The numbers say that the more people who go to a church, the less each of those people give. It's not obvious why this should be true, but that's the data from the latest National Congregations Study, which has tracked religious groups across America from 1998 to 2012.
In evangelical churches, for example, a congregation of 100 adults collects an average of $175,000 per year, or $1,750 per person. A 400-member congregation, in comparison, gets an average of $1,480 per person. The survey found that across the board, 100-member groups get 18 percent more per person than 400-member groups.
When an evangelical congregation reaches 1,000 people, giving goes down to $1,140. That means individuals in these big churches are giving, on average, one-third less than individuals at smaller churches.
Using the numbers from the congregational study, an average evangelical church with 1,000 people collects about $1.14 million in tithes and gifts. If people at big churches gave at the same rate as people at the smaller churches, though, the 1,000-person churches would collect $640,000 more than they do.
The authors of the report do not have an explanation for this. They write:
"We do not know if there is something about larger congregations that causes people to give less than they would give if they were in a smaller congregation, or if people inclined to give less are drawn to larger congregations. Perhaps members of smaller congregations perceive (rightly or wrongly) that their congregations have more financial need than people in larger congregations perceive. Or perhaps larger congregations require less financial commitment from their members because they are more efficient. Perhaps members of larger congregations are somehow less personally invested in their congregations, or perhaps they are just as invested, but a particular level of commitment translates into more financial support for a smaller congregation than it does for a larger congregation. Whatever the dynamics behind this relationship, it is clear that people in smaller congregations give more to their churches than do people in larger congregations. Not incidentally, other research shows that people in smaller congregations also participate more in the life of their congregation than do people in larger congregations."Larger religious groups, it would seem, have weaker individual commitments. This is an interesting bit of data to connect to the broader story of the trends of weakening religious connections.
The National Congregations Study, directed by Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, can be viewed here.