Prompted by the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, this new research reveals some important things. First, it has surprising news about the resilience of congregations. At a time when almost every American institution had to trim its budget, a majority of the congregations surveyed saw their fundraising receipts hold steady or increase. That is good and important news for those accustomed to the prevailing "mainline decline" narrative told in our culture. Second, it shows us that congregations responded to the economic crisis with food, clothing, and shelter for those in need. The traditional, charitable impulses of Christian congregations endure and still make an important difference. Third, the survey reveals that the same congregations that many write off as dying are in fact innovating, partnering with a host of not-for-profit organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Second Harvest and doing new things like offering credit counseling and emergency loans. To be sure, not every American congregation saw its income increase during this tough time, and more than a few had to cut back their programs. But this survey provides evidence, as do larger surveys like Giving USA 2009, that even in an era when many are dropping out of organized religion and turning to less demanding types of spirituality, giving to religious institutions, unlike other sectors, actually increases when times are tough.
There is good news in this research but something is missing. Almost no mention is made of congregations starting new business ventures to widen and diversify the revenue streams that support their missions. Yet some are doing just that. A recent article in the Washington Post ("At Home in the Houses of the Lord: Church Missions, Portfolios Embrace Residential Real Estate," August 8, 2009) featured a local real estate boomlet led by congregations. In Landover, Maryland, Reston, Virginia, and the District itself, congregations have been teaming with local real estate developers to build residential communities that provide both affordable housing in high-priced markets and new streams of revenue to support community ministries. These entrepreneurial congregations are not only resilient and able to motivate donors in tough times; they are trying to dig beneath old stewardship ways of thinking about money (pass the plate, sign the pledge card) and find new ways to love and serve their neighbors.