The “small” black church in America has, without warning, instantly become an endangered species. The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered many churches across America, although, at this writing, many have already reopened their pews. While many small churches have not totally ceased operations during the COVID pandemic, the future for many of these congregations remain murky due to a post-pandemic bleak economic outlook. What is crucial is not “operations” but rather the ability of its members to support such a task in a suddenly fragile economy.
Half of American churches have less than 150 members according to the National Congregations Study at Duke University. Organized churches are crucial for the spiritual and cultural sustenance of the black family and contribute to the black economy in multiple ways.
Most of these congregations, though, are in survival mode, having lost up to fifty percent of their weekly offerings due to financial hardship imposed on families.
COVID-19 has emaciated the ability of members – many of whom are blue-collar workers – to contribute to ministry costs. As a result, many churches have had to furlough what precious few staff they have, such as janitors, musicians and church clerks.
Is it possible that when the dust of the COVID-19 pandemic settles, there will no longer be a church on every corner in the Black community? It is not a far-out possibility, given the precarious nature of how these churches operate daily.
I pastored a small congregation in Dallas from June of 2017 to December of 2019. The sentiments expressed here are not reflective of my tenure with the congregation I pastored, but rather from a more panoramic estimation of the black community’s small congregations across the spectrum of Dallas-Fort Worth.
During my time as interim pastor, and long before COVID-19 hit, I made some notes and observations about how and why small black congregations could possibly become extinct.
Here are five areas where small churches must build in order to emerge from COVID-19 as a viable and sustaining institution.
1. Savings and investments. About a third of small congregations have no savings, according to the National Congregations Study. Most small churches do not have the financial means for a “rainy day” fund. This is the biggest negative impact most small churches will feel and remains the where the most opportunity lies for solvency.
2. Streaming services. COVID has disrupted the fellowship or the ability of members to experience communal worship as only about twenty percent of small churches are able to stream live. This is a by-product of the so-called digital divide in the Black community.
3. Communication network. This is closely related to the previous point, as most small churches simply are not able to communicate with one another via rudimentary channels such as email and text messaging. As a result, many members are lost in the shuffle of survival.
4. Electronic footprint. This refers to the ability of churches to receive tithes and offerings online or through an electronic network. The inability is due to a lack critical financial infrastructure.
5. Senior Saints empowerment. As many small black churches are comprised of seniors, who tend to be uncomfortable with technology, emergency situations like COVID virtually cuts them off from the congregation. This is heart-rending because seniors have shown to be the most vulnerable population during the pandemic.
Small to medium black churches in America must find new ways of doing business for a post-COVID-19 reality.