Low-Income Communities Are Struggling to Support Churches

The institutions need money to serve people. But in many cases, they get that money from those they serve.

Communities that are arguably in most need of the social supports churches provide are the communities where churches seem to be vanishing—and where new, upstart church activity is not happening. In 2016, a Barna Group study of 769 church start-ups found that half of them were in wealthier locations. Brooke Hempell, the senior vice president of research at Barna Group, noted that church work in economically disadvantaged or economically mixed areas presents a higher degree of difficulty. “Churches in urban areas tended to be extremely financially strapped,” she said. “Not only is it more expensive to operate but they are also serving more needy populations.”


If there is ever a competition for the title of Busiest Minister in America, the smart money will be on Yoan Mora, senior pastor of Primera Iglesia Cristiana, a small but vibrant Spanish-speaking congregation in San Antonio, Texas. The weeks are nuts: worship services, classes, and meetings on Sundays; a radio program on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; prayer service and Bible study on Tuesdays; house church meetings in the southern reaches of the city each Thursday; a job-training program hosted at the church on Saturdays, plus other meetings scattered through the weekend.

Those are just his top-level duties. He still has to find time to write sermons, oversee church-building maintenance, teach small groups, manage budgets, and, most of all, be with people in all the ways pastors need to be with people: births, deaths, sicknesses, celebrations, life events big, medium, and small. Being a pastor is a full-time job, and then some.

But being a pastor is not Mora’s full-time job. Most of Mora’s weekday hours are devoted to his work as an accountant at a health-care clinic in the northeast part of town. He’s also trying to finish a master’s degree in theology.

Mora believes he was placed on this earth to pastor, so that’s what he plans on doing. But for now, he can’t make a living as a pastor because the congregation he serves is in an extremely low-income neighborhood. Pastor salaries are drawn from church budgets, which are drawn from the household budgets of congregants. So in a low-income area, even when a church grows, its budget does not expand so much as stretch. Primera Iglesia Cristiana can’t pay Mora much for all his efforts, so for the foreseeable future, he’ll hustle.

Mora appears to be good at his juggling act. Primera Iglesia Cristiana now sees 50-60 attendees on any given Sunday, which amounts to a comeback: The church, which was founded in 1899, experienced something of a heyday in the mid-century, then saw a precipitous decline from the 1980s forward. By the time Mora arrived in 2011, Primera Iglesia Cristiana consisted of four old-timers who would gather for Sunday worship behind closed doors.

Mora shakes his head at the memory. “I say to them, ‘Why you no open the church doors to the community?’ They say, ‘Because we need to save money for air conditioning.’”


Primera Iglesia Cristiana may be 118 years old, but it’s essentially a startup, or a start-over. That makes it something of a unicorn: Most church startups, known as “church plants,” do not happen in neighborhoods like this one. San Antonio’s West Side, a colorful, historic Mexican American community adjacent to downtown, has for generations been a distressed area, with high rates of poverty, joblessness, and high-school dropouts. While that description may make it sound like the kind of place faith leaders would target, church planters tend to focus their efforts on areas that are higher-income.

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