Alarm bells are ringing. Ever more loudly and more ominously throughout the nonprofit world, warning buzzers are sounding a grim caution: Charitable giving is in a perilous dip.

The worst reports are coming from secular situations. In a report on major foundations, The Wall Street Journal notes that several have cut back their giving by 50 percent. "I haven't been hit as badly as the World Trade Center," billionaire Ted Turner told the Journal, "but there's a little smoke coming out of my ears." With his stock in AOL Time Warner Inc. off by 75 percent over the last year, he decided to spread one $250 million charitable pledge to seven years instead of just five.

And some corporations that for years have matched the charitable gifts of their employees have now ended that practice.

But Christian ministries and other religious charitable organizations have hardly been immune. I checked in last week with watchdog groups like the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and Wall Watchers. Both said that the picture is blurry. There's even some evidence that the emotional zingers of last year's 9/11 provided a stimulus to giving in some quarters. But a falloff in gifts to giants like Focus on the Family, Prison Fellowship, and others has forced cutbacks in staff and operations, and delays in programs previously scheduled to be underway by now. Many local churches say contributions have fallen over the last 12 months. While WORLD magazine no longer seeks charitable gifts, its related publishing ministries for children and World Journalism Institute have watched giving trail off during the same period.

But 9/11 is no longer considered the big factor. The three-year slide in the stock market has now become the bogeyman. Because so much major giving in recent years has come from folks riding an always-up investment escalator, many of those same people now seem at a loss as to how to do their "giving." Others, just not getting the raise this year they were accustomed to, aren't sure they can keep up with their already modest pledges.

Shame on us all!

Not that there's anything at all wrong with giving appreciated stock to your favorite charity. It would be dumb not to do so. But for a donor to think about that as serious or sacrificial giving is pretty self-serving. And especially for a Christian, who has been taught by Jesus what sacrifice is all about, to rely on tax technicalities to call himself generous—that misses the whole point, and may also miss the blessing God intends for really committed givers.

For the evidence is loud and clear that all apart from 9/11, and all apart from a puny stock market, Christians in America know very little about serious giving. The problem didn't hit us last September, and it didn't come via Enron or WorldCom. The problem lies deep in our own stingy hearts.

Here is the story as reported by Empty Tomb, a research group based in
Champaign, Ill.: "Protestant denominations have published data on an ongoing basis throughout the century. In 1916, Protestants were giving 2.9 percent of their incomes to their churches. In 1933, the depth of the Great Depression, it was 3.2 percent. In 1955, just after affluence began springing up through our culture, it was still 3.2 percent. By 1999, when Americans were overall much richer, after taxes and inflation, than in the Great Depression, Protestants were giving 2.6 percent of their incomes to their churches."

Catholics should point no fingers. Charitable giving experts generally regard Catholic Church giving, on a per capita basis, to lag a bit behind Protestants. And evangelicals should take no false comfort. Their records may be better, but only fractionally, than mainline Protestants.

Here's the biggest zinger of all: America's poor are regularly more generous than America's rich—if you look at their giving as a percentage of their income.

The evidence is overwhelming: We Americans are by no means the generous, giving people we like to imagine. We are instead a pretty miserly lot. Most evangelical Christians in America could double their giving and still fall short of the tithe God instructed His people in the Old Testament to consider the starting point of their giving.

But think for a minute what that doubling of our giving might accomplish! God has made us such a profoundly affluent society, and such a wealthy people, that we could flood our churches and schools and welfare ministries and parachurch agencies with a largesse they never dreamed of—and most of us would still not be living up to the modest standard God set for the primitive people of Malachi's time.

"Test me now," God said through Malachi. "See if I won't open for you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing so big you won't be able to receive it."

But most of us are too tight to take the test.

Joel Belz, World magazine