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Originally published Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bad times good for evangelical churches

In Seattle, the Mars Hill Church, one of the fastest-growing evangelical churches in the country, grew to 7,000 members this fall, up 1,000 in a year.

New York Times News Service

The sudden crush of worshippers packing the small evangelical Shelter Rock Church in Manhasset, N.Y. — a Long Island town of yacht clubs and hedge-fund managers — forced the pastor to set up an overflow room with closed-circuit TV and 100 folding chairs, which have been filled for six consecutive Sundays.

In Seattle, the Mars Hill Church, one of the fastest-growing evangelical churches in the country, grew to 7,000 members this fall, up 1,000 in a year. At the Life Christian Church in West Orange, N.J., prayer requests have doubled — almost all of them aimed at getting or keeping jobs.

Like evangelical churches around the country, the three churches have enjoyed steady growth over the last decade. But since September, pastors nationwide say they have seen such a burst of new interest that they find themselves contending with powerful conflicting emotions — deep empathy and quiet excitement — as they re-encounter an old piece of religious lore:

Bad times are good for evangelical churches.

"It's a wonderful time, a great evangelistic opportunity for us," said the Rev. A.R. Bernard, founder and senior pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York's largest evangelical congregation, where regulars are arriving earlier to get a seat. "When people are shaken to the core, it can open doors."

Nationwide, congregations large and small are presenting programs of practical advice for people in fiscal straits — from a homegrown series on "Financial Peace" at a Midtown Manhattan church called the Journey, to the "Good Sense" program developed at the 20,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., and now offered at churches all over the country.

Meaning of downturn

Many ministers have for the moment jettisoned standard sermons on marriage and the Beatitudes to preach instead about the theological meaning of the downturn.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, who moved much of their door-to-door evangelizing to the night shift 10 years ago because so few people were home during the day, returned to daylight witnessing this year. "People are out of work, and they are answering the door," said a spokesman, J.R. Brown.

Bernard plans to start 100 prayer groups next year, using a model conceived by the megachurch pastor Rick Warren, to "foster spiritual dialogue in these times" in small gatherings around the city.

A recent spot check of some large Roman Catholic parishes and mainline Protestant churches around the nation indicated attendance increases there, too.

But they were nowhere near as striking as those reported by congregations describing themselves as evangelical, a term generally applied to churches that stress the literal authority of Scripture and the importance of personal conversion, or being "born again."

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Part of the evangelicals' new excitement is rooted in a communal belief that the big Christian revivals of the 19th century, known as the second and third Great Awakenings, were touched off by economic panics.

Historians of religion do not buy it, but the notion "has always lived in the lore of evangelism," said Tony Carnes, a sociologist who studies religion.

A study last year may lend some credence to the legend.

In "Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States," David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, looked at long-established trend lines showing the growth of evangelical congregations and the decline of mainline churches and found a more telling detail: During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent.

By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.

Little-noticed study

The little-noticed study began receiving attention from some preachers in September, when the stock market began its free fall. With the swelling attendance they were seeing, and a sense that worldwide calamities come along only once in an evangelist's lifetime, the study has encouraged some to think big.

"I found it very exciting, and I called up that fellow to tell him so," said the Rev. Don MacKintosh, a Seventh-day Adventist televangelist in California who contacted Beckworth a few weeks ago after hearing word of his paper from another preacher.

"We need to leverage this moment, because every Christian revival in this country's history has come off a period of rampant greed and fear. That's what we're in today — the time of fear and greed."

Frank O'Neill, 54, a manager who lost his job at Morgan Stanley this year, said the "humbling experience" of unemployment made him cast about for a more personal relationship with God than he was able to find in the Catholicism of his youth.

In joining the Shelter Rock Church on Long Island, he said, he found a deeper sense of "God's authority over everything — I feel him walking with me."

Why the evangelical churches seem to thrive especially in hard times is a Rorschach test of perspective.

For some evangelicals, the answer is obvious. "We have the greatest product on earth," said the Rev. Steve Tomlinson, senior pastor of the Shelter Rock Church.

Beckworth, a macroeconomist, posited another theory: evangelicals as a whole still tend to be less affluent than members of mainline churches, and therefore depend on their church communities more during tough times, for material as well as spiritual support. In good times, he said, they are more likely to work on Sundays, which may explain a slower rate of growth among evangelical churches in nonrecession years.

At the Shelter Rock Church, many newcomers have been invited by members who knew they had recently lost jobs.

On a recent Sunday, new faces included a hedge-fund manager and an investment banker, both laid off, who were friends of Steve Leondis, a cheerful business executive who has been a church member for four years.

The two newcomers, both Catholics, declined to be interviewed, but Leondis said they agreed to attend Shelter Rock to hear Tomlinson's sermon series, "Faith in Unstable Times."

"They wanted something that pertained to them," he said, "some comfort that pertained to their situations."

Tomlinson and his staff in Manhasset and at a satellite church in nearby Syosset have recently discussed hiring an executive pastor to take over administrative work, so they can spend more time pastoring.

"There are a lot of walking wounded in this town," he said.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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