Hard Times Soften Hearts, Foster Church Growth

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Throughout history, the belief has been when the going gets rough, the hardest hit often get going -- to church. Now an assistant professor of economics at Western Kentucky University has actually proved it. 

Dr. David Beckworth found in all the recessions America has suffered since 1968, evangelical churches have grown on average about 50 percent.

Pastor Todd Lane sees that phenomenon play out each week at Gateway Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas. Gateway counted about 8,500 people coming to weekend services when the 2008 recession hit.  Now that number is more than 21,000.

Lane said he's seen this latest recession shake many people and steal their peace.

"They're looking for some kind of something to satisfy their soul," Lane stated. "And they're only finding it really in the true source of peace and that's in Jesus."

They come looking for Him at churches like Gateway.

"There's certainly been over the last few years quite the spike in our attendance," Lane said.

But churches like Gateway aren't just growing numerically. Some churches are nearly crushed by economic downturns. That tests the true mettle of a congregation and often causes growth in their heart and character.

Painful Cuts

California's West Valley Christian Church north of Los Angeles has certainly been tested. A huge building project saddled the church with a seven-figure mortgage just as the recession hit.

Senior Pastor Glenn Kirby said they could barely make ends meet as members lost jobs and homes, and the church lost members.

"We were losing about four families a week that lost their jobs," Pastor Kirby stated. "There were people who had to move out of the L.A. area for a cheaper place to live."

Consequently, the church had to make painful cuts.

"We laid off all of our staff from about 17 down to four," Kirby explained. "The four left had to take a 10 percent pay cut and no raises since then."

Church member and realtor Cindy Bell watched one homeowner after another go down.

"It's really hard to see people lose a house," Bell said.

But she noticed time and again those hard-hit realize they had a choice.

"They can move toward God or away from Him," she said.

Bell said her congregation decided to move toward God and God met them.

"Layoffs, losing homes, losing health because of the stress and all those things: yes, it could crush us," Bell admitted. "But we have a God who's bigger than that."

"Through the struggles we've gone through, we have become stronger," Pastor Kirby said. "And that's how we've done well."

Those Hurt Offer Helping Hand

And though many in the church were themselves hurting, they turned to help others.

For instance, graphic designer Bianca Jacobsen had a good job she quit to go to work for another firm. That firm laid her off just three months later.

"For five years I was struggling -- in and out of work, in and out of work," Jacobsen recalled.  "It was economic hardship that sort of brought me to my knees."

People at West Valley gathered to pray with her for a new job time and time again. For five years, they wouldn't quit. 

"People would pray with me and it'd give me a tremendous amount of faith," Jacobsen said.

The reward followed when Jacobsen scored the best job she's ever had.

The ways these church members have lived their lives in the face of hard times have led others to radically change their own lives. 

That was the case with former workaholic Richard Cuellar.

Cuellar was spending most of his time working to be able to afford things like a home much larger and more expensive than his family needed. But as Cuellar watched others at West Valley put a higher value on relationships and family than on money and things, he made changes -- like selling that big house.

"I've let go of my second job," Cuellar said.  "I don't work two jobs anymore.  And I'm home more with my family. I'm here at church more often. And that's all because of the examples I saw around here."

Atheist Turned Church Addict

Atheist Robert Yniguez had lost his job and was heading for a divorce after 18 years of marriage.

Then in his despair he met the God he once didn't believe exists. After he began attending West Valley, he found a new job and his crumbling marriage has been restored. Now he's so fallen in love with God and God's people, he admits he's become almost addicted to the church.

"I started feeling like between the Sundays, that I wasn't at the church enough," Yniguez explained. "It's almost like I couldn't wait for Sunday."

Dana Brown-Thomas's whole family was helped by the church when the single mom and her four kids moved out to California and the work she expected fell through.

"So I found myself without a job, new place, not a lot family out here," Brown-Thomas said.

She and her family started attending West Valley and the church rushed to her aid.

"It helped me financially. It helped me emotionally," Brown-Thomas stated.

Church people fed her job leads and references, and even Pastor Kirby got involved.

"He got me to stay focused and sat down and helped me with my resume," Brown-Thomas testified.

All this soon led to a job in a local law office.

A Great Time to 'Fish'

Now Brown-Thomas likes to remind people, "Even in our hardest times -- hardest of hardest times -- God has always looked out for us and always provided."

Bell said she sees fellow church members have been made more sensitive to the needs of others and have become more generous. She said she's watched them give to people in need "for free: refrigerators, couches, beds."

It seems in the best churches, whether they've prospered or been brought low, hard times have softened hearts.

While Texas' Gateway Church itself hasn't faced the same economic challenges West Valley has, Gateway's Pastor Lane says his church family, too, is more aware of the needs others may now have.

Lane explained, "We've actually had several services where literally in the service we give an opportunity for people in need to stand up and the people around them in the service to go and meet that need."

Kirby insists such places -- such people -- shine in dark times, and hurting souls will be drawn to that light.

"It is the greatest of opportunities and the bleakest of tragedies and struggles," Kirby said of this latest recession. "And so, it's a great time for catching fish; it's a great time for ministry."

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.