Generalizing, church attendance is in a long-term decline in the United States. It is not uncommon, unfortunately, to see empty buildings the skeletons of which tell all this used to be a church. If you take a drive through the country, it is possible to see what used to be a church building sitting on land where a cemetery shares ground. There may still be a funeral or two each year but those who had affiliations with the church in question have either passed already or moved on to different worship centers…or left the church altogether.
It is difficult to square this with the growth of the ‘mega-church’ movement, but the truth remains. If one drives through a city of any size, there will likely be a former church building standing in a state of disuse…or virtual disuse with the passing of time. That might suggest that this congregation outgrew this building and constructed a grand new version of their good old church, or it may simply mean that another church that used to be vibrant many days of the week has fallen into disuse.
Small towns and rural areas are also showing some signs of this falling off in church attendance. Old country churches stand quiet likely due to the fact that the members have since passed on to their reward or find themselves in a care facility in the last stages of their lives. There is a need for money if a church is to survive and grow; if the congregations are dwindling, so also is the church income dwindling. As more and more members either pass away or find themselves moving to live in the care of their families or a facility devoted to elder care, churches suffer from those lost attendees.
There is a very simple truth: it takes regular monetary receipts to enable a church to continue to be vibrant, to attract new members and to appeal to those who are younger with differing styles of worship made available. If you are a member of one of those churches, you may not yet accept the eventual truth, and you might, just might be able to reverse the trend line. But the odds appear to be against that occurring unless there continues to be a vibrant community surrounding the church, and a number of like-minded worshippers willing to continue their personal investment of time and money to make sure their church can continue to exist.
This reality does not automatically square with a dying population center but often that is the case. There is a grand old church facility in a major city not far from where I sit that now has a membership base of something in the mid-thirties. It has all the facilities one could pray for including a grand organ that probably could’ve raised the roof in the good old days. But, as the area around that church changed into a deeper urban center with attendant decay, the membership dropped off and was not replaced member-for-member.
We, society, lose in these transitions whether or not we are able to recognize our loss. Crime statistics would show an increase as neighborhoods have fallen into states of disrepair. Home values have fallen due to lack of interest by young families to establish their homes in the area. Crime has moved closer and closer. Elder members die and are buried but not replaced by newer members. The church hierarchy steps in but the effort is ultimately futile unless new members can be found and attendance raised and monetary support restored to sustainable levels.
Neighborhoods that once caused churches to be built now are responsible for those same churches to begin to go through death throes of decreasing membership, decreasing giving, and the final stages of the death of another church except for a grand old building.
At the same time the church proper is diminishing in its clout and losing members rather than gaining members, people are changing in what they think is important and that shows in church giving declining to the point in some cases where the governing body of that faith needs step in with financial support as it tries to reverse the trendline.
All this has an insidious, and sometimes not immediately discernable, impact causing a decline in the neighborhood that once was vibrant and welcoming to new members moving into the area and growing their families there. The edifice remains, sometimes still being used on Sundays but in a slow descent from the “good old days” when hymns rocked the rafters, and services bulged at the seams with members and guests who would become members after they finished their “church shopping” visits.
The community suffers whether or not anyone recognizes this to be the case. One feeds the other and another ugly spiral downward has been created. How many times have you driven past a church building that looks as though it hasn’t heard a hymn being sung inside its structure in way too long? That is a sad sight but unfortunately seems to be an increasingly familiar sight.
We the people will suffer as the result even though we are likely not able to fully discern our loss for a long time to come. Society lost another ringing bell on Sunday mornings and that loss carries a price tag to be paid for in years to come and in ways we cannot easily imagine today.