Flocks grow but tithes decline

From supporting the most vulnerable and those seeking spiritual refuge to conducting more funerals and becoming tech-savvy, churches in South Africa have been busier than ever. No one could foresee the hardships, adjustments and difficulties individuals would face when the corona­virus emerged in South Africa in March last year.

“Hunger, depression and domestic strife with concomitant domestic violence and gender-based violence became the new challenges the churches had to address in their communities,” says Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC).

Some of the demands Covid-19 placed on churches were priests succumbing to Covid-19, shrinking revenues, more funerals and limited access to personal protective gear. 

The survival of churches during 2020 depended largely on whether they had savings to fall back on, according to Mpumlwana. 

“The churches that have suffered most would be the small churches, especially those belonging to the Evangelical Alliance and the Council of African Independent Churches. This is because many of their churches are small and do not have huge reserves,” he says. “The other category of churches that have suffered most is the large mega-churches that have over 4 000 worshippers each week. The lockdown has made it very difficult for them to remain open with regulated limits of 100 persons.”

Level five Covid-19 restrictions prevented church gatherings; other levels restricted numbers. But churches that had the means to adjust turned to streaming services online. The use of platforms such as Zoom, YouTube, Hangouts and Google Meet opened up a wide door for churches to grow locally and internationally.

A smaller church, the Samaria Pentecostal Mission Church in Kleinvlei, Cape Town, saw an increase in young people attending services. 

Prisonbreak Ministries’ Pastor Verculene McCallum says they too had more new young members but they attended online Zoom services. 

Marcel Floor, of the Reformed Church Sasolburg in Gauteng, says their membership grew and includes a number of people from all over the world who regularly follow their services on the internet. Prisonbreak Ministries’ McCallum notes they reached people as far as Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and the United Kingdom. 

Churches still following the traditional method of passing around the collection plate during services saw a significant decline in revenue, yet people’s needs became more intense as the effects of Covid-19 became more evident. 

The Anglican Church had a decrease in income “because the bulk of our congregations are in rural areas where the normal method of giving is in collections at services”. 

“Given that services have been significantly curtailed during the pandemic, this has seen a drop in revenue,” says the church, and adds that although revenue in urban areas also decreased, contributions were more consistent because electronic payments are more common. 

“There were many churches that could not even pay their ministers/pastors; while the same ministers could not refrain from pastoral responsibilities,” notes the SACC. 

Glynis Grant, who attends a church in Paarl East, Western Cape, lost her minister husband to Covid-19. She tells the story of another congregation in the area where the minister and his family were left with no choice but to become self-sustaining.

After church members stopped paying their monthly tithes he decided to turn his four-bedroom house into 10 separate units to rent out to students. He and his family moved to a smaller apartment from where he serves his congregation. 

Many people took refuge at local churches — whether members or not — when food parcels and cooked meals were handed out. The Samaria Pentecostal Mission Church in Kleinvlei saw a decrease in monthly distributions yet managed to provide food parcels for up to 70 households and distributed food to between 200 and 300 children on a regular basis. 

The Evangelical Reformed Church in Tygerberg, Cape Town, which recorded a slight decrease in income says: “Our contributions to provide for the needy increased but, more importantly, there have been many testimonies of people in the congregation directly helping out each other during difficult times, caring for each other without first going through the church’s bank account. We praise the Lord for these wonderful acts of caring and communion.”

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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