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World religions face calculation after a pandemic

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ASC VICAR, a rabbi or imam about the biggest problem facing him or her congregation, and the need to cultivate spiritual values ​​in the secular world, can get out of hand. However, world religions face the same acute but different problem: how to stay in business in a material, competitive sense. In religion, as elsewhere, Covid-19 helped sort out the winners and losers. Churches that effectively cared for the needs of their flock before the pandemic often prospered because people were more concerned about death – and in private they find more time for worship and prayer.

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But churches that were already struggling were finding it increasingly difficult to retain their congregations. The pandemic has accelerated the transition to online services, giving many once faithful a reason to stop appearing. Many religious institutions closed their doors at night, moving their services to Zoom. Now that their buildings are reopening, they are not sure how many believers will return. If a smaller number seems to return, two already noticeable trends may intensify. Many religious organizations get rid of their unused property. And more churches will merge.

Economists have long analyzed religious groups as if they were businesses. In 1776, the Scotsman Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations argued that churches were businesses similar to butchers, bakers and brewers. In a free and competitive marketplace, where they rely on donations and volunteers to make ends meet, the clergy must act with “diligence” and “industry” to fill their benches. Mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies are inevitable.

Today, the market for religion is changing, perhaps more than ever. In terms of demand, churches in the Western world are suffering from global secularization, which began long before the pandemic. Even in America, the most obvious example of a rich country that thrived alongside religion (some say thanks to it), the proportion of citizens who identify themselves as Christians is falling from 82% in 2000 to less than 75% in 2020 (see .chart 1). According to a recent poll by the World Values ​​Survey, a global network based in Austria, about 30% of Americans say they attend religious services at least once a week. That’s a lot compared to other rich countries. But that figure has been steadily declining from 45% at the turn of the millennium.

As for supply, competition is usually fierce when governments do not dictate what religion people should follow. John Gordon Melton of Baylor University in Texas estimates that there are about 1,200 Christian denominations in the United States, along with many other denominations. To achieve their congregations, they need to make worship attractive in a variety of ways. Three-quarters of Americans, according to a Gallup poll, say music is a factor; 85% consider community service a lure. According to Roger Finke of the University of Pennsylvania, the key to pluralism is not that there are “more religions,” but that they must “fit” the tastes of consumers.

Covid has pushed innovation in churches around the world. The Milton Keynes Christian Center in Britain, for example, has developed religious education courses and prayer groups both online and in person. He supports a food bank and has discovered what he calls a “sensory kit” (a “calming, soothing place”) for children with learning disabilities. “Churches need to rethink their ministry strategies to make sure they interact with our culture today,” said Tony Morgan, founder of The Unstuck Group, an Atlanta-based church counseling firm that counsels the parish in Milton Keynes.

However, many churches did not have time. Their clergy did not move online during the blockade because they lacked technology or did not like the idea. Some slowly opened their doors. Meanwhile, the broadcast of services has made it easier for believers to “church hop.” In a survey of practicing Christians in America in 2020 conducted by the Barna Group, which conducts global research on religion, 14% changed churches, 18% attended more than one church, 35% attended church only before the pandemic, and 32% stopped going to church at all. (see Table 2).

An important step for any church, no matter which one it is struggling or prosperous, is to balance its books, and this in our time invariably means sorting out its portfolio of property. Organized religion struggles with the same problems faced by owners of tired shopping malls and empty offices when businesses go online. Are they standing nearby and watching the attendance decline? If not, how should they rethink their property?

Get real estate (real estate)

For centuries, religions have accumulated earthly wealth in the form of property. The Vatican owns thousands of buildings, some in the chic areas of London and Paris. The Church of Scientology has glamorous addresses in Hollywood worth $ 400 million, a medieval castle in South Africa and an 18th-century mansion in Sussex, England. Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a temple belonging to the richest Buddhist sect in Thailand, boasts meditation halls around the world. The mystery of how much the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints possesses is better known as the Mormon Church; He is said to have $ 100 billion in U.S. investment, including a ranch, a theme park in Hawaii and a mall near the Salt Lake Temple in Utah. Smaller religious institutions also depend on property for their earthly wealth. Temples, synagogues and mosques are wary of rising property prices.

This has become even more important as formal attendance at religion is declining, and with it donations are falling. Church buildings in Britain have been closing at a rate of more than 200 a year over the past decade. Hundreds more could be sold or demolished in the next few years. Even in America, tens of thousands of buildings risk closing their doors forever. Nearly a third of American synagogues have closed in the last two decades.

The Church of St. Mary in Berlin, a huge Gothic structure made of red brick, reflects this trend. It is full of frescoes and stone reliefs dating back centuries. The benches, however, are empty. Since World War II, the congregation has shrunk. Lutheran pastor Gregor Hoberg says young Berliners still have “religious needs” but fulfill them in yoga classes and meditation groups. The public, he says, does not understand that the church welcomes gay families and that many pastors are women. Father Hochberg says most Germans consider the church obsolete.

Meanwhile, growing costs for utilities and urgent repairs around the world are becoming unclear. The Church of England says it needs £ 1 billion ($ 1.3 billion) – more than seven times its annual revenue in 2020 – for repairs over the next five years. English churches have closed at an alarming rate over the past 30 years. In America, building costs account for more than a quarter of church budgets. However, churches across the country are estimated to have 80% more space than they need.

Many mosques, especially in the West, are also in financial difficulties. Although they often attract more believers than well-funded churches, their annual budget, estimated at about $ 70,000 for the average mosque in America, is often too small to keep buildings in good condition.

The Internet was both a blessing and a curse. The virtual sermon of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2020 was listened to by about 5 million people – more than five times more than the number of weekly churchgoers in Britain before the pandemic. But online participation comes at a price. If believers stop visiting them, ancient buildings risk becoming obsolete.

Thus, religious groups are selling property faster than before, or looking for other uses for it. Faith leaders seeking a place in heaven are learning to adapt by selling or renting real estate on Earth where moths and rust are corrupting. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim 9 million members worldwide, have sold their British headquarters, which used to print leaflets and a magazine. The Watchtower. Hilsong, Australia’s mega-church, which has 150,000 weekly believers in 30 countries, rents theaters, cinemas and other venues for Sunday services.

But parting with sacred property can be awkward. In 2020, overseers of the famous Hindu temple of Venkateswara in Tirumala in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh were called “anti-Hindu” for trying to auction off dozens of “non-viable” properties donated by members. They were forced to abandon the idea.

Go or eat

Another, more radical approach to such problems is becoming more common: if your church can’t thrive on its own, merge with another. A few months ago, Jim Tomberlin, a pastor who became a consultant, was exhibited at a church near Detroit, Michigan, struggling with only fifty people in his congregation and a $ 450,000 mortgage on his property. Its leaders want to join another parish, a 15-minute drive away, whose church has a flock of thousands – and a healthy balance. Like many others in a similar bundle, the singers asked Mr. Tomberlin to become a mediator. “They recognize that we are either merging or dying,” as he bluntly puts it.

The trend of church mergers began even before Covid, but the pace may increase. It is not theology that pushes, but the administration, as budgets are cut or pastors leave. Such consolidation occurs between the Roman Catholic Churches, between synagogues and within other religions. But it is especially common among America’s major Protestant churches.

As in any business, when two churches come together, their leaders can clash, cultural change can repel members, and shared finances don’t always work out. When churches merge the weaker ones are more likely to lose supporters. According to a 2019 survey of nearly a thousand church leaders who have survived the merger in the past decade, about one-fifth are losing more than 40% of their congregation in the year after the union.

But there were about 1,750 Protestant “megachurches” with more than 2,000 regular visitors and multimillion-dollar budgets – some as a result of mergers. Some have many websites. Warren Byrd, an American pastor who is an expert on megachurches, says a good mix of parishes is like a successful marriage. Each partner must bring their gift to the arrangement, while a struggling church combined with a thriving one may simply be absorbed.

Economists are not alone in believing that religious competition is healthy. “If there was only one religion in England,” said the French writer Walter in the 1730s, “there would be a danger of despotism. If there were two, they would cut each other’s throats, and 30 of them, and they live in peace and happiness. ” Perhaps he was unnecessarily sanguine. But the virus has certainly forced pious institutions to inspect their commercial as well as spiritual assets.

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https://www.economist.com/international/2022/01/08/the-worlds-religions-face-a-post-pandemic-reckoning

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