10/05/2010 01:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Filling the Government Gap: Churches and Community Coping

The recent U.S. Census Bureau report revealing that the share of Americans living in poverty reached a 15 year high was not news to the millions of Americans living on "Main Street." The sobering reality of America's invisible poor manifests itself in the growing population of new church goers filing into pews every week. During the economic crisis millions of Americans have asked the church to provide basic services previously covered by local governments. The growth in demand for the church-funded services, coupled with a reduction in resources, has required America's churches to do more with less during the economic crisis.

Everyday churches struggle to serve their members and their community through programs and outreach. With church donations and assistance from volunteers, Americans carry out essential grassroots programs that compliment and oftentimes replace the work of local governments. Today's churches have responded to the crisis by increasing resources dedicated to after-school tutoring and arts & crafts for students affected by cutbacks in public school funding. In other instances, reductions in funding for job training has led to many churches offering computer literacy training for adults looking for new job opportunities.

Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, "11 o'clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America." For generations, the church has been divided too often along socio-economic and ethnic lines. But for all the commentary about how religion has divided our country, there is a common link binding America's church-goers during this economic crisis. A recent Gallup poll reflected that 43.1% of Americans reported weekly or almost weekly church attendance. The data is significant because attendance has gone up since the height of the crisis: 42.1% in 2008 and 42.8% in 2009.

As churches grow, demands on their resources have also grown. Unfortunately the uptick in attendance has not been followed with a comparable increase in offering or resources needed to serve new members. In a recent "State of the Plate" survey of 1,017 churches sponsored by Christianity Today International (CTI) and the Colorado Springs firm Maximum Generosity, 38% of churches saw their income drop in 2009, compared with 29% seeing drops in 2008. As the economy sputtered, so too did the ability of church goers to support their churches through donations. A similar survey of 1,168 churches released last spring by CTI said weekly contributions were down 2 % or more nationally.

Perhaps the hardest hit during the economic crisis has been the African American community; the result being an alarming number of African-Americans losing their homes due to foreclosure. The increase in the poverty rate differs greatly for non-Hispanic whites (9.4 %), for African-Americans (25.8 %) and for Hispanics (25.3 %). During the recession, churches like Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, MD established an emergency fund to help support families with money for utilities or food, but mostly for those who are in jeopardy of losing their homes to foreclosure. The local government has historically had resources to help support effort like these, but have had to cut back during the economic crisis.

Among America's churches, evidence suggests the nation's so-called megachurches were hit the hardest. With 47% of churches with 2,000 members or more seeing giving drop in 2009 compared with only a 23% decrease in 2008, the impact of the economic crisis on large churches has become more apparent. With the advent of the so-called mega-church and growing popularity of pastors like Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, or Joel Osteen, many see the church as more interested in personal profits than saving souls. Critics also use the unchecked proliferation of pastors with luxury cars and private jets as evidence that churches are ill-equipped to understand the needs of the average parishioners. Unfortunately, the overemphasis on the growth of mega-churches is misleading as [according to the Hartford Institute] nearly 94% of churches in America have less than 500 members. The overwhelming majority of churches in America are not large and distant, but small and intimate.

The argument over the church's ability to provide services through a Community Development Corporation (CDC) or profit-making arm has had mixed reviews as well. Today's churches are opening charter schools, Assisted Living Homes for the elderly, and health clinics in areas underserved by the government. On the other hand, for every successful program there is a story of poor management or misappropriation of funds. Unlike the government, church leaders are not elected by the communities they serve and are less accountable than their counterparts in government leading to questions about their ability to properly substitute for government services.

The financial crisis has elevated the church to more than a place of worship but a place of refuge for the millions of Americans struggling to survive the economic crisis. As local and state governments struggle to meet budget requirements churches will continue to be asked to fill the gaps in services. The recession placed demands on American families, communities, non-profits, and churches. In many ways community institutions are responding well beyond expectations during the crisis. If community institutions like churches can continue to do more with less, once the economy reaches pre-recession rates, community institutions will be even better suited to respond to the needs of average Americans then they were before the economic crisis.

Curtis Valentine designs community development programs for World Vision, the world's largest international humanitarian non-profit organization. Curtis is currently drafting a memoir documenting his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in post-apartheid South Africa.