Biltmore United Methodist Church of Asheville, North Carolina, is for sale.
The church was already struggling prior to the COVID-19 pandemic due to declining membership. When the pandemic hit, attendance dropped further—drastically. Many of those who previously showed up in person opted to stay home. When the church made the decision to suspend in-person gathering, some of its members chose instead to switch to other churches that stayed open.
And when the people leave, so does the revenue the church depends upon to operate. Sometimes, it’s not just tithes and offerings that drop. In the case of Biltmore United Methodist, income the church formerly received from renting its space for events and meetings also evaporated.
Sadly, many more churches were already in decline prior to the pandemic. The virus hit at a time when historically fewer Americans were attending worship services. (See America’s Emptying Pews.) Faith Communities Today surveyed nearly 15,300 congregations. At least half those congregations reported weekly attendance of 65 or fewer people. The additional lack of attendees—and weekly donations—hurt many churches that still had to pay mortgages on buildings and salaries for staff.
“The pandemic didn’t change those patterns; it only made them a little bit worse,” says Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and co-chair of Faith Communities Today.
Some churches received assistance from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, received a PPP loan of more than $55,000. But even that barely made a dent Friendship’s overall expenses. Reverend Alvin Gwynn, Sr., gave up his pastor’s salary to help sustain the congregation. He is living off other resources and part-time jobs. He doesn’t intend to draw a paycheck again until the church is stable.
Friendship Baptist counts around 900 active members on its roll. But only about 150 regularly show up, offering their crucial donations.
The church is “surviving because of the sacrificial giving of the 150,” says Reverend Gwynn. “They give way, way more than a normal offering each Sunday individually.”
The tale may sound bleak. But it’s no surprise to God, who will prove Himself faithful. In Revelation 1:16-17, John sees Jesus holding the seven stars for seven churches in one hand. John falls down in fear and worship before the Lord. Jesus places His hand on John. That image should comfort us. Jesus alone can hold both the corporate church and every individual securely at the same time—no matter the challenge.
Why? These are challenging financial times for individuals and churches. But God promises to preserve His church to the very end—and even into a new beginning. He will do it, and along the way, He not only preserves the whole Body, but the individuals in it.