Sep 17, 2012

The odd non-relation of the economy & religious construction

Despite signs of an economic recovery in other sectors of construction, religious construction has not picked up again. 

The stats from the US Department of Commerce show that the economic recovery -- sluggish though it may be -- isn't notable at all in spending on construction of houses of worship. The rate of decline with this construction spending isn't steep as it has been at some points since the economic crisis, but things are still moving in the downward direction. 

In the Spring, there was no hint of a reversal to the downward trend. Now, with two more month's worth of data, there's still no sign that spending on religious construction in America will do anything other than continue to decrease. The Summer just hasn't seen a significant uptick in construction spending by religious organizations. 

Given that construction typically increases in Summer months, and that religious construction has not increased this Summer, it doesn't seem likely that there religious construction will increase anytime soon. 

In January 2012, religious organizations spent a bit over $4 billion on construction. That dipped to $3.8 billion in April, $3.9 in May, and came in at $3.8 in June and $3.9 in July, according to the Department of Commerce numbers.

This means the market for religious construction is not responding to the economy in the same way the markets for residential and non-residential construction are responding. One can see the recovery in the statistics for private, non-government spending on other sorts of construction. But not with religious construction. 

Perhaps the era of construction of houses of worship is over in America. Certainly it now seems it was an era, rather than just being normalcy. 

It's difficult to imagine the near future will witness construction spending of the volume seen even during the recession. It's seems less likely still to see how these numbers might again reach the heights they did a decade ago, when nearly $9 billion per month was spent on religious construction in the United States.

The most recent numbers continue to support the point I made in July that there doesn't seem to be any clear relationship between economic conditions and religious construction. The decline in religious construction spending doesn't neatly correlate to the economic crisis, and the economic recovery doesn't   appear to have any bearing on religious construction either. 

It's just not clear what material conditions are conducive to religious construction. There's a kind of strange disconnect between the economy and this sector of the construction market. 

Comparisons to other sectors of construction make this clear. The signs of a recovery are apparent when one looks at the data for private spending on residential construction and non-residential construction. With residential construction, there's a bottom to the collapse of the market, and things turn around in mid 2011:

With non-residential construction -- only taking into account that construction funded by private sources, so as not to muddle things with government spending -- the same patter is visible. Spending drops from nearly $420 billion in 2008 to about $220 billion in January 2011. From that point on, spending as trended upwards:

Comparing all three data sets, the relationship between residential and non-residential construction spending is apparent. These look like they're responding to the same economic reality, the same economic conditions. Religious spending, by comparison, seems totally detached from the reality affecting the other sectors of construction:

It's still not at all clear to me why this is so. The economics of religious construction are ambiguous.

There's a temptation, I think, to see the change in idealist rather than materialist terms, but that doesn't particularly work either. One could argue and might want to argue that what's happened to spending on houses of worship in America isn't most basically economic, but theological. One could argue, for example that sometime around 2002, when the decline in spending seems to start, something shifted in the terms religious leaders and people used to conceive of and conceptualize spending, so that perhaps, for example, there was a shift from language about "sowing" and "expectations" and "enlarg[ing] the place of your tent," to language about "stewardship."

There's some evidence to support the idea that this has happened among evangelicals. The tide may have turned against megachurches, or at least the under girding theory of megachurches. 

Famously, for example, Willow Creek, the very influential megachurch that had served as a model for many, announced that their model was flawed and wasn't working as they'd predicted it would. Pastor Bill Hybels announced, pretty bluntly, "We made a mistake."

That's only evangelicals, though. Evangelicals count for roughly a third of Americans, so theological changes in that tradition that directly relate to church's construction spending are not irrelevant, but there's still the other two-thirds to consider. Surely it's not the case that most religious construction is done by just one-third of religious people? The Department of Commerce doesn't break down the religious construction number, but the statistics include Catholic construction, other Protestant construction, and non-Christian construction, too. 

If one posits a theological change as the condition for the change in religious construction spending, one either has to argue that 1) the change in one theological tradition was significant enough to cause the bulk of the affect of decline in religious spending; 2) that the theological change happened across traditions and across religions; or 3) that there were multiple, basically simultaneous theological changes in a variety of religious groups.

Those are difficult arguments to make. None of them seem, on the face of things, plausible. Perhaps with more data, an idealist argument for the root cause of the collapse of religious construction spending would have some support. 

I'm personally still inclined to look for a materialist answer, though I don't know of a decent one right now. It seems to me that it must be the case that, however decisions are made on a micro, case-by-case, congregation-by-congregation level, there must be some marco explanation that shows that certain social conditions relate to and result in increased spending on the construction of houses of worship, and that other social conditions are strongly connected to the decrease of spending seen over the last decade. 

What are those conditions, though? At least for now, there does not seem to be an answer.