The Declining Economic Viability of the Religious Right

by Matthew Raley In reevaluating the alliance between evangelicals and the conservative movement, I have moved from asking whether it should continue, to asking whether it will. Conservatives are assuming that their grass-roots base is vibrant, perhaps more energetic than ever.

This assumption is all too easy to make, with Sarah Palin storming the country and selling books in vast quantities. There are long lines at her book signings and the evangelicals whom she represents are fired up. But a media frenzy is not the same as grass-roots strength. Many a politician has imagined that he or she could surf to power on a wave of media without troubling overmuch about organization.

Media attention is fleeting and capricious. Organization wins.

Last week, we began to face the reality that the religious right is in slow liquidation. Evangelical churches are closing. Let's look closer at why.

The economic viability of churches is waning.

One factor is size. Christ Community Church, which I sketched last week as having an attendance of two hundred, had to compete with megachurches of five- to ten-thousand, with specialized staff for all ages and lifestyles. The church drew in part from military bases in the area, which meant that its attendance could fluctuate severely as committed people were moved on. This was in addition to an already transient exurban population. As a simple matter of size, the church did not have a large enough attendance to offer a variety of programs or market itself to new people. The larger churches did.

Another economic strain on churches like Christ Community is the housing market. During the housing bubble, the cost of replacing or adding pastoral staff went up with the price of real estate. Even the current depressed home values have not returned prices in all regions to where they were ten or fifteen years ago. Thus, when a long-serving senior pastor resigns, small- to mid-size congregations face sticker shock when they begin to negotiate the new pastor’s salary. Sometimes a church cannot pay a pastor enough to live locally. Such a church might call a pastor who commutes, or it might return to the parsonage model, building a house on land it already owns and treating the house as in-kind compensation.

The housing environment here in California has been particularly hostile to churches, but the same issues can be found in many other parts of the country.

No matter how a church faces such challenges, the cost of doing ministry has escalated. To the strains of maintaining programs to attract people and of adding staff with expensive compensation, we have to factor in escalating premiums for all forms of insurance, and the hidden costs of protecting a congregation against threats like lawsuits and sexual predators.

To make matters worse, financial giving has not kept up. In December, 2008, Christianity Today’s cover shouted, “Scrooge Lives!” Rob Moll’s story surveyed giving patterns among Christians in America. Citing sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell, whose study Passing the Plate was published by Oxford University Press, Moll reports that only 27 percent of evangelicals tithe, or give a tenth of their income. “Thirty-six percent report that they give away less than two percent of their income.” Ten percent give nothing. “The median annual giving for an American Christian is actually $200, just over half a percent of after-tax income.” And these figures were pre-recession.

Moll notes that American Christians earn $2.5 trillion every year. “On their own, these Christians could be admitted to the G7.” If they tithed, they could add $46 billion to ministries domestically and around the world. But their personal finances are devoted to the same consumeristic lifestyle other Americans maintain.

I'm not saying churches should keep running the same business plan, or that the atmosphere of competition among churches is good, or even that Christians should keep paying for expensive programs in churches just to attract more people. As I will argue in a couple of weeks, all of these things need to change. But we do have to open our eyes to the economic realities we face.

My point is this: Focus on the Family and other organizations like it are nothing without churches. The organizational and fund raising prowess of the religious right depends on the continued vitality of small, local institutions that nurture people and pass on a way of life. If churches close at the current rate, the people who support conservative causes will be fewer and more dispersed.

The economic viability of the religious right is joined with the viability of churches. As churches go, so goes the vast  infrastructure of the religious right.

I am convinced that Christians need to revive biblical views of the state, of the economy, and of our national heritage. In view of the urgency of that task, why are we wasting resources on media blitzes, stadium rallies, spin doctors, lobbyists, and politicians? Why aren't we nourishing a genuine cultural change by giving resources to churches, and to planting more of them?

More on that next week.