Whatever you think about the cosmic realities of religion, churches are
especially important social institutions that provide support to people
facing tough times. They can also be sources of innovation, as they are forced by their values to deal with situations that businesses and secular institutions may see as losing propositions. (For example, Minnesota's treatment/recovery industry grew out of mission work on Washington Avenue's skid row.)
As government agencies and social service non-profits cut back, churches become the last resort for people who can't rely on their families for help. Outreach — especially by evangelical churches whose members tends to be less affluent — may increasingly become "inreach" as new members swell the numbers of parishioners in need.
The picture is mixed.
In Michigan, Salvation Army branches have cut employees. Donations are down, which means thrift store sales are down, and customers also have less to choose from.
People of moderate means in Montana and California towns appear to be stepping up with increased giving. (Donations to churches typically don't drop in the first year of a recession, according to some research.)
A New York Times story says, "Bad times are good for evangelical churches." It cites growing attendance as the country's economic troubles have deepened.
Higher attendance can be a mixed blessing. The story also points out that "a recession also means fewer dollars in the collection basket" and more people seeking material as well as spiritual help.
Then there are the churches that have been preaching the prosperity message.
Over the past year, we've seen signs that megachurches such as Mac Hammond's Living Word Christian Center were already facing difficulty. I've also gotten reports of "restructuring" and layoffs coming from the prosperity gospel empire of Kenneth Copeland due to declining revenues. Hammond and Copeland have also battled with tax authorities over disclosing their compensation, which might lead to even further erosion of contributions.
Hammond won his case against the IRS, while Copeland just lost a fight with Texas appraisers who said he had to reveal the pay of his ministry's top people — including his wife, son, daughter and son-in-law. Failure to do so means he loses a $75,000 tax exemption on one of his jets. (Texas has no income tax but taxes business personal property, which includes things like filing cabinets, computers and nine-passenger aircraft.)
Copeland got that particular jet from Billye Brim, a close friend and fellow prosperity gospel jet launderer.
How these high fliers justify their riches in the here and now may grow as an issue when the faithful, like other disappointed investors, start wondering if the miraculous returns have really been coming from their own contributions.