It may seem obvious, but church attendance is down throughout the United States.
This fact has been reported several times for a number of years, but we haven’t seen many examples of what happens as a result of the trend away from religion. Now we have such an example from a church in Minnesota, where an in-depth analysis reveals how deep the problem is (for churches) and what believers think about it.
When La Salle Lutheran locks its doors in August, it will become the latest casualty among fragile Minnesota churches either closing, merging or praying for a miracle. Steep drops in church attendance, aging congregations, and cultural shifts away from organized religion have left most of Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations facing unprecedented declines.
“Sunday used to be set aside for church: that’s what families did,” said Donna Schultz, 74, a church member since grade school at La Salle, in southwest Minnesota. “Now our children have moved away. The grandkids have volleyball, dance on weekends. People are busy with other things.
“I’m really going to miss this,” she added quietly, gesturing to her friends in the lobby. “We’re like family.”
The rising toll is evident in rural, urban and suburban churches across the state.
The analysis, reported by Jean Hopfensperger for the Star Tribune, takes into consideration known national trends and applies state-specific statistics on church closures and membership losses. It states that mainline protestant churches have been “hit the hardest,” and that the closures are making it harder for poor people who are most often helped by the churches.
The closings and mergers are leaving a void in communities where churches frequently house child care, senior programs, food shelves, tutoring and other services.
The article also discusses the increasing age of church members and the failure of many local churches. None of that surprised me, but the section about how the poor suffer the most when churches close is deeply upsetting in part because they shouldn’t need to go to churches (some of which have ulterior motives) to get the help and resources they need. As churches close and leave a void, we need more secular groups (in both senses of the word) to step up to fill it.
This will only become more important as time goes on and the “problem” of fewer churches accelerates.
“It’s just a matter of time before many congregations won’t exist,” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which has examined religious life for three decades. “In the next 20 years, you’ll have half as many open congregations as now. It could be more devastating for certain denominations.”
There’s plenty of reason to celebrate that decline, but let’s not forget who stands to lose the most as a result. Consider contributing to local charities, food banks, and groups like Foundation Beyond Belief. We’ll need them a lot more as churches disappear.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Alan for the link)