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Do hard times lead to increased piety?

January 18, 2009

By DAVID YOUNT

Scripps Howard News Service

The great Christian revivals of the 19th century, known as the second and third "Great Awakenings," were prompted by nationwide economic panics. In the wake of the current recession, churchgoing in America has increased yet again, suggesting that bad times are good for religion.

Actually, the jury is still out on whether Americans become more religious when threatened by debt and job loss. To be sure, evangelical churches have claimed substantial increases in attendance, while Catholic and mainline Protestant churches report only modest gains or none.

David Beckwith, an economist at Texas State University, confirms that during each recession between 1968 and 2004, the rate of membership growth in evangelical churches leaped by 50 percent. Since the 1990s, evangelicals (who stress the literal authority of the Bible and personal rebirth) have become the nation's largest religious group.

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Beckwith notes that evangelicals tend to be less affluent than members of mainline churches and more threatened by a sour economy. They turn more quickly to their church communities for support and solidarity when times are tough.

In turn, these communities of faith have been quick to respond to practical needs of their members. Evangelical churches nationwide have embraced programs of practical financial counseling like the "Good Sense" series developed at the 20,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.

Church facilities have been strained to serve their new members, many of whom have recently lost their jobs. Moreover, recessions cut both ways: more members for the congregation, but fewer dollars in the collection basket.

Still, A.R. Bernard is upbeat about the opportunity to serve newcomers accustomed to sleeping in on Sundays. Bernard is founder of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York's largest evangelical congregation.

"When people are shaken to the core," he says, "it can open doors."

This year he will form 100 prayer groups around New York to foster mutual support for his church's members.

Steve Tomlinson, senior pastor of the Shelter Rock Church in Manhasset, N.Y., has developed a series of sermons called "Faith in Unstable Times," now used across the United States.

Will churches be able to heal the wounds of their new members? No miracles are expected, but researchers around the world agree that devoutly religious people do better in school, live longer, enjoy more satisfying marriages and are generally happier.

Michael McCullough, a University of Miami psychologist, reviewing eight decades of research, concludes that religious belief and piety make for self-control and success in life, whereas vague spirituality does not. "The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself (encourages) people to follow through with their goals."

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