After an unsually discussive choir practice and deciding on a unique e-mail for The Mailbag this week, I spent much of my driving time (about 7 hours to Rockford and then South Bend) thinking about our small Methodist church and all the hundreds of similar congregations we have recognized on US Farm Report. Like other times when I have tried to envision another possible future for this precious (to me, at least) group of people, I cannot avoid the obvious conclusion.
Small churches face a grim future. I wish it were not so, and over the 35 years or so of my adult involvment, I have tried to tease out the reasons. Why are mainline churches struggling in rural America and small towns? (Of course, some are not - but the majority are declining). Some contributing reasons I detect:
- Demographics. Our county loses population each year and has done for decades. But more importantly, we are becoming older and generally poorer compared to urban/suburban locales. These losses have come largely from the small business middle class, which to my memory was the largest segment contributing to our church's membership. As people choose to congregate (literally and religiously) with similar people, it is rare for a church to span all socio-economic classes. The Catholic Church probably comes closest, but one reason we have so many Protestant church denominations is, I believe, evidence of natural "clumping" of folks comfortable with each other on many levels - not just religious beliefs.
- Music. I am doubtless over-emphasizing this, but several key changes in how we experience music seriously erode what has been a powerfully attractive attribute to church services. To begin with, the practice of singing together has been replaced with listening to performers. Hence the entertainment treatment of the national anthem at public events today. Moreover, our heritage of church music lends itself to old-fashioned music training - being able to read and carry a part. While this has not been completely lost, newer musicians prefer less structured songs and harmony. Few young men are ever introduced to SATB singing, for example. Finally, the explosion of music technology has changed tastes to raise the bar for accompaniment and especially rhythmic skills. Small churches struggle to find appropriate music within the grasp of choir, musicians, and congregants. Many of us cannot link our faith experience to this change, and our left with no choice but memories of music that comforted and inspired. Meanwhile, younger members find church music pathetically out of touch, and can easily vote with their iPod.
- Relevance. The US could simply be pursuing the path of our European cousins, among whom few attend. It would not be the first time we have followed their example a century or so later. I don't sense that folks are living lives of despair without the church here any more than is so in France or Sweden. The seeming hope of Christianity - the megachurch - is running into it's own headwind, as folks drift away from them as well. Unfortunately, rural church members by nature will not be able to participate in this development - and higher gas prices seal that deal. Additionally, in my lifetime, church was important for ancillary reasons, mostly to do with socializing. As I note on this week's show, the church was often the first institution begun by rural settlers. Community membership and church membership were synonymous, especially for yeoman (Lutheran/Catholic) farmers. Community inclusion was crucial in turn for cooperative labor requirements, as well as business standing. The decline in the importance of labor, the rise of cash rents, and the ease of farming across counties and even states evaporated all the wrong reasons that nonetheless made farmers fill the pews nonetheless. If you can be successful without going to church, what's the point?
- Economics. The emergence of Sunday as one of the busiest shopping days was a heavy blow to churches - especially in small towns with a vanshing retail sector. The time to travel to desirable shopping centers displaced time in the pew. At the same time, the entry of women en masse into the workforce decimated the human capital for tradtional church minstries. Churches, which are essentially a service industry, struggle with the same major human resource issue as other businesses: the cost of people and their pensions and health care and education... These dollars-and cents realities hobble the best intentions and present a critical mass problem for small churches (affording a full-time pastor)
- Politics. This could be the cruelest blow. The gradual and intentional fusion of religion and politics is not only exactly what the founders hoped to avoid, it will IMHO take its sad toll on religion - not politics. Already the bitterness of the many debates that slide from sanctuary to legislative hall has dimmed the differences between the two. The seemingly irresistable lure of the political limelight has ignited ambitions and acrimony, which is easily avoided by not going to church. The church can not influence politics without becoming politics, it seems. There is little desire to protect either from the abrasion of the two together. The critical step was to my mind was the shift by churches in focus to large groups (states, nations, etc.) of people instead of individuals. While this has been done for centuries of course, the outcome looks like Europe, I would guess.
We have launched literally dozens of efforts and drives, spent ourselves in dedicated outreach and at this time have found little to arrest the decline, but the powerful lessons of loyalty learned there will not let us go. We cannot change our most sacred commitment, we cannot leave our most hallowed ground, we cannot forsake our pewmates except in death. Oddly this is more comforting to me than it sounds.
But the worse aspect is we cannot transmit this empowering component in our lives to others today, despite our best efforts.
Things begin, things end. We are not very good at endings.