Keeping the faith: A look at church attendance and changes in the way religious institutions share their message
There have been many reports of dwindling church attendance and talk of social media and busy social lives putting church on the back burner for many Americans. Some local church officials say attendance has changed in recent years, and social and media changes have forced religious institutions to reinvent themselves in some ways. But they say houses of worship will endure, with some alterations, as religious leaders explore new ways to maintain relevance in people’s lives.
A Gallup article by Frank Newport published at Gallup.com in 2015 says that five of the six New England states rank among the bottom 10 states for church attendance. Of these, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts have the lowest average attendance rates in the nation, with Connecticut not far behind: a poll shows Connecticut with a 25% church attendance, Gallup.com reports.
Of course, reading statistics is a guess in many respects. Some reports suggest that people’s responses are less a reflection of what they actually do and more a reflection of what they believe they should be doing. Thus, some reports describe more positive numbers regarding church attendance as a “halo effect” in the polls.
A 2013 Gallup article, also by Frank Newport, says that nearly four in 10 Americans reported that they attended religious services in the preceding seven days. Newport reported that attendance has varied over the years, “but it is close now to where it was in 1940 and 1950.”
The most religious era, Newport wrote, was from the mid to late 1950s into the early 1960s, when, at some points, almost half of American adults said they had attended religious services in the past seven days.”
In a 2013 article for PewResearchCenter at pewresarch.org, Michael Lipka wrote that the percentage of Americans who say they “seldom” or “never” attend religious services has risen modestly in the past decade.
“The share of people who say they attend services at least once a week has remained relatively steady; 37% say they attend at least weekly today, compared with 39% a decade ago,” Lipka wrote.
Here at home
The Rev. Kenneth Fellenbaum, pastor of the Wildermere Beach Congregational Church in Milford, said there was a drop-off in attendance at the church in the last 10 years but attendance has started to increase in the last three years.
“The numbers were not huge but in a small church it was significant percentagewise,” he said.
Fellenbaum attributes the earlier decline to folks getting older, passing away or relocating.
“Every year people move or change addresses — you constantly need to reach and recruit new people and enfold them into the life of the congregation,” he said.
To attract new members, the Wildermere Beach church has done more hosting and promoting of events, such as a Christmas bazaar, annual picnic, pet blessings, and other events that are intended for the church and the community.
The church also hosts AA meetings, weddings and community neighborhood association meetings.
“People find a warm, caring spiritual family,” Fellenbaum said, explaining the role of church in society, even today. “Also peace, and inspiration for life in a stressful world and hope, salvation for the life to come — eternity. Only the church has the latter to offer.”
“A church must continue to reach out and enfold the people that live in its vicinity,” Fellenbaum added. “If the makeup of that population changes the church must either adapt to that or relocate or close.”
Churches today need to offer and meet spiritual and other needs to remain relevant, he said.
In the community
A casual observer notices an increase in creative community outreach among religious institutions. St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, for example, recently announced “Dinner Service,” which appears to be aimed at attracting people who don’t normally attend traditional services.
“Can’t make Sunday morning worship work with your schedule, or your kids’ schedules?” announced a press release from the church. “Looking for `church’ but different?” One Table: One Meal, One Message, One Hour, is an informal worship service that meets monthly around a dinner table and concludes with a home-cooked meal.
“Whether you are looking for food for the body or the soul, you will find it here. Free and open to everyone,” the church announcement stated.
Virtual vs. hands-on religion
At Mary Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church, the Rev. Dr. Brian R. Bodt, pastor, said church attendance there is down over the past 10 years, but not over the past 20 years. Ten years ago, in 2004, church membership was 250 versus 175 in 2014, which marked a 30% drop, but 20 years ago, attendance was 175, which is where the numbers are today.
“The widely reported drop in attendance for religious institutions, especially but not exclusively among millennials, suggests the substitution of a ‘virtual’ community’ (social media, Internet) for a face-to-face, ‘hands-on’ community,” said Bodt. “That is likely part, but not all, of it. Churches have to make a difference in the lives of people in a way that is attractive and invites others in. They also have to offer something that appeals to the self-interest of those attending, whether that offering is spiritual, altruistic or material.”
Mary Taylor Church offers a number of ministries, from Bible studies to home repairs to food collections for the needy.
The biggest “draw” in belonging to Mary Taylor Church, Bodt said, is the experience of a caring and extended family.
“While that is not everyone’s experience, it is the experience of many people who encounter us,” he said. “The other ‘draw’ is a less easily pinpointed sense of belonging to a community that is making a difference and that helps individuals find a way to put ‘faith into action’; or what the Rev. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, called ‘practical Christianity.’”
Worried? “No,” Pastor Bodt said.
“‘The Church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time …’ is how one of our membership rituals begins,” he said. “But there is no question that the church as we know it now will change or die. We already see this in the closing of church buildings as congregations dwindle and in new forms of church arising.”
Much has been written on this. Bodt referred to a piece by the Rev. Stephen P. Bauman, a senior minister of Christ Church United Methodist in New York City, published in the fall 2015 issue of Yale University’s “Reflections.”
“The church as we currently know it in the U.S. is going away,” Bauman wrote, adding that the idea applies to non-Christian religious institutions as well. “All religious institutions are facing disruption in the cultural whirlwind because the forces in flux are ubiquitous. They press in on every arena of human social engagement.”
Bauman wrote that technology is changing the way people work, parent, learn, teach …
“This pace of change is disorienting for those who have been shaped by ancient traditions that have prevailed for millennia,” he wrote. “All of us attempt to make sense of the days of our lives, confronting questions of purpose and identity. Those questions are not going away any time soon.”
Bauman continued: “The ‘organized church’ is in for a wild ride because much of its business falls within the realms of the structural, tactical, and material – precisely the arenas experiencing the greatest changes. In this sense, what is at risk is not faith as such but the institutional structures that arose over the centuries for the purpose of teaching and advancing faith.”
At Mary Taylor Church, Pastor Bodt said the church has to change to remain strong. Some of those changes are cultural, such as how the church disseminates information, the increased use of video in worship and varying forms of technology and social media.
“We live in the most significant technological upheaval in 500 years since Gutenberg’s printing press,” Bodt said. “At our church, for example, our website () shows its age and is being evaluated for reconstruction. We have a great Facebook manager, a lay person committed to that ministry.”
“Beyond these things, though, the Christian church has got to stop being synonymous with prejudice, hate and discrimination. Too much of what is being passed off as ‘God’s Word’ is simply bigotry dressed up as religion,” Bodt said.
To blame social media and busy social schedules for declining church attendance is misleading, he added.
“If we see these things as the cause of our malaise, we have misdiagnosed,” Pastor Bodt said.
Down the street at Trinity Lutheran Church, the Rev. Christopher Files had many of the same things to say this past summer when his church was celebrating its 60-year anniversary. He noted that today, 75% of New Englanders are non-churchgoers, commenting that the church — Trinity included — may have to reposition itself for a new and changing society.
Things are not like they were in the 1950s, when church was often a family’s social center. Today there are many social networks competing with the church, and today’s younger generation doesn’t seem as drawn to institutions, like churches, as their parents before them, he explained.
Early last year the Trinity Church council voted to engage in an effort called “Forward Leadership Community” — “to see where we’re at,” Files said.
Each congregation is different, and it doesn’t work to model one church after another, he explained. “Every congregation is as unique as a fingerprint.”
“The culture is changing rapidly,” Files said, “and we’re having a hard time keeping up.”
So the church will look at ways to get the message out.
Bringing people in
At the First United Church of Christ (Congregational), a new banner is testament to the fact that more needed to be done to reach people who have stopped going to church.
The banner reads, “Done with Church: Come Un-done with us.”
With so many responsibilities and activities competing with the faith community, church leaders realized they had to become more proactive in reaching out to people who may have thought about church but didn't know if they were welcome, according to the Rev. Adam Eckhart.
He said the banner targets the “dones,” the people who are done with church.
There are “nones” — people who have not been a part of a faith tradition — and the “dones” — people who have a faith background but stopped participating.
“We decided to reach out at first to ‘dones,’” he said. “I recalled a line from a sermon of mine earlier in the year about coming undone, which inspired the banner.”
Attendance at the First Church hasn’t changed that much, church officials report. According to numbers from church clerk Allison Britting, worship attendance has been only very slightly down, a change of a few people per Sunday, from about 247 adults in worship per week to 242 between 2013 and 2014, which was in the middle of a pastoral transition. Attendance has gone up and down in the last 10 years — as low as 227 per week in 2008 and as high as 260 per week in 2012.
“We’ve held relatively steady in young families being active, in part because of our strong program ministries of Sunday School, youth groups and choirs,” Eckhart said. “We feel God calling us to be the UCC church in the region that is strong in faith, inclusion and action.”
Part of the cycle
Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly, said every 500 years a church goes through significant change.
In an interview with faithandleadership.com, Tickle is quoted as saying, “If one were going to put one adjective to the Great Emergence, and thereby one adjective to emergence Christianity, one would say “deinstitutionalized.”
At Trinity Church, the Rev. Files agrees that the younger generation shies away from institutions, of which church is one.
But he is positive. Even if the church is floundering in today’s society, there will be a resurrection. “There is life ahead of us. The Holy Spirit can lead us through,” he said.
“We still need a place in the world where we can go to hear we don’t have to keep running the rat race,” Files said. “Today you’re supposed to pick yourself up. But here, God is with us. It’s not all up to us.”