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Commitment to Tithing Is Now Rare

Churches nationwide report a decline in members who give 10% of their gross income. The soft economy is among reasons given.

May 31, 2003|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

Jean and Jim Darrell are a Los Angeles couple of modest means who live frugally by necessity.

He works part time for an internist, doing office work, and she augments the family income by house sitting and taking care of a friend's pets. They drive a 1989 Mazda and seldom go out to eat.

Yet they've been giving a tenth of their gross income to their church for the past 20 years -- even when Jim Darrell was unemployed after being laid off.

"Leaping out in faith" to commit 10% of their earnings ahead of time has been "an adventure," they concede. But, they say, they have always managed.

"God always provides," said Darrell, who, with his wife, is a longtime member of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. "Nothing extra -- just the essentials, which is all we need."

But people like the Darrells -- those who hew to the biblical mandate of tithing -- are increasingly rare, according to surveys and church records of contributions. Churches and nonprofit Christian ministries across the country have been reporting a significant decline in financial support in the last year and a half. Some attribute the change to competition for charitable dollars since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, others blame the poor economy.

Consistent tithers are a small group -- about 3% of American adults last year, according to a recent study. And the proportion of tithers appears to be dropping, the survey indicates. In 2001, 8% of adults surveyed reported that they tithed, according to the poll of 1,010 adults by the Oxnard-based Barna Research Group. The independent marketing research firm has tracked cultural trends related to beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

Even among born-again Christians, who make up 38% of the nation's population, just 6% tithed last year, compared with 14% in 2001, the survey found.

Among evangelicals -- defined for the survey as people who believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Jesus with non-Christians -- 9% tithed, according to the survey. The evangelical group makes up roughly 6% of the nation's population, according to Barna figures.

Pollster George Barna attributes the decline in the number of people tithing to the soft economy, the threat of terrorism, the scandals involving Catholic priests and long-term demographic shifts.

"We are losing many of the people who have a habit of tithing," he said, "while the proportion of homes headed by younger adults, who have never tithed and don't plan to, is growing."

According to Barna's survey, people older than 55 are far more likely to tithe than younger people. Of particular importance to California, Latinos are less likely to tithe than non-Latinos. Tithing has more typically been a significant tenet of Protestant than of the Catholic traditions in which most Latinos were raised.

Maria Leon, a Mexican immigrant who cleans homes and offices to support her family, bucks that trend.

Though she earns $10 an hour, she gives one day's wage to her church every Sunday.

Five years ago, when she wasn't working on Wednesdays, she prayed that God would fill that day with gainful employment, she said. When she found work, she promised to turn over the day's earnings to God. She has kept the vow.

"I am so happy" to be able to tithe, said Leon, a member of the Iglesia de Dios, a Pentecostal church in Boyle Heights. "I don't have much money, but I am rich because God is my father," she said.

For Jeff Traintime, a Universal Music Sales Division executive, working up to tithing was a 10-year process.

"I was the kind of a person who thought that it was a big deal if I dropped $5 on the plate at church on Sunday," said Traintime. But in the 1980s, when he returned to the church after a 20-year hiatus, he began to think differently.

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Step-by-Step Process

After he and his wife, Jana Loner, talked it over, they pledged 2%. When that worked out, they upped it to 3% the following year, until they finally reached 10%, a decade later.

"It was a step-by-step process of learning that we could do it, and we would be taken care of even though we didn't have that money in our pockets anymore," Traintime said.

He still has no human explanation for what happened to him within three months after making the pledge.

"This may seem a little too spooky for a newspaper, but ... I suddenly got the biggest raise I'd ever had," he recalled.

The bonus exceeded the sum he had committed. "I've never quite gotten over the astonishment of that."

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Childhood Training

For Lauralil Evans Deats, a charter member of the Bel Air Presbyterian Church, tithing is a practice she learned as a child, when her parents taught her to set aside a dime for every dollar she got.

That habit has continued throughout her life, says the Westside resident. Though decades have passed since she and her husband were newlyweds with a monthly income of $275, Deats still remembers with a smile how much joy it gave them to write a $27.50 check to their home church.

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