policy on the use of tithe. However, it can certainly make the case that tithe is not yours to use however you wish. Educating members on the biblical purpose of tithe, the importance of returning it to one designated location, and the distinction between tithe and discretionary offerings might help to reduce the shortfall from tithe diversion.
When I started exploring this topic, I suspected that the aging of the North American Adventist population might negatively impact the church’s total tithe resources. I assumed that retired people would have limited incomes and thus might be contributing a relatively small amount of tithe. It also seemed likely that Adventists might have larger numbers of students (thanks to our emphasis on education) and stay-at-home moms than average. All told, I guessed that up to 30% of adult church members might not be gainfully employed and thus wouldn’t return tithe.
McIver’s research confirmed that people in their 70s and above are vastly over-represented among church-attending Adventists compared with the general population, while people in their 20s and 30s are significantly under-represented. (Perhaps the health message should bear part of the blame—Adventists just don’t die off soon enough!)
Not surprisingly, the 20-somethings, many of whom are probably in school or searching for their first “real job,” reported the lowest per capita income among the age brackets. Church members in their 70s and 80s also had lower incomes than people in their prime earning years, although all these groups were still far above poverty level.
However, as the first two graphs in this article reveal, senior Adventists are so much more faithful than younger generations in returning their tithe that an aging church membership has a neutral or even positive impact on total tithe. In fact, church-attending Adventists in their 80s return more tithe per person than any other age group!
So although I probably underestimated the percentage of active members who are not working full-time, factor #4 (Adventists without an income) proved not to be the primary culprit in any tithe shortfall.
An Alarming Tithe Trend
Since total tithe collected in the North American Division goes up almost every year, church members and leaders might think we’re on a positive trajectory. In reality, McIver revealed, this slight yearly increase masks a disturbing reality: People’s incomes are rising much faster than tithe dollars. If tithe had increased as much as wages in the U.S. since 1970, it should now be $1906 per person instead of $804.
In other words, the portion of income that members return as tithe has declined dramatically over the past 40 years. Active members now give only 4% to 6% of their income as tithe, on average. The graph above, which reflects inactive members as well, paints an even more discouraging picture.
Although Adventists still give more than many other Christians, this downward trend does not bode well for future funding of the church’s mission. Thus it is imperative that church leaders find effective ways to encourage faithful tithing, especially among younger generations. Imagine what the church could accomplish with an extra $1 billion in tithe!
Given that tithe received by the church is less than half what it should be, it’s no wonder we can’t afford one pastor for every 10-15 members. But paying pastors turns out to be only one of many uses for our tithe dollars. The next article will look at how tithe is actually used.
 Robert K. McIver, Tithing Practices Among Seventh-day Adventists: A Study of Tithe Demographics and Motives in Australia, Brazil, England, Kenya and the United States (jointly published by Avondale Academic Press and the General Conference’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, 2016). Unless noted, statistics in this article are from McIver’s book. Much of the information can also be found online at https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/ARSR/article/viewFile/8967/8922 and https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2001/08/a-provocative-study-of-tithing-trends-in-australia.html.
 Many of these people may be giving tithe in a way that doesn’t allow their church treasurer to track it as such, either by giving it to other projects or ministries or by anonymously putting cash in the offering plate. In McIver’s survey, only 6% of people claimed they gave no tithe.
 Of the church attenders whose age group could be determined, about 75% returned tithe.