What's Tony Thinking

Churches Among Those Feeling the Crunch


Under the category of “Sign of the Times,” and before we get into today’s topic, here’s a sign I saw outside a nearby parcel shipping business.

Many reports on people, professions, businesses and other institutions that are feeling heavy pressure from the overall pandemic crisis. The church is no exception.

But don’t worry, there’s good news: as of today bowling alleys in Georgia are open! Go figure.

This report from the Washington Post highlights the impact of the pandemic, particularly on smaller congregations. They like some families, individuals and small businesses, have little financial cushion.

“The novel coronavirus is pressing painfully on the soft underbelly of U.S. houses of worship: their finances. About a third of all congregations have no savings, according to the 2018-2019 National Congregations Study. Just 20 percent streamed their services, and 48 percent were able to accept donations electronically, the study found, making it more challenging to serve the faithful and gather their donations during the virus shutdown.

“The blow has been hardest on the nation’s many small congregations (about half of U.S. congregations are small). Some experts think the coronavirus could reshape the country’s religious landscape and wipe out many small houses of worship. These are places where members typically go to seek guidance and comfort, but members are now finding closed buildings and desperate pleas for funds.”

It is not entirely clear to me from this article if the numbers for on-line services (20%) and capacity for electronic giving (48%) are pre-pandemic or current. It looks like the former. My perception is that quite a few, even a majority of churches in my denomination (UCC), are now on-line with services. All of the congregations profiled in this article are African-American which may mean fewer people with computers or wi-fi access.

This pressure on smaller churches continues a trend that begun in the 1970’s. Then the driver was the big rise in two costs: fuel to heat church building (remember the oil crisis of the 70’s?  Well, no, you weren’t born then so you’ll have to take my word for it), and the costs of health care for church staff. For decades small churches (under 200 members, under 100 in worship) had made up the biggest share of American Christianity and were more or less sustainable.

The 1970’s was also the decade when the megachurch (2,000 in weekly attendance) movement really got going. Since then smaller churches have become a smaller percentage of the overall number of churches, and represent an even smaller percentage of total weekly worship attendance. In other words, the majority of people worship in large churches.

As smaller churches found themselves stretched thin by rising costs and diminished market share, they often lost things like youth and children’s ministries and music programs. Larger congregations were able to sustain these, and so often drew new members from smaller congregations. Meanwhile, the general trend line for smaller congregations was to get both smaller and older.

From a theological point of view there’s no reason to think larger churches are better than smaller ones. Some would argue that smaller is better in terms of relationships, sense of community and belonging. I wrote my seminary master’s thesis on “The Small Church and Social Change.” I argued that small churches could be as faithful and important as their larger cousins. But I was also looking at the social and economic pressures on them that were then beginning to mount.

Later, in my consultant years, I worked with a congregation whose mission statement at that time was, “To be the Best Small Church in America.” I liked the hutzpah. Many church mission statements are long, boring and jargon-laden. This one was none of those. It stood out.

But in terms of economies of scale, small is not better. And it’s gotten tougher.

This parallels another development has been the widespread loss of economic vitality in small towns. Just as American churches were once mainly smaller, so America was once made up to a much greater extent of small towns. The churches played a crucial role in those communities, and many still do. But it gets tougher for the small towns and small churches.

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