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Despite ongoing financial difficulties and increased joblessness in many communities, most churches are pressing on to help those in need. So says a LifeWay Research survey of more than 1,000 pastors that discovered the overwhelming majority of churches have yet to experience any kind of economic rebound from the recession. In fact, the report indicates most churches may be experiencing tougher times than a year ago.

Almost three out of 10 churches (29 percent) represented in the survey indicated that giving was down from a year prior, while more than two-thirds (35 percent) had experienced a plateau in tithes and offerings. Of those churches whose giving had declined, 18 percent had experienced a drop of 10 percent or more.

The main reason for the decline? According to the study, more than half of all pastors have seen a rise among church members' unemployment. A full quarter of those leaders have also experienced congregants moving away to find work.

"It’s not surprising that churches—and their giving—are more impacted by unemployment than, for example, the stock market or GDP [gross domestic product],” said LifeWay Research Director Ed Stetzer. "As unemployment goes up, giving tends to suffer since many churchgoers give proportionally."

While seven out of 10 pastors say they've had more requests for help from non-churchgoers in their communities, virtually all of these leaders have turned such appeals into opportunities to share the love of Christ through tangible means. Forty-two percent of all churches have responded to the greater need by increasing spending on families in need, while another 44 percent have seen a dramatic rise in volunteer help.

"The economic downturn is forcing many churches to become more volunteer-driven organizations focused on helping the hurting in times of need," Stetzer said. "But churches have not yet joined the broader economic recovery and, historically, they tend to recover financially when unemployment decreases—and usually after the economy as a whole."

Despite the bleak news in comparison to the general economy, LifeWay's study also contained some silver lining: One-third of the pastors surveyed indicated that giving in their churches had actually increased. And although fewer churches overall seem to be meeting or exceeding their budgets that were earlier this year, 62 percent still fall in this category. [, 1/14/10]

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