USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Religion and the New Economic Realities

Religion and the New Economic Realities

Religion and the New Economic Realities

There seems to be some concern among both religious leaders and the faithful that our recent economic woes will cause significant change in the religious landscape of America. It is, of course, an old story that the old-line/mainline churches have been bleeding members for many years. But membership losses, and thus downturns in donations and support, are apparently not restricted to these big denominations. Religious schools have closed, congregations have not been able to support themselves, and in general, the concern is that there will be much more loss among religious institutions in the U.S.

On the other hand, there are many religious groups that seem to be thriving, in particular, the many megachurches that are found all around the country, and that are seemingly on every other city block throughout southern California. Of course, there are likely many reasons for megachurch success, such as different economies of scale that they enjoy as compared to smaller congregations, which allows them to offer many more religious and spiritual goods from which their clientele can choose.

But all of this raises an interesting question for religious organizations to consider in terms of how they conceive of their current and future mission: namely, how big do they need to be? After all, there is no such thing as a religious organization being “too big to fail,” so how big is big enough?

We have previously written of smaller, “innovative” churches that from their founding have organized around what they call an “organic” model of church. By this they mean that they want their churches to have a smaller scale and not try to have a program for every conceivable niche market, instead seeking to meet the needs of their congregants and the surrounding communities. But they also mean that they see their organizations as having a natural life span—birth, life, and yes, death. And maybe that’s what the economic downturn can teach religious leaders.

Not every organization can or should be forever, and maybe smaller is better, particularly in a time of scarce resources. Perhaps the new economic realities, rather than being a threat, can encourage new thinking about how people create and organize as religious communities, and that maybe they should include a possible expiration or termination date in their planning.

Photo Credit: Christa Lohman/Flickr

Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.