The (S.C.) State launches five-part series on why Bible Belt folks are quitting church

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The State, a McClatchy newspaper in Columbia, S.C., doesn’t have a religion reporter due to budget cuts, but its staff has sure published out a lot of religion news lately. Several weeks ago I wrote here about a piece by one of its writers on the state’s exotic snake industry and how snake-handling preachers in surrounding states get their serpents from South Carolina.

(In fact, there was a follow-up article on Saturday about Repticon, a huge snake show in Columbus that had a religion angle to it.)

This year, the staff embarked on a lengthy series called “Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches.” At least 97 S.C. churches have closed since 2011, a subhead said. Other churches are dying slow deaths, losing thousands of members, so what’s happening to the Bible Belt?

Sarah Ellis, a local government reporter, wrote most of these pieces. In this one, the largest article in the series, she sets out the problem. (And as the author of the 2008 book “Quitting Church,” naturally I’m interested in how this topic has stayed in the news for a decade. My book came out 10 years ago next month.)

As this first article points out, three out of every four people in the South identify as Christian and 80 percent say religion is important in their lives. The South has the country’s highest rate of church attendance. Now we learn that adherence is slipping even in the Bible Belt.

Many churches are dying slow deaths, stuck in stagnation if not decline. And if they don’t do something, in the near future, they’ll share the fate of Cedar Creek United Methodist, a 274-year-old Richland County congregation that dissolved last year; Resurrection Lutheran, a church near downtown Columbia that will hold its last service on Sept. 2; and the dozens of churches that sit shuttered and empty around the state.
At the same time, some churches are growing, and some growing quickly. But they might not look much like the churches your grandparents (and their grandparents) were raised in. From meeting in unconventional places to tweaking their traditions, many churches are adapting, offering something different that many people thought the church couldn’t do for them.
What they’re doing reflects the results of an ongoing conversation among churches: How can they stay alive?

A lot in this piece repeats what’s long been reported elsewhere: The growing numbers of “nones;” aging church members not getting replaced by younger ones and a post-Christian culture where less and less people publicly identify themselves as Christians.

The usual suspects –- mainline Protestants -– are dwindling but what’s surprising in this piece is how the Southern Baptists –- still America’s largest Protestant denomination -- are also losing ground.

“The reality is that 80-plus percent of (S.C. Southern Baptist) churches are plateaued or declining, meaning they haven’t grown by any measurable percentage in 10 years, or they’ve actually lost membership,” said Jay Hardwick, who leads the church-planting team for the S.C. Baptist Convention. “And a large percentage of those are in a window where if something drastic doesn’t happen within five to 10 years, they’ll close their doors. They won’t have anything.”

The lead article does end with some church success stories: The Church at West Vista, which meets weekly in homes, except for one Sunday of the month when they meet in a tavern; and Downtown Church, a hip Presbyterian enclave. (The article doesn’t say what sort of Presbyterian the place is, but the presence of female elders tells me it’s probably Presbyterian Church USA.)

Another article examines the difference between Ebenezer Lutheran, a traditional church that is dying, and the aforementioned Downtown Church, which has a black co-pastor and what looks like to be a mostly young and white congregation that enjoys change and innovation.

Another part of the series is about the closing of a 274-year-old Methodist church that was frequented by Francis Asbury, a follower of Methodist evangelist John Wesley. The church, which once saw pre-Revolutionary War America, was down to four members when it closed in 2017.

Yet another part of the series, written by Kasia Kovacs, tells how Catholic churches are bucking the tide by growing in South Carolina. Why?

For one, South Carolina — and especially Beaufort County and other S.C. coastal communities — are experiencing a sort of reverse-Northern migration, where Catholic families and retirees from the Northeast move to the sunny South.
And then there’s migration in the opposite direction — Hispanics moving to Beaufort County from states further to the south or Latin American countries. About half of Latinos are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center. Twenty percent have no religion, while 19 percent are Evangelical Protestant.

So, if a man wishes to be ordained a priest in South Carolina, he must speak Spanish as well as English.

So while the Catholic population is, for the most part, graying — half of U.S. Catholics are 50 and older, and Catholic baptisms dropped to 18 percent in 2014 — much of the population lost from millennial Anglo-Catholics is being offset by the growth in Hispanic immigrants.

A final piece, about how churches are reinventing themselves, has three staff bylines. The churches that are growing are mostly non-denominational churches meeting in unusual places (a tavern, a dance hall, a movie theater and a beach campground). The paragraphs below are given as a reason why people go there.

Nondenominational churches have become the norm throughout the Grand Strand area, and (the Rev. Richard) Jenkins theorized that people have just gotten tired of playing the political games that sometimes come with denominational churches.

“I think people want to get to the heart of what gospel is about, instead of rules,” he said. “Some churches only love people just like them. There’s more acceptance in a nondenominational setting.”

And in a conversation with a former Southern Baptist pastor:

When people hear about having church in a bar, “Everybody just goes, ‘What?’” said Jody Ratcliffe, pastor of the 2-year-old Church at West Vista. “And then they think and go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s really cool.’ ... Our model meets the needs of folks who have ever been hurt in the past and they just don’t want to go to church ever again.”
At a time when traditional Protestant churches are losing thousands of members each year and dozens of them are closing their doors across South Carolina, some churches like West Vista are meeting in unconventional places and taking new tacks to continue their age-old mission: to reach people with the Christian gospel.
Ratcliffe had been a Southern Baptist preacher who sensed a desperate need for change in the church he led. But by the time he drew up his ideas for what he’d like to see change, Ratcliffe realized he was dreaming of a whole new church.
“The traditional church has the mentality that everyone knows we’re here, and if we just open our doors, people will come if they want,” he said. “Millennials don’t value legacy. ... A lot of our older churches, they’ve been relying on legacy for decades.”

A few omissions left me with some questions.

The first is race. We know Hispanic (Catholic) churches are booming. What about traditional black churches? I didn’t get a feel for whether they’re fading as well or whether it’s mainly the white folks who are quitting their churches.

The other has to do with wondering what the true story is in all these church closings.

Sure, 97 Protestant churches have closed around the state in the past seven years. But all sorts of non-denominational churches have opened at the same time. There’s no bar graphic that contrasts the growing independents with the fading denominational churches. Which leaves me with this question: Are people really leaving church in South Carolina or just switching churches? I’m suspecting the latter is true and if so, then the article needs not to be about church leavers but more about church switchers.

I wish there was a table showing the cultural and doctrinal makeup of these independent churches and whether they’re attracting the young. Because if they are, then the church scene in South Carolina isn’t as dire as the series makes it out to be. I'm also curious about other groups, such as Mormons, who must be active in the state, and Episcopalians, a mainline Protestant group that has very strong roots (and historic churches as well as a recent denominational split) in South Carolina.

Do read as much of the series as you can, as it’s a good record of a trend in the Bible Belt. For a newspaper that doesn’t have a specified religion writer, The State has done remarkably well in recent months by pulling reporters from other beats to cover one of the things that makes the South the South.

I’m hoping they got lots of comments and readers on these stories and that maybe room can be made in the budget for a religion specialist. After all, three out of every four people in the state still attend church, right? That sounds like a lot of interest to me.

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