The doors are open!

Photo: James Estrin/New York Times

For about a month now I've been asked two questions with some frequency:
1) Father, have you noticed more people coming to church with the economy so bad?
2) Father, have you seen a drop-off in the collection with the economy so bad?

My answers to these questions have been:
1) I haven't seen an uptick in attendance. In fact, like many parishes in the archdiocese, there's been a decrease in attendance over the past couple of years.
2) While our offertory collection is down 7% compared to last year, that trend predates the economic crisis.

But this weekend - something happened. This weekend was the most full I have seen my church in over a year. We don't do weekly head counts in the parish so my observations here are eyeball, not calculator derived. But there was definitely an increase in attendance at all our liturgies this weekend. Praise God!

I hope this is the first of many similar weekends - only time will tell. Is this related to the economy? I don't know. But the New York Times reports today that evangelical churches are seizing the moment and are finding their pews filled to overflowing:
Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches
By Paul Vitello for the New York Times

The sudden crush of worshipers packing the small evangelical Shelter Rock Church in Manhasset, N.Y. — a Long Island hamlet of yacht clubs and hedge fund managers — forced the pastor to set up an overflow room with closed-circuit TV and 100 folding chairs, which have been filled for six Sundays straight.

In Seattle, the Mars Hill Church, one of the fastest-growing evangelical churches in the country, grew to 7,000 members this fall, up 1,000 in a year. At the Life Christian Church in West Orange, N.J., prayer requests have doubled — almost all of them aimed at getting or keeping jobs.

Like evangelical churches around the country, the three churches have enjoyed steady growth over the last decade. But since September, pastors nationwide say they have seen such a burst of new interest that they find themselves contending with powerful conflicting emotions — deep empathy and quiet excitement — as they re-encounter an old piece of religious lore:

Bad times are good for evangelical churches.

A recent spot check of some large Roman Catholic parishes and mainline Protestant churches around the nation indicated attendance increases there, too. But they were nowhere near as striking as those reported by congregations describing themselves as evangelical, a term generally applied to churches that stress the literal authority of Scripture and the importance of personal conversion, or being “born again.”

A study last year may lend some credence to the legend. In “Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States,” David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, looked at long-established trend lines showing the growth of evangelical congregations and the decline of mainline churches and found a more telling detail: During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent. By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.

(For the complete article, see the NYT online)



  1. Austin

    I hope that many find this a time to rediscover the role their faith can play in their lives. Everyone is speaking of 'getting back to basics'--what is more basic than our faith?

  2. I thought maybe the crowds had to do with all those parishoners set on fulfilling their giving tree obligations on time...maybe we should have those deadlines more often! How amazing to see the church overflowing with gifts for others! I noticed all all but one of the "ornaments"/wishes had been taken from the tree -- it looks like your admonition to take the responsibility seriously was heard! Is the yield usually so high?

  3. I'm not sure about the total amount of gifts but my "admonitions" didn't take as well as you might think. Folks were calling this week to say they'd lost their tags or had let their kids take tags from the trees and didn't know what the kids had done with them. Just the things I tried to give a heads-up on... Still, a HUGE amount of gifts came in and I'm grateful for every one of them!

  4. Is the local faith community doing anything specific to work with those burdened by unemployment? Have any "work projects" sprung up that we unemployed might participate in as a means of staying productive in lieu of wages?

  5. That's pretty sad. I've been trying to think of a better system for accountability, but it really seems that people should be able to be a little more responsible -- very disappointing......how about if people had to pay $1 or bring in a can for the food drive to be able to take a tag down off the tree -- people could also be given the chance to write down their tag/promise on a clipboard kept by the tree in case they think they will need a reminder? Ugh.

  6. It's just human nature - and I don't think adding other steps in the process will help! :-)

    Some years the response is nearly 100% return, some years less... Fortunately, our tireless outreach ministers fill in the gaps when gifts aren't returned.

  7. "Is the local faith community doing anything specific to work with those burdened by unemployment? Have any "work projects" sprung up that we unemployed might participate in as a means of staying productive in lieu of wages?"

    Not at this point. However, if Anonymous would like to take some leadership in this regard, please be in touch with me.

  8. Our attendance was up a bit this past Sunday at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral across from Park Street station, but I think that's because it was the Sunday of the do-it-yourself Christmas pageant.

    Last year there was a blizzard, and the children's pageant had to be cancelled, but those who had fought their way through the snow were not to be denied their pageant, so they did it themselves. That was so much fun that we decided to plan on doing it again this year.

    I was worried that our planned spontaneity might fizzle, but no! Everyone got to play whatever role they wanted, so we had two Marys, three or four Gabriels, and so on, and everyone had a blast! We had several generations represented within many roles. Our magi ranged from six to sixty! We took over almost the entire Liturgy of the Word and had a break for photos before resuming the service.

    Some people had brought partial costumes (bathrobes for shepherds, and in one case a sheepskin lined coat turned inside out for a sheep). Butterfly wings and bits of fairy costume completed the angels, and the more garish vestments were raided for the magi. I have a Thai dragon kite that I've mounted on a stand, and I carried that with the magi. Our dragon from the East swooped its way up the center aisle and then bowed before the Christ Child. A six year old assistant Magi carried a cardboard box of genuine frankincense, and it was fine that when time came for him to speak he read the stage directions instead of his line.

    It was a LOT of fun, and I can pretty much guarantee we'll do it again next year. I commend the idea to anyone who has a relatively small congregation of moderately fun-loving people.

  9. Anonymous (2:42pm)will be in touch about possible faith community projects. Thanks for the encouragement.


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