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Arts & Life

After Pandemic Causes Drop In Church Attendance, These Kansas City Churches Are Doing Well Financially

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Jacob's Well Church
Mike Crawford is the worship leader at Jacob's Well Church in Midtown. Here, he leads an online service.

Church attendance has dropped by a third in 2020, and churches have had to find creative ways to make up for that financially.

Many people have disconnected from their churches this year after fears of COVID-19 infection caused congregations to restrict attendance or go entirely virtual.

Barna Research, which studies churches, has found that a third of the persons who attended services regularly before COVID-19 are not attending online services at their home church or any other.

In many cases, that drop in attendance also means a drop in financial support.

“If people don’t feel that connection through physical presence, perhaps they don’t feel the connection to give,” says Jonathan Davis.

Davis lives in Austin, Texas and studies churches as businesses as the co-director of the Healthy Churches Institute. He's the former director of the Small-Town Churches Network. He says about half of the nation’s approximately 300,000 churches are in rural areas.

If a third of church-goers are “not engaging anymore,” Davis says, “there’s a real risk across the board of not only multiple churches failing and declining,” but also that churches will experience steep drops in attendance after the pandemic.

But the picture for many churches is not so bleak. Research shows that as many as 73% of churches nationwide are pulling in as many or more monetary contributions as before the pandemic. They've found new, often virtual, ways to connect with congregations and pass the offering plate.

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Facebook Live
Concord Fortress of Hope Church in Ruskin Heights incorporates members of its congregation in its virtual services.

That’s been the case for two very different churches in Kansas City, Missouri: Concord Fortress of Hope Church in the Ruskin Heights neighborhood and Jacob’s Well Church in Midtown.

These churches serve different locations and demographics — one leans urban while the other tends toward the suburban — but the leaders each say their churches’ finances are staying healthy during the pandemic.

Ronald Lindsay is the founding pastor of Concord Fortress of Hope and has served there for 30 years. He says that about seven years ago, he and his team noticed that attendance was changing.

“It wasn’t that people were disengaging from the Christian faith, it was because children’s soccer, different things going on, and Sunday became a very key time,” Lindsay explains.

He shortened the length of services to accommodate busy schedules, but he also diversified the giving model by: adding a donation button to the church website; suggesting members download a giving app; and creating stations for congregants to swipe a card in the hallway any time they found themselves in the building.

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Anne Kniggendorf
When congregants meet in person, one of the ways they can make their offering is by using the "tithes and offerings" box to the right of the hall piano.

Jacob’s Well hasn’t ever passed an offering plate during services. But four years ago during a fundraising campaign, leaders there also reconsidered the church’s giving model. A survey revealed that only about 35% of congregants gave at all.

Mike Crawford is responsible for the music program at Jacob’s Well. He says that in addition to making monetary giving simpler and less reliant on a person having cash or carrying a checkbook, Jacob’s Well began emphasizing other types of giving: talent, time, and donations of other sorts.

Jacob's well has suspended in-person services during the pandemic. But Crawford says the church has seen the emotional, psychological, and spiritual fallout of COVID and is constantly trying to figure out ways to help people.

“We’re supposed to be together. We’re supposed to have human contact,” Crawford says.

Jacob’s Well isn’t affiliated with a denomination and considers itself one of a kind. It also doesn’t tally official members, but roughly 1,600 mostly well-educated white people call it home, though the surrounding community is much more diverse.

“We just talked about: How could we become more generous as a group of people?" says executive pastor Jim Gum. "That was the thing we emphasized, because generosity is important for us as followers of Christ. God’s generous with us, so we need to pass it forward and be free with stuff.”

The change in philosophical approach in combination with using an app and encouraging people to set up recurring gifts increased the portion of the congregation that gives on a regular basis to 70%.

And after only a slight dip at the start of the pandemic, that upward trend has continued. Giving has increased 5% since this time last year, Gum says.

Concord Fortress of Hope has about 3,300 members, though even on its busiest pre-pandemic Sunday, not everyone attended. Lindsay says the church draws many people from Lee’s Summit and south Kansas City, and is a mostly Black congregation. It’s located in a federal Opportunity Zone, meaning it’s in an economically distressed area.

For 30 years, Lindsay and the other leaders have asked: “If the world were not the same, how would we develop a footprint to honor God?” That question has kept them watching trends and looking for new models of interacting with congregants and surrounding communities.

But 2020 has brought challenges that no amount of trend-watching could have anticipated.

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Concord Fortress of Hope Church
Pastor Ronald Lindsay started offering some online services four years ago.

Concord Fortress of Hope began offering online services four years ago, and that gave Lindsay’s congregants a sense of continuity when they were unable to meet in person, which they haven’t since March.

Both Jacob’s Well and Concord Fortress of Hope post online worship of some kind nearly every day of the week, keeping people feeling connected—and perhaps boosting the offerings their congregants make.

Some churches, however, are looking at hard times.

They may be ministering to people who lack internet access, and jobs that don't allow them to work from home. Although those problems affect churches everywhere, Davis says many rural churches he studies may have their entire congregation dealing with those issues, rather than just a portion.

Those churches also pay their ministers, on average, $17,000 less than their urban and suburban counterparts. However, lower cost of living and the continued availability of parsonages help rural ministers weather storms like the one the country is facing now.

On average, 50% to 70% of a church’s budget is allocated for staff salaries, Davis says. Some mainline churches stipulate minimum salary requirements, but many simply work with what they take in.

So, for churches seeing a decrease in giving, Davis says many will have to reconsider their staffing requirements, opting for part time ministers or secretaries, and fewer age-graded ministry programs.

Davis and many other ministers are optimistic, however.

“The church is 2,000 years old and has lived through health pandemics before,” Davis says. “And it may be hard for us to realize that when we’re narrowly focused on the moment or on the season that we find ourselves in, because we haven’t lived through this before.”

At Concord Fortress of Hope Church in Kansas City, Lindsay thinks his church and congregation will weather the pandemic well.

Even so, Lindsay is convinced that church in the United States will never be the same.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to what used to be, or it will be many, many years before we go back to that model,” Lindsay says.

He plans to continue to offer virtual services and ministries alongside in-person services when those become possible. What's more, he’ll also continue to pass a virtual offering plate.

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