Thursday, September 04, 2008

Country church lament...

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.
My church "peaked" by all the usual measures when I was in grade school, I would guess.  I think that was also about the time our population peaked as well.  My entire time then has been a slow diminution of our church capabilities and expectations.  There have been singular successes, of course, but in the back of many of our minds, he thought lingers, "It used to be better."

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.


Anonymous said...

How well you express my feelings and pain! I remember that even the community alcholic would be in church on Sunday night when I was a child, because it was what you did on Sunday nights in my community. As I eventually took up the reins at our family farm and did some custom work in the area, he still insisted that he would come again and sit beside me in church on Sunday night each time I finished harvesting his wheat crop. Not only has he not come, we have stopped having the doors open for him as well.
The recent stories regarding the dropping of the baton by US olympic relay teams were a painful reminder of what I see happening in my community as well. I have tried to take the baton given to me by my forebearers and to do my lap well, but now find myself getting close to the area where the baton needs to be passed and there seems to be no one on the track to pass it to.
Music for me is the same. I tried my best through high school and college to study, participate in, and develop my SATB skills as well as study hymnody. When I came back home, I found out that no one seemed to want to know all that I had assimilated.
I remember hearing that the biggest fear expressed by victims of the holocaust was that no one would know that they ever existed. As you and I see something that has been very precious to us and our parents, seemingly slip away, are we not wondering if somehow people will 'forget' that we to ever existed. I remember that satisfaction in my father's eyes when he knew that I had finally embraced his faith and values and he could die knowing they would live on.
I am glad that the church is ultimately HIS church and that God has guided history for his purposes throught all of time and HE is not finished yet!!
Keep the faith Brother!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Uncle John! I have several comments. First, you were in Rockford and didn't stop by!?!
Second, I disagree with your comments about "the practice of singing together." Folks that appreciate choir music and hymnody complain that contemporary music is too simple, full of easy chord progressions and vapid, repetitious refrains. Choir music and hymns, on the other hand, are intricate, meaningful works of art with rich theological expressions that only those professionally trained and led vocally and instrumentally on difficult instruments (works of art in their own right like the pipe organ) are able to properly perform. Now it is easy to characterize and stereotype music styles, but my experience as a pastor and a parishioner has been that contemporary music feeds (young) people's need to join in and participate in the worship experience because this style of music is (generally) easy to sing and easy to lead on a relatively easy instrument like the guitar. It is very difficult for those under 50 to "feel like" they've worshiped if they haven't participated. And congregational singing is one way to feed the need to participate. Sadly, passively listening to a choir - no matter how well trained and led - just doesn't cut it anymore.

Regarding relevance, those of the post-baby-boomer generations are finding that megachurches' anonymity isn't all that great, because they (we) crave community and again participation. It is tough to build community by worshiping with 5000 of your closest friends. However, blame should be placed squarely on our churches for failing to make Sunday mornings a highlight of the week, full of a sense of anticipation. If churches made Sundays something to look forward to, neither Wal-Mart, youth soccer, nor the NFL would be as successful as they are today.

Politically, baby boomers have done a great job yelling at each other, and this constant need to scream our truth whether on MSNBC or from the pulpit has driven many to plug our ears and disengage. I challenge baby boomers and others who look back on the good ol' days to remember Bob Buford's comment that, "if you see your best years behind you, you probably won't finish well, because it is tough to finish well when you are going backward." Please don't go backward.

Maybe a post-Christian America is what the gospel needs to for us to become more than just wearin'-our-Sunday-best Christians but to become fully-devoted followers of Jesus Christ who truly love God and who love others.

Your friend and nephew,
Eric Filkin

Bill Harshaw said...

I think you're younger than I, not older, so I think you're misdating the peak. My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister (you can add Scotch-Irish Presbyterians to your Lutheran/Catholic group as far as the primacy of the church in settling the land.) He spent his last years (i.e 1920-35) traveling the Dakotas and Minnesota trying to reinvigorate/reorganize the rural churches. A losing battle.

If you read some of the records of the Country Life Commission (appted by TR) or the successor conference, the population was declining and the mainline churches were struggling to adjust even then.

Having said all that, if the decline started early last century, it certainly accelerated after WWII. IMO the mainline churches are stuck with trying to retain the children of their members, which is a losing battle, while the nondenominational churches/evangelicals/pentecostals go out and compete in the market place for adherents.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm oversimplifying and there are doubtless unique aspects to many of the fading bulwarks of our society, but I think it just boils down to the fact that many of the social or family 'requirements' of yesteryear were things that family or social pressures required of us and that we didn't really regard as having any value until a few years (or decades) of endurance.

Another aspect is the influence and ubiquitous nature of mass media entertainment technologies like TV (and even high-speed internet) have diverted the focus of most younger people toward self-selecting 'communities' of people like themselves (just like I watch Fox News, listen to Rush, and check out my own set of internet sites), rather than forcing us to deal with the reality of the mix of actual individuals in our geographic community.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about the future of the small rural churches. My husband & I watch the show every Saturday morning at 5 A.M. We enjoy & look forward to the segment where you talk about the country churches. Please keep including this part of the show.

Ol James said...

I think,( which is dangerous for me), it comes down to comfort. Sorta like where you you belong without having to adapt. I can remember when there was only one service a week on account of a traveling preacher or Evangelist. He preached, lead the singing.
My papaw and a few of my Great-Uncles were song leaders who taught Fa So La.
But where you feel the most comfortable be it fast paced soothing preachers and pop style music. Or, Fire and Brimstone slobberin Evangelist along with 4-part harmony singing with chicken on the ground.
You know what they call a preacher with black pants and a white belt??

A fried chicken graveyard.

John Phipps said...


Thanks for your comments. I may post more on this tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

I agree that bringing politics into
the church simply polarizes us rather then accomplishing anything. I would like to see you comment somemore on the "intentionality" of this trend; i.e. who is pushing this and why. The "contemporary" music drives me nuts.. hard to sing with boring repetition. Maybe we could sing the old time hymns with some real rock'n roll electric guitar for a "blended service".

Anonymous said...


I had difficulty sleeping this morning and arose at 5:00am. I turned on the television and as I was channel surfing happened upon your program. I was raised on farms in Indiana and Illinois and now live in Brownsville, Texas – an economy, culture, and world away from my roots.

Your program, however, was a breath of fresh air as you shared tractor collecting, rural church news, and the influence of a pigeon owning selfless man that reached out to honor our fallen heroes and help comfort their families. I thank you for the facts of American heritage that you share and our core socio-cultural values and events that have contributed to who we are. I look forward to your next program and connecting with my roots.

Thank you for taking the time to keep our rural influences and core values alive and well! I am currently pursuing my PhD and the research and reading consume most of my time, yet, your presentations relating to rural America contribute to the fabric of my dissertation and reinforce my motivation. Thanks again and God bless you as you bless us.

Steve – Brownsville, TX

Anonymous said...

You are right again < (does your wife say that often *S*)....losing our local churches and identity is devastating as the church,schools go so does the community,,we lost our local church and grades school and what is missing most is no contact or binds with community as neibors would attend funerals,crishtmas concerts,bbq's,ect.. at the church even if they seldom that is lost,we no longer know our neighbors kids,who is sick,happy,sad, is lost forever...kevin