L.IVING IN the shadows of Disney’s Magic Kingdom have for the most part been a happy experience for the Presbyterian Community church at Celebration, Orlando. His handsome white building, with a storybook tower, was partly funded by the godly nephew of Walt’s godly woman. The nearby theme park has supplied the church with 800 odd members and a steady stream of visitors – in the winter, when tourists flock to Florida, congregations often swell to 1,500. But when Walt Disney World closed in mid-March and the church did so, its wealth declined.
His income, which mainly comes from weekly donations, plummeted. Some employees lost their jobs. Among them was Bill Vanderbush, one of two pastors in the church. “You know, as a priest, that you live with the generosity of the people around you,” he said. “Losing your job when people are suffering is the nature of service.”
His words might prove prophetic. The co-19 pandemic has been hammering churches of all sizes and denominations throughout America. Most, even those who have encouraged their members to go online before the pandemic struck, have seen their incomes decline. Many do not have enough cash reserves to deal with it for more than a few months. And reopening is unlikely to bring relief to the rest of the economy. In many churches the majority of worshipers are old; if the vaccine is not developed soon, or is less effective in the elderly, many may be reluctant to go to church in the future.
The result could be a significant reduction in the number of churches in America. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, an evangelical research outfit, considers that as many as one in five churches – and one in three mainline churches – could be closed for good in the next 18 months.
This would represent a rapid acceleration of the long-term decline in American religiosity. Although the process of secularization is slower in America than in other parts of the rich world, the process is now underway. According to Pew Research, the share of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month has dropped seven points over the past decade to 45%. The share of going to church every Sunday is much lower: some pollsters set 20%. Although the decline was evident among all demographic groups, it appeared to be the fastest among poor white people.
Institutions that have seen the sharp edge of this decline will be the first to leave. Many of them will become Catholic. The successive sex harassment scandal has stopped many people from going to mass or going regularly as they use. It has hit church coffers, reduced parishes of financial support giving their dioceses, many of which have gone bankrupt by payments to victims of abuse, making them, in turn, less able to support struggling churches. Calls to the priesthood, meanwhile, which fell in all the mainline churches, all disappeared in many Catholic dioceses.
Finally it can be fast. After St. Casimir’s last priest in Lansing, Michigan retired last year and it became clear that there were no priests available to replace him permanently, parishioners wondered if the 99-year-old church should be closed. Within a few weeks the lock had been done. “It’s almost like death in the family,” said Greg Perkowski, a member of the church council.
The closure of the Northern Highlands Presbyterian church in Denver, Colorado, which was formed in 2010 from the merger of two churches, was also carried out suddenly. Ashley Taylor has rebuilt its buildings into rental spaces to increase its income and “just started making them” when it closed on April 30, said Ashley Taylor, the pastor. He hoped that the building, in the gentrifying part of the city, would become an apartment.
But this pandemic can also lead to the closure of a church that might last for years. Few organizations of any kind are prepared to face sudden shocks, weeks of closure, but many eager churches seem very unprepared. David King, assistant professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis said that 39% of all congregations did not have enough money to survive more than three months.
In the case of small town churches, this is often because setting aside money that should be used to serve the poor is anathema, said Justin Giboney, political strategist in Atlanta, Georgia. He has helped launch Churches Helping Churches, which so far has given 121 churches each a $ 3,000 prize. Anecdotal evidence shows that small churches are less successful in applying for small business loans under the government RESTRICTION The law, which, with the anger of some supporters of the separation of church and state, is available for religious attire.
Large churches can also find themselves suddenly close to the edge. Many have been surprised by the closure of their peripheral businesses, such as preschool. Some large churches, with large operational costs, are highly mortgaged. It seems that, among the small minority of churches that oppose the order to close, some are driven by financial considerations as well as by religious freedom.
Which church will escape unscathed from a pandemic? Small congregations, despite their direct vulnerability, might prove stronger; many already have part-time pastors and are less likely to be bound to a particular space. Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University, considers that the multi-site church, which has pioneered the use of video sermons broadcast in different church buildings, will also lose fewer members – and their cash.
But despite the growth of such clothing, they have not provided comfort for most American Christians. Although the majority of churches have moved online services, many report declining levels of involvement. Older parishioners endure weekly struggles with technology and fail to reach the sense of connection that brought them to church from the start, it is better they will give it all up.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the heading “Sunday Decline”
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