IM First Officer Michael Bell takes the helm for another look at the statistical data facing evangelicals. This time the news is hopeful, as he explores a connection between the recession and Protestant church growth. Welcome back Michael. (Visit Michael at The Eclectic Christian.)
Michael Spencer recently republished an article which looked at the problems that wealth creates for discipleship. He writes:
Have you ever thought about this? We are living in the most fabulously wealthy, excessively entertained and unimaginably prosperous nation in the history of the world. We have a standard of living, and a level of comfort, that much of the rest of the world cannot imagine…
The Jesus of the Gospel proclaims the promises of prosperity, real estate and parking places to be empty. If we will listen. HeÃs just as discomforting now as ever, unless we render him the harmless servant of our desires.
Rather than telling us about your best life now, Jesus talks over and over about persecution, sacrifice, voluntary poverty and laying down the images and symbols of success for the lasting worth and influence of the Kingdom of Jesus.
In the story of the rich young ruler, Matthew 19:21-24, Jesus makes it clear that it is very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is so very true. When people are content in their present circumstances it is very difficult for them to hear the challenges of the gospel, and the demands of the Kingdom of God. This goes for both people with and without faith in God. For those with faith, it is a question of discipleship. For those without faith it is a question of evangelism.
Recession changes all that.
Recession turns peoples lives upside down. It helps them realize that they don’t have a sufficiency unto themselves. Not having a job, not being able to pay the monthly bills, wondering where the grocery money will come from, these are all things that cause even those that are furthest from God to question their own self-sufficiency. They come to a point where they realize that they can’t do it by themselves. And here-in lies the message of the gospel: We can’t do it by ourselves. Jesus had to die for our sins, because in and of ourselves we are unable to meet God’s holy standard. In times of prosperity it is a very hard message to communicate. In recession, your audience has a new appreciation of what that means.
Therefore, recession provides new opportunities for evangelism.
A number of years ago I watched a film about Jim Jones and his People’s Temple cult. One of the things that struck me when watching the film was how they presented themselves as a caring community. When someone came to the church without a job, at the end of the service they were introduced to their new employer. When someone came to church without a place to stay, they were assisted with that. Every week church members wrote hundreds of letters to visitors thanking them for being a part of their service, and what a wonderful church it was.
I can remember people around me shaking their heads and saying how terrible these techniques were. All the time I was thinking to myself, “Are you kidding me? If we did things like this our churches would be bursting at the seams!”
Recession and unemployment do impact our churches, and so one question to be considered is what sort of impact does unemployment have?
The leader in analyzing this has been David Beckworth, Assistant Professor of Economics at Texas State University. His study, published in late 2007, was entitled “Praying for a Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Church Growth.” Unfortunately the study is quite difficult to read for those who do not have a statistics or economics background. However, it was picked up by the New York Times in December of 2008, and subsequently by bloggers like Ed Stetzer. David updated his study in January of 2009, adding additional information and analysis. I wanted to take a further look at it, and pull apart the study a bit more than the Times and others did, hopefully, to explain in fairly simple terms what implications the study has for the church today.
David analyzed three sets of data. The first set was from a survey done by the Pew Charitable Trust in 2001 that looked at weekly attendance. According to the study, the probability of person attending church on any given Sunday was about 42%. It should be noted that surveys where people self report church attendance always trend higher than actual counts of people in church. That being said, it gave a baseline that David could use to look at four groups of people: Employed Evangelical Protestants, Unemployed Evangelical Protestants, Employed Non-Evangelical Protestants, and Unemployed Non-Evangelical Protestants.
According to the survey, an employed evangelical was roughly 20% more likely to attend church than the general population, a number that we should not find that surprising. The interesting number is that unemployed evangelicals were roughly 27 to 29% more likely to attend church than the general population. In other words, evangelicals that were unemployed were 7 to 9% more likely to attend church than their employed fellow church members.
For other Protestants we saw similar results. Those employed Protestants who were not Evangelical were less likely to attend church. Their attendance was roughly 12 to 13% lower than the national average. However, unemployed non-Evangelical Protestants were 12 to 13% more likely to attend church than their employed fellow church members.
So unemployment definitely has a significant positive effect on church attendance, no matter what flavor of Protestant you might happen to be. We might want to ask ourselves, if the unemployed are coming to our churches in greater numbers, what are we doing to help the obvious needs of the unemployed in our midst.
Recession also brings opportunities and by examining historical data we can see what impact recession has had on church growth.
David Beckworth’s data for church membership comes from an annual publication, “The State of Church Giving”. He found that this publication had consistent data on 14 Evangelical denominations and 11 mainline Protestant denominations between the years 1968 and 2004. The graph of the membership in these 25 denominations is reproduced below.
As can be seen from the graph, the trend in memberships in Evangelical denominations is up, and the trend in memberships in mainline Protestant denominations is down. This is true for the entire time span. Close observation will note that growth in the Evangelical denominations is much steeper/faster in the earlier years than it is in the later years. This is a concern for the Evangelical Church that both Michael Spencer and I have noted in previous essays as other data has shown that the Evangelical trend is likely to reverse itself and we will start to see declines. Over the entire time span however, the Evangelical denominations averaged a growth of 1.1% per year, while the mainline denominations averaged a decline of .94% per year. These are the base numbers that David Beckworth uses for his analysis.
When we divide the growth in Evangelical denomination between years in which there was no recession and years in which a recession occurred, we have another interesting observation. Growth for Evangelicals in non recession years was .98%, where as the growth rate for Evangelicals during years of recession was 1.52%. In other words Evangelicals grew 55% faster (1.52 / .98) during years of recession than in years of non-recession.
What is interesting is that mainline denominations did not see this same effect. There was statistically no real difference between recession and non-recession years. Why they did not see the same “bump” as the evangelicals is hard to ascertain. Perhaps it is easier to build on growth, as in the Evangelical case, than it is to reverse decline.
What about other economic shocks?
Beckworth found that for Evangelical Protestants, other economic factors like the unemployment rate, oil prices, real stock prices, and the difference between short and long term bond rates (an economic predictor) all impacted in a significant way on Church growth.
For mainline churches, most other economic factors did not have that much of an impact. The exception to this was stock prices. With stock prices, the effect was the opposite of what you might expect. As stock prices rose, membership rose (or actually declined less), with the converse also being true. This was the opposite effect that stock prices have on Evangelical congregations. Beckworth surmises that this is the case because mainline Christians on average are in a higher socio-economic class and as such are able to benefit more (in terms of available time) from the income and wealth effects that a rising stock market brings.
How long do these impacts last?
From the previous set of data along with 57 years of quarterly data that Beckworth had for the Seventh Day Adventists, he was able to show that the impact of the economic shocks were significant and generally lasted one and a half years beyond the date when the shock had ended. In the case of an increase in the unemployment rate for example, the greatest effect on membership/converts occurs one year after the initial shock and last another six months beyond that. So with the rise that we are now seeing in unemployment rates, our Evangelical churches may see a positive benefit from it until at least the end of 2010 or the beginning of 2011 (depending of course when we hit bottom.) From both the data from the Evangelical denominations along with the further data from the Seventh Day Adventists, it can be shown that one third of all church growth can be directly attributable to economic shocks.
So what does it matter?
As we are know in the midst of a full blown recession, there are great opportunities for both Evangelicals and mainline Christians to reach out to those who are hurting. As Michael Spencer said in his original post, “Jesus talks over and over about persecution, sacrifice, voluntary poverty and laying down the images and symbols of success for the lasting worth and influence of the Kingdom of Jesus.” I have heard the expression before that “people want a hand up, not a handout.” A recession is our opportunity to come alongside those in difficulty and show them that not only does Jesus care, but we care too. It is also our opportunity to tell them about about the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus was willing to make for a world that could not help itself.