Last year David Beckworth, an assistant professor of Economics at Texas State University, examined historic patterns in the size of evangelical congregations and found that, during each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, membership of evangelical churches jumped by 50%. This report filled the newspapers and TV news-shows at the height of the depression panic just before Christmas; but the report’s findings focused on evangelicals, and do not apply to Americans at large.
According to Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of Gallup Poll, which interviews 30,000 Americans every month, “to guess that attendance would increase [in recessions] is a common-sense assumption with no basis in data.” John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which recently published a study on the correlation between church attendance and economics, has found no link in the past 20 years.
Perhaps this perplexity would diminish if the nature of American Christianity is better understood.
After World War II, Main Line churches (such as the Episcopalians) adopted a decidedly “Norman Vincent Peale” mentality that linked church to the post-war prosperity. That’s great on the way up, but when things go down it’s not so fun. That’s not the only reason why Main Line churches have declined–it’s not the predominant one–but it discourages people from coming in a time of general economic crisis.
Evangelical churches–especially in the South–fed off of what was an isolationistic, almost defeatist (looking at things in the present) mentality. Eternal life was the way out. But starting in the 1970’s, evangelical churches–especially Pentecostal and Charismatic ones–adopted what is broadly called “prosperity teaching,” which again is great on the way up. But it puts Evangelical churches in the same trap as their Main Line predecessors on the way down.