Economic recession–Evangelical Boom. Catholic bust?

The Times’ Paul Vitello had an interesting piece yesterday on how churches are seeing a surge in attendance as the economy tanks. But it is mainly the “enthusiastic” denominations of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism that are doing well. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses are doing more door-knocking because out-of-work folks are at home:

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.”
Part of the evangelicals’ new excitement is rooted in a communal belief that the big Christian revivals of the 19th century, known as the second and third Great Awakenings, were touched off by economic panics. Historians of religion do not buy it, but the notion “has always lived in the lore of evangelism,” said Tony Carnes, a sociologist who studies religion.
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.
The little-noticed study began receiving attention from some preachers in September, when the stock market began its free fall. With the swelling attendance they were seeing, and a sense that worldwide calamities come along only once in an evangelist’s lifetime, the study has encouraged some to think big.


Alas, the Protestant ethic–if that’s what it is–bites us lazy papists again. Or has it? The Boston Globe reports (hat tip to First Things) that sales of communion wafers are up, though not quite as much as after 9/11. Then again, the little holiday known as Christmas may have something to do with that…

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Colleen Fay

posted December 15, 2008 at 9:32 pm

Oh, and aren’t we trend spotters? No doubt there are myriad reasons why some folks are flocking to the mega-churches. Could it be that the other thing they offer is the comfort in hard times? Our Catholic stress on inner preparation for the coming of Christ both at Christmas and at the end of time emphasizes that no only must we live out the faith we believe, but that we must extend ourselves to all in need, “when did we see you hungry and not feed you, naked and not clothe you? When you did it to these the least of our brothers and sisters.” Personal responsibility, anyone? Also there is not a little resentment among Catholics that the sex-abuse scandal, that our bishops would so dearly want us to forget is yet waiting to reappear.
When a mega-church pastor has a spectacular fall, the responsibility is his alone; the Catholic Church bears collective responsibility for individual priest’s and bishop’s failings.

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