Outliving Pareto

You may not have heard of Vilfredo Pareto, but Google has. Vilfredo was an economist who surmised late in the 19th and the early 20th centuries that nearly 20% of the people controlled 80% of the wealth.

Since that time Vilfredo’s principle has been applied in countless settings. You may not have given him credit for the idea, but you've heard it. Most people call it the 80/20 rule.

We probably should have looked a little more carefully at Vilfredo’s brainchild in March of 2020 when churches across America stopped meeting in person because of the pandemic. Devotees of the fictitious Henny Penny were shouting, “The sky is falling!” And for the first couple of weeks, that appeared to be so.

Imagine you’re at a Church conference at the end of March 2020. You overhear one pastor say to another in attendance-speak, “So what’s your church running these days?”


“Mine too!”

And it just goes to figure that if attendance plummets, tithes and offerings will fall off that same cliff like lemmings to the sea.

The opposite, however, was true.

Vilfredo’s principle lived once again (even though he has turned largely to dust at a cemetery in Switzerland). It turns out that 20% of the people do give 80% of the money to the local Church. When the proverbial chips were down, however, Vilfredo may have been surprised to see that 20% of the people didn’t stop giving. In fact, they provided nearly 100% of the Church’s much-needed income!

I may not rise to the level of Vilfredo Pareto and get a principle named after me that lives on 100 years after my death, but at least I have a theory about what happened with churches last year.

That faithful 20% kept giving because they understood that their gift aren’t based on the Church’s need to receive. They're based on their need, as Christians, to give.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians shifted to make their gifts to the Church online.

My theory also goes a little beyond Vilfredo in that there was roughly another 10% of the congregation who gave regularly to make up the remainder of church income. The final 70%? They had been filling the offering plates with loose change and maybe a 20-dollar bill here and there. They didn’t give much, so that loss of income may have accounted for a 5% to 10% drop in income experienced by most churches.

A lot of those core committed believers also had to change their means of giving (and they did). Some churches had online-giving portals set up before March 2020 and were receiving as much as 50% of their offering income online. Suddenly, churches across America embraced online giving because it was the only way to survive.

What does this tell us about the Church? What does it tell us about devotion to Christ? What does it reveal about how much we rely on our treasures?

It tells us what Jesus said, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14).

Churches, in the middle of March 2020, were revising budgets for cuts of up to 40%. Pastors (and Church lenders) had sleepless nights. The demise of the Church as we knew it seemed to be on the brink. But the core of the Church—those true disciples of Christ—stepped up to the (offering) plate and gave. Many gave “as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability” (2 Corinthians 8:3).

It was a breath of fresh air to see and, as churches are returning to in-person attendance, we’re seeing most churches run roughly 50%-60% of their pre-COVID-19 attendance. The 20% have returned in force. The 10% are coming regularly. Even some of the 70% are starting to come around.

There’s a great opportunity, now, for the Church to welcome inquirers who may not have darkened the door of a church before the pandemic. The Church has been given a great opportunity to, perhaps, apply a different principle that transcends economics.

The 70% and beyond are like “the one” that Jesus talks about in Luke 15. A good shepherd will always leave the 99 sheep in the pasture while he goes out of his way to find that one lost sheep.

While Vilfredo summed up the economy under the 80/20 rule, the Jesus Principle is 99 to 1, and the impact for the Kingdom is much greater.