Recession: Recognizing an Evangelical Moment Print
Written by Sherry   
Sunday, 14 December 2008 06:45
A thought-provoking article in the New York Times this morning about the impact of recession on church attendance.

Evangelical church attendance.

"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."

Interesting. Missionary strategists that I studied with were fascinated by the Great Awakenings - because they dreamed of being part of another such intense revival - and probed the conditions that made such a moment more likely. But I don't remember that the economic situation of the country was ever mentioned.

"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 article includes several stories of Catholics who have lost jobs being invited by friends to local evangelical Churches who are addressing the situation directly. In fact, all the stories of spiritually seeking people are of Catholic turning to evangelicals.

"Frank O’Neill, 54, a manager who lost his job at Morgan Stanley this year, said the “humbling experience” of unemployment made him cast about for a more personal relationship with God than he was able to find in the Catholicism of his youth. In joining the Shelter Rock Church on Long Island, he said, he found a deeper sense of “God’s authority over everything — I feel him walking with me.”


"At the Shelter Rock Church, many newcomers have been invited by members who knew they had recently lost jobs. On a recent Sunday, new faces included a hedge fund manager and an investment banker, both laid off, who were friends of Steve Leondis, a cheerful business executive who has been a church member for four years. The two newcomers, both Catholics, declined to be interviewed, but Mr. Leondis said they agreed to attend Shelter Rock to hear Mr. Tomlinson’s sermon series, “Faith in Unstable Times.”

“They wanted something that pertained to them,” he said, “some comfort that pertained to their situations.”

"The sense of historic moment is underscored especially for evangelicals in New York who celebrated the 150th anniversary last year of the Fulton Street Prayer Revival, one of the major religious resurgences in America. Also known as the Businessmen’s Revival, it started during the Panic of 1857 with a noon prayer meeting among traders and financiers in Manhattan’s financial district.

Over the next few years, it led to tens of thousands of conversions in the United States, and inspired the volunteerism movement behind the founding of the Salvation Army, said the Rev. McKenzie Pier, president of the New York City Leadership Center, an evangelical pastors’ group that marked the anniversary with a three-day conference at the Hilton New York. “The conditions of the Businessmen’s Revival bear great similarities to what’s going on today,” he said. “People are losing a lot of money.”

New York is not an evangelical hotbed. It is a heavily Catholic area. That's why those who are coming to evangelical congregations for the first time and were interviewed in this article are Catholic. The obvious question is "Why aren't they turning to their own parishes?"

As one Long Island pastor - in an exceedingly wealthy and educated community, the sort of community that is really hurting right now - told me: "My people aren't disciples. Did you know that there is no sin on Long Island? There is no sex on Long Island. The one remnant of their cultural Catholicism left is the belief "If you miss Mass on Sunday, you go to hell." So the only sin people confess is missing Mass on Sunday."

I remember another conversation I had with an elderly Hawaiian man several years ago. He was a regular at Mass who had come in for a gifts interview but all he wanted to talk about was his family's financial troubles. Finally, I gently reminded him that the interview was to help him discern his charisms and asked why he had come. His basic answer: he just needed to talk to someone. I asked him if he had prayed about his situation. "You can do that?" he asked in a surprised tone of voice.

I left that interview in a white hot rage. Rage - not at him - but at us. I didn't have the language I now have for where he was spiritually (courtesy of our work with Making Disciples) but I knew that he was essentially "pre-natal" and he was running out of time. All while being an "active" life-long Catholic.

Because Catholics don't ask one another about their lived relationship with God and we don't tell one another the basic kerygma and we don't challenge one another to follow Jesus.

When disaster or pain or change shakes our communities and baptized men and women - and both "inactive" and "active" hover on the edge of a new spiritual openness - who is going to be ready and waiting and actively reaching out? Who will ask and listen and talk to them about Christ and walk with them as the tentatively explore the possibility of a whole new kind of relationship with God?

Evangelicals recognize the spiritual significance of this moment. Do we?

My question:

Are you aware of any significant Catholic response/outreach specifically to those who are newly unemployed or have lost their homes due to the current financial crisis? Especially any Catholic outreach that has an intentionally spiritual component? Please share.