The bottoming markets, soaring gas and food prices and a steady stream of home foreclosures may be affecting other sectors of the economy, but that doesn’t mean church budgets will necessarily feel the pinch.
But local congregations may well be affected in other ways, according to experts on the subject.
In tough times people look to religion, said Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of the Christian research organization empty tomb, inc.
In the United States, “60 million people are in a religious house of worship each weekend,” she said. “These numbers suggest church is one of the last places people begin to cut back on.”
Giving to local churches has almost consistently been increasing since 1986. It did decrease slightly during three out of six economic recessions between 1986 and 2005, according to an empty tomb analysis of church giving in recession years. The report also suggests that the decrease doesn’t tend to show up until near the end of the recessions.
The report also notes that “church-member giving declined in four non-recession years during the 1968 through 2005 period,” Therefore, it reasons, “church-member giving does not necessarily decline in a recession.”
Scott McConnell, associate director of research for LifeWay Christian Resources, believes giving has been fairly consistent.
The organization — the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm — recently conducted an economic survey of Southern Baptist pastors. The survey indicated that 72 percent felt the economy was having a negative impact on their churches. But the survey’s other findings indicate the situation for most churches may not be as dire as the pastors perceive.
It also looked at whether church receipts were meeting pastors' expectations. Half of the respondents said church receipts were about what they expected. Twenty-three percent said they were more than expected and 24 percent said their congregation's income was not meeting expectations.
McConnell said the share of those not satisfied with their church's income is a normal percentage from what he has seen in surveys conducted in non-recession years.
Finally, the LifeWay survey looked at whether or not the pastors thought their churches would meet their budgets. Sixty-six percent said yes and 26 percent said no.
McConnell said government figures show that, overall, wages are continuing to rise. He believes people should be giving at the same levels as income.
Whether this affects churches will be revealed at the end of the year, he said. In particular, year-end giving figures will show how accurately churches and individual church members budgeted, taking the various economic stresses into account.
As unemployment begins to rise and tough economic times increase McConnell said, the pinch could be a great opportunity for individual church members who can afford to give more generously than those whose budgets are tighter.
This is “an opportunity to see God work,” McConnell said. “I think there is a renewed awareness that we have heard from a lot of churches needing to be in tune with their community.”
But other factors may affect giving in more logistical ways. For instance, high gas prices could make it difficult for members to make it to worship services to turn in their tithe envelopes.
Steve Hewitt, a reporter for Christian Computing magazine said churches are going to have to find alternate routes — such as online giving or automatic checking-account deductions — for giving.
“Churches can do stuff to fix this,” he said.
Hewitt believes that churches have other reasons to adapt their ministry to the rising gas prices, which are projected to be as high as $5.75 by the end of July.
He drives 30 to 40 miles to church and frequently has church activities to attend throughout the week.
Hewitt said more churches may choose to stream their worship services and other events live on the Internet to help members for whom driving to church regularly creates an economic hardship.
“Only problem I have with that is the music aspect,” he said.
The soaring price of fuel is fundamentally different than the other aspects of the economic crunch, Hewitt noted. “It is directly proportionate to me going to church,” he said. “It affects the largest of all churches.”
Hewitt believes one solution may actually create better fellowship within churches: A new emphasis on neighborhood meetings and local small groups of church members.
Members of such groups not only can conduct some church business without driving to a remote location, but also get to know each other and share fellowship and support during difficult economic times, he said.