On Dec. 14, the New York Times had a front-page story about the alleged increase in church attendance due to the economic meltdown. Soon thereafter, CNN hopped on the story, too. I was skeptical that attendance is really up. I still am. Apparently, the Gallup organization has its doubts too, according to this article in Slate.
Assistant Economics Professor David Beckworth of Texas State University in San Marcos has written a paper arguing that the rate of growth at evangelical churches increases during recessions and that the rate of decline decreases at mainline churches. Beckworth was reviewing data from an era when evangelical churches were growing and mainline churches were in decline. Mainline churches, of course, are still in decline. What’s changed is that white evangelical churches are no longer growing. This is due to a number of factors, including lower birth rates and (believe it or not) the decline of mainline churches. Many of those “new” evangelicals were simply “old” mainliners who had switched churches. As the pool of potential mainline “converts” shrinks, it’s harder for evangelical churches to find new members.
The real question, I think, is whether the recession will help slow the evangelical church decline that appears to be looming. (For more on this topic, there are several recent books, including “The American Church in Crisis” by David T. Olsen.)