Fast Facts: January/February 2009
Effects of the Great Depression on Nazarene Growth and Finances 1926, 1929, and 1932 Annual Report Data for the Church of the Nazarene in Canada and the U.S. In 1929, a major financial crisis hit the U.S. To determine any effect on the Church of the Nazarene, statistics from 1926 (three years before the crisis) and 1932 (three years after the Depression began) were compared to those of 1929. Disorganizations: Of the 1,491 organized Churches of the Nazarene reported in 1926, 169 had been disorganized during the boom years preceding 1929. Another 82 of these Churches of the Nazarene were disorganized by 1932. Here are some facts about the churches disorganized between 1929 and 1932:
  • They spent 20 percent less on "others" (district and general obligations) than those that survived.
  • They were only about one-third the size of the surviving churches at the beginning of the time period. This would seem to indicate that smaller churches were most at risk during this period of economic stress.
  • On average, churches that disorganized during the three years prior to 1929 were barely half as likely to have owned property in 1926 as those that survived. Again, those churches that disorganized between 1929 and 1930 were barely half as likely to have owned property in 1929 as those that survived. In fact, the existing churches in 1929 that survived to 1932 were likely to have obtained property during the preceding three years, while those that did not survive tended to have lost their property in the three years before the crash. While there does seem to be a relationship between owning property and long-term viability, it is not clear whether this was because the churches could borrow against the property or because property ownership is itself an indication of stability.
Growth: Growth rates for the denomination were different in the three years before the crash than they were in the three years following the crash.
  • During the three years prior to 1929, membership in the 1,491 churches grew just over seven percent, even with 169 of the churches being disorganized in that time. In the three years following the crash of 1929, the remaining churches grew just over 15 percent, even considering the loss of another 82 churches. Economic hardship in the general population may have made the message of transforming grace more readily accepted.
  • During the three years leading up to the crash, the denomination in Canada and the U.S. had a net gain of 226 organized churches. In the following three years, the net gain was 220. While the rate of net gain was slightly less following 1929, the change was not dramatic. Finances: Finances, of course, were different before and after the 1929 stock market crash. Actual dollar amounts in the 1920s and 1930s sound strange to twenty-first century Nazarenes, but the percentage changes may have insights for us.
  • Between 1926 and 1929, per capita spending in the 1,941 churches dropped ten percent, from $50 to $45. But by 1933, the per capita spending in those same churches had dropped to just $26, a 48 percent drop over the six years.
  • Total dollars spent by local churches for all purposes actually increased around seven percent from 1926 to 1929. The net gain in churches offset the per capita loss. Despite the increase in churches, total spending decreased 23 percent from 1929 to 1932.
  • Between 1926 and 1929, the indebtedness ratio of the 1,491 churches grew from 6 to 24 percent, an indication that churches were making plans based on the ability to repay mortgages. The number of surviving churches reporting property ownership remained steady the next three years (actually a drop from 1,113 to 1,112). The debt ratio remained at 24 percent in 1932. Despite the greatly reduced income, churches were able to hold on to their property and stay current on their debts, at least on average.
Observations: Certainly times are different than when our grandparents and great-grandparents went through the Depression. But some underlying truths may be detected in studies of previous eras. God himself has not changed, according to the Bible. Human reactions to stress and hardship are similar as well, according to sociologists. Here are some possibilities for future times of economic hardship.
  • God's people will rally around His work. If the local congregation is seen as a focal point for ministry, the people will do their best to keep it viable financially.
  • Society will look for spiritual answers. Eighty years ago in the U.S., Protestantism was the likely source for such answers. Today, Christians must be sure the gospel message is proclaimed clearly among the competing "answers" in a global market.
  • Congregations with a financial stake in the community tend to outlast those without such commitment. Property ownership, with or without indebtedness, does seem to indicate a trust in God's intention for the local church to have a lasting ministry.
  • Churches with an outward focus have better prospects than those concentrating on themselves. Recognizing that they have a broader mission, these churches demonstrate Jesus' words in Luke 6: "Give, and it will be given to you."
Holiness Today, January/February 2009
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