Most of my congregations—both my clients and the small, rural churches for whom I preach—worry that their beloved church will not survive. But I keep working with them because, even as they age and their numbers dwindle, they surprise me with their capacity to adapt and innovate. In spite of everything, God’s church keeps showing up.
For example, by the time you read this I will have attended the last worship service in its own building of a congregation for whom I have preached monthly for years. Unable to maintain their mid-century structure, the members have decided to sell the building. They will continue to worship together, and I will continue to preach, but from now on we will gather in another congregation’s chapel.
Many of my consulting clients in the former Protestant Mainline are on a similar trajectory—aging, declining in numbers, and trying to find a way forward.
Who Let the Church Down?
In a sense, I feel as though I and many other parents of adult children have somehow let these congregations down. My two boys—sons of a fourth-generation minister and a second-generation minister, are both atheists, as are many of their friends. They grew up going to church, participating in youth group, and even preaching on youth Sundays, but they also grew up thinking for themselves, and it’s hard to look at this world and conclude that an all-powerful, all-good God is at work. (As I write this, Israel has sent tanks into Gaza in search of Hamas, war continues in Ukraine and Sudan, a Category 5 hurricane made landfall in Acapulco, and police are still looking for the gunman who killed 18 people and injured many more with an assault rifle in Lewiston, Maine.)
When I ask a room full of churchgoing parents and grandparents whether their adult children have left the church as mine have, at least a third usually raise their hands. Based on what they tell me, most of their children haven’t become atheists, but they also no longer have a church affiliation. Their children are part of the “nothing in particulars,” or “nones”—now one of the largest religious groups in the United States.
And it is not just the highly educated children of highly educated parents like us who are unaffiliated. As Ryan Burge pointed out in The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, while self-identifying atheists and agnostics have some of the highest levels of education of any tradition being surveyed, only one in five of the “nothing in particulars” have even completed a bachelor’s degree.
The congregations I serve are familiar with the effect of all this, even if they can’t cite the data. They see that their congregations are shrinking in size, that members are getting older, and that few new families are joining. The remaining members are deeply committed—prayerful, regular in their attendance, and generous with money and time—but they’re also afraid that whatever they do may not be enough.
Making a Reduction
In his most recent book, Twenty Myths About Religion and Politics in America, Burge uses the analogy of a chef making a reduction—a liquid that’s cooked until about half remains but with a more concentrated flavor—to describe the present state of American religion. Over the last several decades, he says, “the heat has continually been turned up as politics has become more polarized, as people take on more commitments that make them less available to attend church services, and as rapid advances in technology make it easier than ever to entertain ourselves without leaving the comfort of home.” All these factors have led to the growing number of ‘nones.’”
There is still a group, Burge says, who are committed to their faith and their church and who are not going to give up. This group may be smaller than the “nones,” but, like a chef’s reduction, they’re more concentrated, more potent.
This process of polarizing toward “nothing in particular” on one end and a more intense version of religion on the other has driven out a lot of moderate Christians. As Burge points out in Twenty Myths, “Mainline Christianity (which is typified by moderate churches such as the United Methodist and the United Church of Christ) used to make up 30 percent of Americans. Today, it’s just 10 percent.”
Still Showing Up
And yet, even as they decline, Mainline congregations continue to pray and experiment:
- They sell their buildings and move into smaller or shared worship spaces.
- They partner with local fine arts groups to turn their primary worship space into a performance center while the congregation worships in another, smaller space.
- They invite smaller congregations, congregations of other faith traditions, or newly formed immigrant congregations to share their space and the cost of its maintenance.
- They share their space with other nonprofits, even considering whether to turn over their buildings to secular groups that may have better access to the money needed for building maintenance and upgrades.
- They try new ministry models that center their own voices and experience, with only occasional support from ordained pastors.
- They find new ways to use their buildings and assets to meet the needs of their neighbors.
- They experiment with virtual ministries in which the congregation is never physically together, thus creating worship opportunities for people who are physically distant from each other, are neurodivergent, have challenging physical disabilities, or would rather not be out in crowds.
- They explore turning green space, former education space, or—in the case of some monasteries—former living quarters into affordable housing,
I’m sure each of these options represents hours of hard work and difficult conversation. I’m sure there are other options yet to be imagined. And I’m sure these choices won’t all work as expected, thus requiring further change. But I continue to work with congregations like these because, in new and surprising ways, they keep showing up as God’s church.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.