The death of a congregation is never pleasant, and the closure of the West Side Presbyterian Church in Englewood, New Jersey was no exception. Sunday, Nov. 3, was to see a final worship service at the 117-year-old congregation. According to The Bergen (N.J.) Record, simple demographics are to blame:
"It's going to be a good farewell," said Bob Ryder, president of board of trustees for the Presbytery of the Palisades, which oversees nearly 50 Presbyterian churches in North Jersey.
West Side's closure is part of a national demographic shift away from mainline Protestant churches. Suburban communities such as Englewood, where Protestants were once the dominant group, have seen an influx of Hispanics, who are more likely to be Catholic, Asian immigrants, who belong to different faiths, and Orthodox Jewish families.
Another factor is that an increasing percentage of people are not joining any church. About one-fifth of Americans and one-third of those under 30 are religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project.
In the Presbyterian denomination alone, 86 churches disbanded last year after national membership dropped by more than 100,000 from 2011 to 2012, according to Presbyterian Church USA. The Presbytery of the Palisades has closed five churches in the past 10 years, including two in Hackensack and one each in Garfield and Edgewater, Ryder said.
Now, it's entirely possible that shifting demographics and the "rise of the nones" that caused the closure of five churches in the Presbytery of the Palisades. It's possible, but I have to wonder if the 2011 actions of the PCUSA's General Assembly, among other moves away from historic Presbyterian positions, might have had something to do with the departures as well. Surely not all 86 PCUSA congregations disbanded over demographics alone, did they?
We get only that demographic logic from the story, but as Godbeat veteran Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal notes:
The accelerated exit of congregations came as Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations were authorized to ordain non-celibate gay ministers in 2011, a change in the church constitution that came after decades of debate. The departure of congregations had begun even before that change, however, amid growing conservative alienation over liberal trends in theology and sexuality.
I mention this not to chide The Bergen Record per se, but to suggest that there may have been other reasons than shifting populations for the Jersey bounce away from the PCUSA.
A bit of questioning might have helped here? If the reporter was savvy enough to find the statistic about the "nones," presumably someone in the newsroom could have dug around overall trends in this oldline denomination, giving readers perhaps a more complete picture of the situation. Could they not have spoken with, say, some of the members who have not attended the church for the "20 Sundays" the edifice has been closed? Are there no church experts to consult?
It's also worth noting that the newspaper account spent a fair amount of space on all the community-based activities in which the congregation was engaged. Not much here about, well, preaching a Christian message, spiritual formation or discipleship. In other words, religious and doctrinal issues are not linked to the rise and fall of congregations and denominations.
West Side had about 150 members when the Rev. Bruce Baker became pastor in 1982. He described the church during his 15-year tenure as "a really exciting place" that reflected the diversity of Englewood.
"There were 15 nations of birth represented in the congregation -- Germany, Hungary, Scotland, El Salvador, Colombia, China, India, Pakistan, Cameroon -- there was just this crazy, wild mix of people," he said.
During Baker's tenure, the church took an activist role in the community. With the church's support, the Center for Food Action moved out of West Side's basement into its own free-standing structure on church property in 1993.
West Side -- which, the paper said, never had more than 150 congregants on the books -- also operated a thrift shop for a time, and leased space to both a daycare center and a private school serving children ages 3 to 13. Both groups, and the food bank, hope to keep leasing space from whomever takes over the property, which is valued at $2.2 million. According to the report, "Korean, Japanese and Seventh-day Adventist" congregations are interested.
Something tells me those three congregations may be a tad more conservative, theologically, than the one that closed its doors for the last time "two days after All Saints Day." That's my observation. The journalists on the ground needed to ask the hard questions.