Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

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If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

The bottom line: The feature didn’t dig very deep, in terms of discussing why these churches have been closing (while many other forms of African-American church life have been thriving). Also, there is no mention of the fact Episcopal Church membership peaked in 1966 at 3.4 million and is now approaching 1.5 million — a 50 percent loss.

Reporters working the beat (or savvy news consumers who are paying attention) know that there are all kinds of topics linked to these factors — everything from shortages of Catholic clergy to rising real-estate values in New York City, from the shrinking size of Southern Baptist families to battles over how to handle hot-button doctrinal issues.

With that in mind, consider this Dan Moran essay published at the Juicy Ecumenism site, which is run by the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy.

The United Methodist Church has been in a slower decline that most other old-line Protestant bodies. Parts of this global church are growing, some are stalled and others are shrinking. All of that will come into play during extraordinary meetings in February that will try to settle doctrinal issues linked to ordination, marriage and sexuality.

With that in mind, consider Moran’s overture:

In an era of mainline denominations declining in the United States, where is major church growth occurring in the United Methodist Church in this country and what can we learn from these congregations?

Earlier this year, Len Wilson, Creative Director at St. Andrew UMC in Plano, Texas published his yearly list of the fastest growing large United Methodist congregations in the U.S. To qualify for the list, a congregation must have had at least 1,000 in average weekly attendance by the end of 2016, the most recent year for which full data was available. The 25 churches on the list are ranked by their growth rate over the five years prior, from 2011 to 2016. Make no mistake, recent years have not been easy for large churches — of the 200 UMC congregations that average at least 1000 in worship, only 27 percent are currently growing, according to Wilson. He bases his measurements of growth or decline on each congregation’s reported average weekly worship attendance.

Growing churches tend to be unique, combining a variety of different strengths. However, what do most of these 25 growing churches share in common?

Warning: United Methodist liberals will want to challenge some of this language. The issue is whether the topic is worthy of serious news coverage, listing to experts on both sides. So here we go, with a few clips from the Moran article:

* “One consistent trend that Wilson himself has noted is major growth occurring under senior pastors who are have been established there for several years.” …

* As John Lomperis observed in previous years, the churches on this list are again overwhelmingly Southern. Eleven of them are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, a little short of half, another year of top representation from the most conservative of U.S. jurisdictions. …

* Conservative, evangelical bastion Asbury Theological Seminary continues to produce senior pastors of these rapidly-growing large churches at a much higher rate than any other school. The Kentucky-based institution trained nine of the pastors on this list. …

* After examining the personal theologies and leaderships of these senior pastors, we found that it is a strongly orthodox and evangelical group as well. Seventeen (68 percent) of these top-growing United Methodist churches are led by a pastor known to come from a biblical, evangelical theological perspective.

You can see a certain trend here — one that will make some United Methodists cheer and others see red (or perhaps blue).

However, how can journalists cover this big, big national and global religion story without taking church growth — and decline — into account? There are important trends at the global level as well, especially in Africa and the Global South.

But there is more to this than arguments about sex. That’s the point of this whole post and the podcast, as well.

Enjoy the podcast.

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