Monday, December 15, 2008

NYT: "Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches"

Dear Egg,

A Times article notes a recession-related surge in attendance at "evangelical" churches all over the country.  Real deal, or much ado?

Mother Cathy in Missouri

Dearest Mother C.,

First, let us gloat for a moment:  it was 60 degrees Fahrenheit in Queens today.  Our friends at the Weather Channel say the Show-Me State is showing you something like 13 degrees right now. How's that move working out?  Hmm?

On the other hand, as the state and city turn their pockets inside out and threaten massive cuts to every single program, as our only remaining industry -- Wall Street -- becomes a global laughingstock,  and as Albany politics revert to the decades-long corrupt stalemate, it looks as though a metaphorical Ice Age is hitting New York.  We'd happily trade Armageddon for some cold weather.

According to a piece of longstanding folk wisdom, these should be boom times for churches.  For many years, we have heard elderly members talk about how the Depression filled the nave, and mutter darkly that economic collapse could be the solution to our dying congregations.  The Times article says this idea "has always lived in the lore of evangelism," and it certainly lives in the received wisdom of the pews.

But we have always suspected that it was a bit of bushwah, and our own recent research -- a detailed reading of assembly minutes for the United Lutheran Synod of New York and New England, 1929-1935, undertaken last summer -- has confirmed this suspicion.  Far from being a boom time for the 400 or so churches of that synod, the Depression was --  surprise! -- a catastrophe.   The rapid growth that they had been experiencing slowed dramatically (although they did continue to grow).  But mission starts, which had averaged 1-2 congregations per annum, declined to zero; churches with heavy building debt closed; benevolence giving shriveled; and a stunningly large number of pastors found themselves unemployable, because no church could pay a salary.  One of our own predecessors, serving a 2000+ member parish in a then-prosperous part of the Bronx, experienced a series of nervous breakdowns during these years. 

So we were relieved to see the article's disclaimer, that although people say the Depression was good for churches, "historians of religion do not buy it."  We sure don't.

Still, the article -- by Paul Vitello -- identifies this apparent gap between perception and reality, and then proposes an interesting neither/nor bridge.  To wit, a recent study by an economist at texas State which looks at church attendance during recessions since 1968, and sees that while mainline churches declined in these hard times (as they have been for decades), evangelical churches grew by as much as 50%.  

So somebody does benefit from economic hardship.  (Which might explain why Republican governments always seem intent on increasing the number of poor people).  Or, to put it more charitably, somebody does have a theological perspective that gives the suffering masses what they need.  And apparently, it ain't us.  

(To Vitello's credit, by the way, he makes a point of defining "evangelical churches." This will relieve readers tired of hearing Mormons and Pentecostals called "evangelical" by reporters who don't know what they're talking about. Lamentably, his definition is weak: "a term generally applied to churches that stress the literal authority of Scripture and the importance of personal conversion ....'" Sigh. On the other hand, that may be all that is left of the (English) Evangelical tradition, as anti-intellectualism crushes its once-proud concern for doctrinal matters like vicarious substitutionary Atonement.)

This is frustrating for mainline churches, which in the article expressly includes Roman Catholicism, since we take a perhaps-unwholesome pride in our concern for the poor.  The Papist social service network is by far America's largest, followed by the Lutheran one.  

But it's not about concern for the poor.  It's about building congregations, and this is something that "Evangelicals" do better, especially (it seems) when the Dow tanks.  And yes, the Egg has a theory.

Here in New York, as you well know, our synod has an a comically self-defeating commitment to starting and supporting congregations made up almost entirely of poor people, especially if they are also recent immigrants.  And all this is backed up by theology -- decades of social statements, public displays of solidarity, and some often-remarkable private charity.  (In fairness, we note that this was not the custom during the Depression era; it seems to have grown out of the 1960s and 70s, as urban decay and liberal guilt became dominant factors in mainline church life).

"Evangelicals," in contrast (and massively excepting the Salvation Army), seem to keep the poor at arm's length.  They visit them on mission trips, funnel often astonishing amounts of money toward them, but don't try to build congregations around them.  (Think of Dickens' Mrs Jellyby, the "telescopic" evangelist.)  They build their congregations among the prosperous suburbanites who have money to give.  And so, when the Times goes looking for churches that are growing, it finds them in prosperous suburbs, suddenly hit by calamity -- like "a Long Island hamlet of yacht clubs and hedge fund managers." 

Our point?  The people in the article aren't poor.  They're just not as rich as they thought they were, or were going to become.  The economic downturn scares them, and hurts them, but odds are they will still come out of it well-to-do.  And it is the "Evangelical" churches which have made a point of creating environments to which well-dressed people with good teeth will turn when they are frightened, and find a word of comfort, and possibly remain when their fear passes.  Meanwhile, the mainstream churches have specialized in environments in which poverty is fetishized.  

Set aside the theological pros and cons, and consider this purely as a matter of psychology.  A modestly wealthy couple, terrified by losing so much wealth, stumbles into St. Dismas-by-the-Railroad with its Gothic clutter and the toothless recovering meth addict doing a wave in the front pew, and hears a sermon preoccupied by the far more excruciating poverty of, say, Africa.  Even when no accusatory finger is pointed, or intended, one may be imagined; and even if not, the couple may simply not be frightened off by the images of genuine poverty.  This, after all, is what they lie in their mahogany four-poster at night dreading.

But if they drive over to The Warehouse, a spic-and-span industrial facility with the same recessed lighting and blue carpeting they used to have at their office, and sit beside people who look just like their former colleagues, and hear a sermon that takes seriously their fear instead of somebody else's problems, who could blame them for sticking around?  

Heck, we've convinced ourselves with this argument.  Tomorrow, first thing, we ditch the chasubles, the worn-out volumes of Gustavo Gutierrez, and the toothless guy.  Then we drive over to The Warehouse and look for work.  Want to come?


mark said...

Hmm - history and observation informed by a fast-hardening cynicism?

revcathyellen said...

I'm honored to be mentioned in your blog ;-) and intrigued, as always, by your reflections. Enjoying the snow...?

Father said...

Sadly, the snow is just a few flurries -- barely enough for Baby Anonymous to get his fingers wet.

Anonymous said...

I stand in awe of the Father's insight. Please keep writing, I want more, sir. web