We’re living in the midst of tremendous change and no one knows this more finitely than traditional churches and centers who are seeing old paradigms erode once-sure strategies for growing membership and revenue.
One of the first challenges of the 21st century came in the form of social media giants like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. At one time, there were few options to hear good spiritual talks and connect with like-minded people. Therefore, churches and centers had somewhat captive audiences – that is until the internet and the tech giants mentioned above became household names.
Yes, there were other societal pressures, but don’t discount the impact that technology has had on the traditional Sunday morning activities. It also helped to more quickly expose bad actors and charlatans, which is a topic for another blog on a different day.
Some churches and centers have managed to survive and leverage these technologies to their advantage. Others are trying and somewhat hanging on, while still others are in a free fall decline. And there are as many opinions about the best approach to turn around a church or center in free fall as there are out-of-work ministers.
While technology and the challenge of over-scheduled families factor into the realities of Sunday morning, we cannot discount the overarching influence of the greater society. While this once meant the understanding and acceptance of technology in the sanctuary; it now means that the impact of the gig economy on society is in turn influencing attendance, participation and affiliation with churches and centers.
What is the gig economy?
According to a 2018 article in Forbes magazine, “the gig economy is a term that refers to the increased tendency for businesses to hire independent contractors and short-term workers, and the increased availability of workers for these short-term arrangements.”
If you think this has nothing to do with you, or your neighborhood, take a look at the local mall. Try to find a K-Mart or Sears store. You may find one but it’s harder than it used to be and much of that is due to the online shopping trend – supported in large part by the gig economy. Amazon doesn’t hire full time drivers to deliver your Prime shipments in 2 days or less. Many of these deliveries are made by people making extra money, driving their own cars. Similarly, Uber and Lyft are often sought out by the recently unemployed or those in need of a side hustle. Uber EATS, Grub Hub and Deal Dash bring takeaway from almost any restaurant right to your door for the small price of anywhere from FREE to $7.00 (I’ve not seen it higher, but it would not surprise me if it was higher at peak times and in larger cities).
The gig economy really represents a deepening gulf in our engagement with each other as human beings. Employers who utilize gig employees don’t pay payroll taxes, offer benefits like paid sick time or contribute to retirement accounts. Often the “independent contractors” never meet the owners or managers but have limited contacts with other contracted employees who simply process their on-boarding and upload the data.
All of this means that the essence of the business being conducted is becoming increasingly transactional and with this, a deepening anonymity between ourselves and those who deliver things to our doors.
“What does this have to do with church?” you may wonder. In my opinion, a whole lot.
As we all live fully in society, we participate in things like free-shipping and 2-day delivery; hot Asian food delivered to our door after a few taps on our smart phone; a ride to the airport, and back home again with no exchange of cash. And each time we participate in one of these activities, we become more comfortable with life that works like this.
The traditional church and the New Thought centers that were modeled after their Protestant brethren were built on the concept that deep and abiding relationships form the foundation for a strong, solid community. That sounds great – but we live in a society that is less and less interested in the trappings of these early 20th century institutions and greatly influenced by the society in which they are immersed, 24/7.
A New World Order
Newly-robed ministers who are seeking their place in the world with an eye on a traditional ministry may find that the opportunities are shrinking as fast as their student loans are growing. Technology’s dominance and the shift that has led to the emergence of the gig economy means that there are fewer and fewer communities where people are willing to show up, throw significant money in a plate or basket to support someone who only works Sunday mornings, maybe one or two evenings a week and wants a contract that supports them taking multiple “working” vacations each year.
In a world where most people are working full-time (40-hours) PLUS a side hustle or two to pay the bills and get by – giving to an organization that supports the happy traveling minister is a non-starter; especially when much of what is offered is available on an as-needed basis with a few taps on a smart phone.
Let’s be honest: when we’re up early on Monday, have battled our way through rush hour traffic and had to sit through an abominable meeting – all before 9am – the last thing we want to see from the Minister who received a handful of our hard-earned cash the day before is a Facebook video showing them playing at the pool with their niece and nephew and a caption about being grateful for Mondays,…(when you’re asking for and taking other people’s money, …optics matter).
I believe that some churches will remain viable institutions. These will be the organizations that serve their communities – that give back more than they ask for or take.
The rest of the religious and/or spiritual world will find itself trying to navigate a brave, new world – one that their ministers were not prepared to travel in seminary or ministerial school. One outcome of the gig economy is that we live in a world where people may drop in here and there, but feel no compunction to “join” or commit to supporting a single organization. This will make it quite difficult to create sustainable budgets for things like salaries, benefits, and facilities.
Ministerial students and unemployed/underemployed ministers today would be wise to prepare for the “increased tendency for businesses to hire independent contractors and short-term workers,…”
With the gig economy making up 34% of the workforce today, and projected to rise to 43% by next year (2020), we can be sure that American society will experience more change and likely continue to see a decline in traditional religious participation. Still, the general interest in a meaningful connection with the Divine will remain. The only real question around all of this is who (which organizations) will step away from “the way it always has been” and into the future, because that future is here, now.
(C) 2019 Practitioner's Path