Category: economics

The Promising Future of Small Churches Powerpoint

I have posted the PowerPoint presentation titled, “The Promising Future of Small Churches.” I gave this presentation at the BGAV’s most recent Small Church conference at Grace Hills Baptist Church in Appomattox, Virginia on August 25, 2018. I’ll be posting additional info on this in the future.

In addition, I have also created a new page on this blog titled, “Engaged Church Info.” I posted the slideshow on this page as well, and I’ll add other resources about churches engaging their communities in the future.

I really believe that the most promising future for small church vitality is community engagement. I’ll be describing, resourcing, and encouraging small churches to engage their communities in a variety of ways. A future conference on “engaged churches” is in the preliminary planning stages. I’ll keep you posted as that develops!

Sermon: God’s Indictment, Instruction and Invitation

Last Sunday I preached from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 NIV. Amazingly, the circumstances in Isaiah’s day in 742 BC were similar to those in 21st century America. Politicians disagreed on how best to provide security for the nation of Judah. Strategic alliances to combat national enemies such as Assyria, and even Israel, were formed and then dissolved. The nation’s economy was rigged in favor of the well-to-do, and the weakest in Judah’s society — widows and orphans — were being cheated and oppressed.

But, in the midst of political, economic, and spiritual turmoil, God has a word for his people. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God condemns their religious practice because it was not consistent with their conduct. Or maybe their worship was consistent with their conduct because both were lacking in obedience to God and compassion toward others. Here’s the audio of the sermon:

[/audio]

When Should A Church Close?

The Tennessean, the daily newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee, featured an article today on small churches and when they should close.  In the article, Short on Cash, People, Small Churches Consider Closing, reporter Bob Smietana profiles three Nashville area churches that had to face their own mortality.  Bob was kind enough to quote me in the article, and I appreciate the approach he took in writing the piece.

The article also quoted Dr. Israel Galindo, author of The Hidden Lives of Congregations, which I think is the best book any pastor can read, especially pastors of small, established churches.  Galindo helps pastors and church leaders identify what “style” their church reflects, and where their church might be in the life cycle of churches profile.  I’ve written about this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again.

The article also points out that churches have taken as much as a 40% hit financially in the economic downturn that started in 2008.  When he interviewed me for the article, Bob asked me what factors indicate that a small church might need to close.  The three factors I identified were people, money, and mission.  The loss of any one of those is like kicking one leg of a three-legged stool out from under it — without a significant balancing act, a two-legged stool isn’t going to stand very long.

So, when is it time for a church, usually a small church, to close?   When the combination of people, money, and mission no longer works.  Churches don’t exist just to exist; churches exist for the purpose of mission. When the mission is no longer viable because there are not enough people or financial resources to support it, then a small church ought to seriously consider how it might re-invent itself, or even plan its own funeral.

What do you think?  Are there other factors that suggest when a church might close its doors?  Or are people, money, and mission the big three?

Churches Left Out of Charitable Giving Increase in 2010

While total estimated charitable giving edged up by 3.8% compared to 2009, gifts to churches and religious organizations actually declined when adjusted for inflation.  Philanthropy toward other human services groups, like those which sought funds for the Haiti earthquake disaster, fell even more, registering a 1.5% decline when adjusted for inflation.

The latest information on charitable giving is out, courtesy of the Giving USA Foundation.   Their Giving USA 2011: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2010, is an invaluable tool for those interested in charitable giving, including churches and religious institutions.

Here are the charitable giving recipients who benefited from the rise in giving (subtract approximately 1.6% to adjust for inflation):

  • Educational institutions up by 5.2%
  • Foundations up by 1.9%
  • Health research and organizations up by 1.3%
  • Public-society benefit causes up by 6.2%
  • The arts and humanities up by 5.7%
  • International affairs up by 15.3%
Here are the losers in charitable giving in 2010:
  • Religious groups and organizations at 0.8% (adjusted for inflation -0.8%)
  • Human services at 0.1% (adjusted for inflation -1.5%)
  • Environmental and animal causes at 0.7% (adjusted for inflation -0.9%)
Trends in how people give are also in flux.  While charitable giving as a whole was up 3.8%, individual giving was up by only 2.7%, meaning that the 10.6% rise in corporate giving raised the overall average in giving significantly.  But, giving by foundations is actually down 0.2%, which may reflect a poor return on endowments, or a drop in giving because many foundations would come under the categories of human services, environmental and animal causes, or religion.

What does this mean for small churches in particular?  While overall religious institutions claim the largest piece of the charitable giving pie, at 35% of total giving, contributions to religious groups are not rebounding at the same rate as education, the arts, and international affairs giving.  Based on the demographic that church memberships tend to be older than the population as a whole, the failure of religious giving to recover might reflect the continuing poor returns on investments held by many older adults.

But, I believe that the continuing decline of religious institutions, churches in particular, also means that there are fewer people to give to support churches and their ministries.  To address this problem, and to qualify for gifts from foundations and even government programs, many churches have formed not-for-profit corporations under which they fund and run their programs designed to benefit the common good.  Some churches will have ideological difficulties in making that leap, but other churches which have successfully done so can serve as models.

The good news for churches in all of this is that charitable bequests are up 18.8%.  Your church might consider doing what ours has just done — establish an endowment fund and encourage your members to leave a bequest to the church in their will.  You will need to consult estate-planning professionals to help your church craft a program that will ensure benefactors that their money will be handled carefully to ensure the long-term viability of the congregation they love.  But, with careful planning, churches can take advantage of this trend in charitable giving.

You can view and download a free copy of this giving report at http://www.givingusareports.org/free.php.

Credit:  Giving USA Foundation (2011). Giving USA 2011: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2010. Retrieved from http://www.givingusareports.org/free.php.

The Return of $4 Gas and Other Woes

It is obvious that gas prices are rising quickly again.  In 2007-8, I wrote several posts on the prospects of gasoline hitting $4-$5  per gallon – you can read those posts here, here, and here.  We were well on the way to those numbers in the United States, and then the bottom fell out of the economy on a global scale.  Gas prices fell quickly back to under $2 per gallon.

Now the trend is in the opposite direction again.  There is no gas shortage — we actually export gas and other petroleum products to other countries.  We have a surplus of gas in the United States, and yet gas prices are rising again.  I am not an economist or an energy expert, so I’ll skip the explanations for all of this, but the truth is, gas is going up again.

While I thought the impact on churches three years ago was going to be significant, I now believe the impact on churches may be catastrophic.  Here’s why I think this time the situation is worse.  In 2007-8, as gas prices rose driven by the futures market, the US and global economies were growing and stable.  The subprime mortgage securities crisis had not yet hit, despite rumblings from some investors and economists.  Employment was high, unemployment was low, jobs were being created, and the prospects for the future looked bright.  So what if gas hit $4, we’d just suck it up and keep going in our SUVs.

Of course, things were much worse than anyone imagined.  To prevent a global depression, Wall Street had to be bailed out, along with the world’s largest banks and financial insurers like AIG.  Add to that 2 of 3 US auto manufacturers, and you have  a recipe for difficult days financially.

What does this have to do with churches?  The rise of fuel prices will drive increases in the costs of other consumer goods and services.  With unemployment at 8.8% — although some economists estimate the “real” unemployment rate at close to 15% — more Americans are out of work, not counting the ones who are under-employed, or employed on a part-time basis.

There is no doubt the federal government is going to reduce spending beginning now, which will lead to the termination of many government programs, and further unemployment.  Fewer services will be provided by government in the near future, including (if Paul Ryan has his way) major overhauls of Medicare (medical care for the elderly), and Medicaid (medical care for the poor).  The Federal Reserve is also making noises about raising interest rates due to fears of inflation fueled by rising prices.

All of this will have the following impact on churches:

  1. Church members will have less discretionary income and will contribute less to charities, including churches.
  2. As gas prices rise, most of us will curtail our driving habits which includes multiple trips to church in separate family vehicles.
  3. More Americans will lose services that are now publicly available.  There will be increased need for churches to do more to feed, house, care for, and assist the elderly, the sick, and the poor.
  4. Church budgets will suffer from the double impact of falling contributions and rising needs.

What point am I trying to make?  Get ready.  Begin now to prioritize your church budget.  Decide what your church is really going to be about.  Prepare mock budgets based on different scenarios which emphasize different ministry priorities.

I believe that we will see single cause churches, much like we have single cause non-profits.  There will be churches that focus on senior adults, or single parent families, or families with special needs children.  Why?  Because smaller churches especially will be unable to “be all things to all people.”

We are on the front end of this economic realignment.  Churches, I believe, have an obligation theologically to make the tough choices to minister to the most vulnerable in society, even if the popular political position is the opposite.  We will soon face those choices, and because we are approaching another presidential election cycle, do not expect solutions from either major political party until at least 2013.  What do you think?  Will rising gas prices and other factors impact churches? Why or why not?

Think Churches Can Feed America’s Poor?

Churches are an important resource in caring for America’s poor, but the job is too big for churches alone. With all the talk about healthcare and the nation’s deficit, I’ve seen more  than one blog suggest that churches take over the responsibility for caring for the nation’s poor.  While that is a noble goal, moving all government “safety net” programs to churches is a numerical impossibility. Let’s just take one example — the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  The Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank, puts the food stamp program budget at about $75-billion dollars.  But, let’s use a more conservative estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  They estimate that 36-million Americans (1-in-8) receive what most of us call food stamps, or nutrition assistance.  On average, each participant receives $133 per month, or about $1,596 per year. Okay, let’s do the math on those numbers: $1,596 x 36,000,000 = $57,426,000,000 or about $57.5 billion per year.  That’s less than Cato estimates, but will serve our purposes just fine. The total number of congregations in America is generally estimated between 350,00 to 400,000.  Let’s use  the higher guesstimate of 400,000 churches of all denominations in the United States.  The median size of these congregations is 90 in attendance each Sunday. Here’s where the numbers tell the story:  For churches to take over the feeding of America’s poor, each church in America would have to feed 90 people each.  That means that the average church would take on as many poor people as it currently has in attendance! But, even more difficult is the financial picture.  If each church allocated $133 per month to feed each of the 90 people, the total yearly cost would be $143,640 per church per year.  Most churches with 90 in attendance don’t have a total budget of $150K per year, much less a benevolence budget of that amount. Of course, this is only one program.  The SNAP program is run through the US Department of Agriculture, but other programs Continue reading “Think Churches Can Feed America’s Poor?”

Ten Trends to Watch in 2010

The end of the year brings out the list-maker in all of us.  Not to disappoint you, here are the 10 trends that I’m going to be watching in 2010:

  1. Mobile everything. As the mobile phone morphs into the mobile communications device, 2010 will be a break-through year.  Google will introduce the first “unchained” phone in a a few days, giving Americans a taste of what the rest of the world already has — the ability to buy a phone separate from the mobile service provider.  Also, watch for “carrier billing” on phones, allowing you to purchase directly from your cell phone and have the item billed by your mobile provider.  Apple should introduce its new tablet, which will revolutionize the whole mobile entertainment world.  Think video, ebooks, ezines,  iTunes, podcasts, email, gaming, web browsing, and more, all from a tablet device that’s always on, always connected, and multi-capable.  The YouVersion Bible mobile app is a great example of how one church, LifeChurch.tv, recognizes and is capitalizing on this mobile trend.
  2. Economic recalibration. We are quickly learning to live on less, save more, and hedge against the next financial shockwave.  Paul Krugman writes of a contraction of the economy in mid-2010, so the pain of the past 15-months will extend another 6-9 months at least.  But economic recalibration is already taking place at the state and local government level — government will deliver fewer services and more of us will be on our own than ever before.  This economic adjustment will be longer lasting that other pull-backs and may mark a new attitude toward money and material goods on the part of Americans across the board.  Charitable giving, including church giving, will be affected by this adjustment.
  3. Prolonged polarization. The nation continues to be divided almost evenly into increasingly rigid camps.  What passes for political and social debate will continue to be little more than playing to the entrenched positions of the base of each party, ideology, and theology.  With the fading culture wars of the last century, of which The Manhattan Declaration is probably the last vestige, churches have a unique opportunity to bridge the social, racial, political, gender, class, and theological divide.  It remains to be seen if we will take that challenge.
  4. Weariness with war. With the battlefield focus shifting to Afghanistan, and possibly Yemen, we’ll grow increasingly tired of the whole idea of War, including the costs both human and financial.  Again the church may or may not grapple with the theology of war, but the issue will not go away in 2010.
  5. Multiple church models. Tall Skinny Kiwi has pronounced 2009 as the year the emerging church movement ended, and I think he’s probably right.  But the bright spot in its fading is that the emerging church discussion opened the way for multiple models of church to find legitimate expression.  The traditional, attractional, missional, postmodern, house, monastic, marketplace, mega, multi-site, multi-ethnic, and other models now exist and flourish in communities all across America.  For the first time in my lifetime, no one church model is THE model that everyone must follow.  The good news in all of this is that small churches are viable in many of these expressions, and small churches are receiving recognition as a healthy, legitimate church model.
  6. Denominational disinterest. Okay, this one is pretty obvious already, but it will only continue into the next decade which begins in a few days.  Rather than use the word “decline,” I am using “disinterest” because that is the attitude I see toward the centralized denominational headquarters model.  There is not a big push to dismantle denominations either, unless you’re a Baptist or Episcopalian, both of which are self-destructing without outside interference.  Mostly, the question of denominations is a big yawn for the next ten years.
  7. Spiritual longing. The opposite pole of denominational disinterest is spiritual longing, the desire for a meaningful spiritual connection to something bigger and better that can help us live life with more satisfaction.  Americans are taking a “do-it-yourself” approach to creating their own spirituality.  Churches can address this desire, or miss this moment.  As Andrew Jones says, we aren’t going to meet this kind of longing with a church like grandpa’s.
  8. Limited access. Fewer students will be able to afford the college of their choice, or any college.  Fewer families will rise out of poverty into the middle class. Fewer opportunities for advancement will accompany the flat job market.  In short, access to many of the possibilities we took for granted in the decade just passing will be limited in the decade just arriving.  The question for churches is, “How does hope flourish in a world of diminishing opportunity?”
  9. The problems of pluralism. We are just learning to recognize other faith traditions, and in 2010 the problems of religious (and non-religious) pluralism will continue to present themselves.  The traditional American response of “this is a Christian nation” will prove to be an inadequate response to other faiths and traditions claiming their place on the religious, or non-religious, smorgasbord.  Churches will adopt either an attitude of defensiveness, or of dialogue with non-Christian groups.
  10. Age, gender, and sex. These issues will continue into the coming decade as the baby boomers reach their 70’s, gay marriage becomes both accepted and rejected in various jurisdictions, and churches are increasingly challenged on the issues of gender in leadership of both ordained and laypersons.  The Anglicans have center stage in this drama right now, but no religious group will escape this discussion in the years ahead.

Obviously, I don’t have a crystal ball, and most of these things are already self-evident, but I believe we will continue to see these issues impact what and how we do church in the next year, and in the next ten years.  What would you add to this list?  Or what do you take issue with?  What are your 10 trends for the 2010?