(Slate) Small Churches Are in Particularly Big Trouble Right Now

Founded in the mid-19th century, New Hope United Methodist Church had been operating on a razor-thin budget for years. Even after renovating the sanctuary recently, Sunday attendance was low, with $300 in the collection plate on a good week. But the church’s small, bustling food bank served 50 people a week in the low-income Starlight neighborhood of Atlanta. Others came to the church for Bible study and a free meal on Thursday nights, where a volunteer made sure everyone went home with an extra plate.

But the pandemic accelerated New Hope’s struggles. More than half its meager weekly donations came through cash in the Sunday offering basket, and the congregation has not met in person since mid-March. To raise extra money, pastor Abby Norman had recently started renting out the historic church building for documentaries and other film projects, including rap and country music video shoots. (Norman said she mostly stayed out of it but did ask the artists to email her the lyrics first.) The pandemic killed those gigs, too. Last week, Norman told her congregation that the church—and the food bank—would have to close. “We were so close,” Norman said. “It’s not just that we’re losing a church that worships Jesus on Sunday. It’s generations worth of knowledge about how to care for a community.”

Temporary church closings have meant spiritual losses for many Christians. Zoom is no substitute for the fellowship of weekly gatherings and the ritual of communal worship. But for churches as institutions, with buildings to maintain and staff to pay, the pandemic has also prompted a financial crisis. About 40 percent of Protestant pastors say giving has declined since earlier this year, according to an April survey conducted by LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Just 9 percent said giving has increased. “This will push some churches over the edge,” said Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research’s executive director. “It’s definitely an existential threat.”

The unexpected dry season is especially acute for smaller churches and those serving low-income communities.

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Posted in Economy, Health & Medicine, Parish Ministry, Stewardship