If the economic recession has made people more receptive to spiritual concerns and theological insights, that interest has not translated into sales of religion books (see Marcia Nelson’s report in this issue).
Conventional wisdom holds that when times get bad, people turn to religion. But that’s not the case in religion publishing. Like other business executives in the current economic doldrums, religion publishers are cutting expenses in the face of declining sales.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America both have slashed their 2009 budgets, cutting programs and laying off scores of personnel as denominations continue to suffer from the recession.
A lot of outrage, including threats of physical violence, has been directed at executives of the American International Group and other financial-services firms. The executives are perceived as having triggered the world wide economic crisis by their reliance on subprime mortgage–backed securities and on credit default swaps (something few people understand even after hearing them explained).
Theologian N. T. Wright says that even when you are in the Promised Land you are never far from the wilderness. I’m not the only preacher who has pondered how our nation has gone so quickly from the promised land of abundance to a wilderness of economic uncertainty. This recession is a new place for most of us.
Among U.S. churches of better-than-average size and budget, nearly half are feeling the impact of the deepening recession and are being forced in many cases to cut staff or freeze salaries. Donations are down, said 48 percent of church leaders surveyed at these churches in February. Last August, 41 percent of respondents reported a downward trend in donations at a time when Wall Street financial firms needed rescue and gasoline prices were sky high. But although the unemployment rate is rising, credit is tight as a drum and stock and home values are shriveling, 52 percent of congregational executives reported that donations at their churches have not declined.
During what some call the start of a recession, mainline church officials are assuring pastors and retirees that their pension funds are secure. But the officials are concerned about how the economic woes will affect their operating budgets and ministries.
Like everyone else I know, I am feeling the pinch of a straitened economy. I eat out less often, I drive less far and I write fewer checks to my favorite charities. These are all middle-class concerns, I know (does anyone admit to being upper-middle class?), which is why I hesitate to mention them.