What do people do more often when in trouble than when things are going fine?
They pray, for one. And they go to church.
As economic woes and jobless rates rise, so does church attendance, at least among evangelicals. This should not be surprising to those who live within evangelical circles, but others have begun to notice, too. A fascinating article in the New York Times cites a study by David Beckworth, of Texas State University that tracks economic trends and church attendance. In “Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States,” Beckworth wrote that during each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by a whopping 50 percent. By comparison, he found, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.
First, as Beckwith noted, while evangelical churches attract a broad range of members, they tend to have a larger proportion of people who are less affluent. Thus, while Episcopalians might not yet be feeling the pinch so hard, a larger proportion of evangelicals have taken the brunt of the recession, and have a greater felt need for divine assurance, if not assistance.
Second, evangelical pastors, especially those who follow a contemporary model, are more likely to pitch their sermons to such perceived needs, finding biblical prooftexts to offer practical advice on everything from surviving the economic downturn to heating up the bedroom.
Third, human nature is such that we are tempted to turn to God for what we can get, rather than what we can give. The sad truth is, I believe, that many people attend church and worship God mainly for what they can get out of the relationship, and evangelicals promise more than anyone else.
If people flocked to church because they were blessed beyond measure and simply wanted to thank the Lord and share the wealth — now that would be news.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.