Christian church members gave their congregations less than 2.4 percent of their income in 2009, far below the biblical standard of 10 percent for tithing, a Christian research organization's latest report said.

Had those Christians maintained their level of giving from 1968 — when it was 3.1 percent of income — they would have contributed a total of $30.8 billion, or $7 billion more than they actually gave in 2009, the report said.

Had they given 10 percent of their income, the members would have given an additional $174 billion, which the report said "could have made a major impact on global need."

Empty Tomb Inc., an Illinois-based nonprofit research organization, bases its calculations on financial reports from more than two dozen Christian denominations, representing more than 100,000 congregations, both evangelical and mainline, said Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president.

The group's report, "The State of Church Giving through 2009," does not include donations by Catholic or Mormon congregations.

News reports that presidential candidate Mitt Romney donated $4 million to the Mormon Church in 2009 and 2010 underscored the practice of tithing.

Of six Sonoma County congregations surveyed by The Press Democrat, three call for 10 percent tithes and three set a lower standard for giving or leave it to members' discretion.

Dale Flowers, pastor of Santa Rosa's First Presbyterian Church, attributes the decline in church giving to a social shift rather than the recession.

"We are becoming more and more secular," said Flowers, whose 600-member congregation expects a 10 percent tithe. Secularization impacts "what people do with their money and lifestyle," he said.

Edward Viljoen, senior pastor at the Center for Spiritual Living, said he personally donates 10 percent of his income, calling that figure "a cultural benchmark."

His 1,000-member congregation is allowed to determine its own contribution.

Had the Christian churchgoers all given 10 percent, Empty Tomb said, the funds could have addressed global needs such as primary education for all children ($7 billion a year) and reducing preventable child deaths ($5 billion a year).

But evangelical leaders dispute whether 10 percent giving is an appropriate standard.

A survey of about 100 members of the National Association of Evangelicals board of directors found that 58 percent do not believe the Bible requires a tithe.

Leith Anderson, president of the association, said in a press release he was "a little surprised" by the majority opinion that "the tithe system of the Old Testament does not carry over to the New Testament or us."

David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, said in the release that "anything less (than 10 percent) seems like an ungenerous response to God."

But another evangelical leader, Jerry Dykstra of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, who believes in tithing, said: "If folks actually tithed, churches would not know what to do with the money."

Bill Linton, pastor of Petaluma Christian Church, said evangelicals may give more than they are credited with, counting donations to faith-based organizations that serve humanitarian and missionary functions.

But, he said, "I would agree in principle that many evangelicals are undergiving."

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or