A longtime friend who grew up in a religious family sent an email this week saying what is happening in the world and in this nation has given him “serious doubts about my faith and my belief that God even exists.”
How, he asks, “can a caring God allow so many to die in this coronavirus pandemic? How can a nation founded by those of faith now find itself under the tyrannical control of a godless heathen like Trump? Does God even care?”
I’ve run across social media discussions that raise similar questions. The debate is angry on both sides of the question.
Some who feel God or religion has abandoned them in these times of need say their sufferings have given them increased doubt on whether or not a “caring God” is even out there.
Church membership is dropping in America. About half of U.S. Christian churches have about 65 members or less. At least a third have no savings, says the 2018-19 National Congregations Study and the shutdown of public church gatherings has many out of money and facing complete financial collapse if the national lockdowns and stay-at-home orders continue.
Those pastors who have turned to streaming video for Sunday services find that virtual collection plates don’t bring in the dollars they need to survive and church members who are out of work and struggling to pay their bills and keep food on the tables see little reason to tithe.
Church members in trouble can’t go to their local church and sit down with their minister. Not when the doors are closed.
“It’s like a father who can’t do for their child. Like if God sent Jesus to earth but couldn’t do nothing for him. There’s nothing I can do, and that’s one of the worst things a father can say to a child,” Rev. Rickey Scott, pastor East St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church outside Oxford, Miss., tells The Washington Post.
Pastors report giving down 70 percent or more. Ministers have returned their salaries, laid off paid staff, and reduced other operating expenses while worrying that a closed church sends a wrong message to their congregations.
They ask for donations in messages to members but frequent requests in hard times create anger with those who no longer have incomes. Angry discussions erupt on social messaging sites with many saying churches should not be asking for money in difficult times.
Some say the virus may speed up a cruel evolution — the end of congregations that have not embraced technology for functions including streaming services, paying bills and using cloud computing. That includes congregations with members who can’t afford devices or connectivity. The virus is also forcing a reckoning about the way younger Americans give — sporadically, not weekly as older churchgoers do.
Pastor J. Arties Srucky sold cars before God called, he says, and getting money for people who want an automobile is often easier than asking parishioners for money in these cash-strapped times for his small, 65-member Restoration Baptist Church in rural Mississippi.
He’s had to eliminate every staff salary and wonders if he can meet the payments on his church building. Yes, he says, his church is in survival mode but he sees the challenge as a test of faith.
He asks: “Do we fold, or do we become a living example of what we’ve preached for so many years?”
Rev. C.J. Rhodes of Mount Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., says the problem may trigger a religious revival once people come back together.
Maybe not, says Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, director of the National Congregations Study. Studies from previous recessions show people are reluctant to return to religion because the “normal” they return to leaves them with less money to give to a church that they now feel does not serve their needs.
Other studies show an increasing number of Americans, especially the younger ones, harbor doubts about whether or not the “caring God” they were taught to accept really exists. Most Americans now do not join religious faiths or become members of churches.
A caring God, an increasing number feel, would not let people suffer is a viral pandemic.
“What I try to say is, ‘the Lord is aware of your situation,” Rev. Stuckey told the Post. “We survive on generosity. If people stop giving, we die.”
If that happens, some will then ask how God could have let the churches die.