Monday, February 6, 2023

A Defense of My Congregation

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

One of the unexpected upsides of the pandemic for me and my family has been the opportunity to move back to my hometown, Decorah, IA. Along with that move, I’ve been able to resume my connection to the church I grew up in, First United Methodist Church of Decorah.

Being a part of Decorah FUMC has not only been a nice opportunity to reconnect with people who have been an important part of my spiritual development, it has also been a unique opportunity to reflect on the challenges that have faced American Christianity in the past 25 or 30 years as they have played out in this congregation.

Like many United Methodist churches (and like many churches of other denominations), Decorah FUMC is a smaller and older congregation than it was when I grew up in it. While it’s easy to interpret that statement in entirely negative ways, I think it’s worth saying a word in defense of the church, a word about why the church does not deserve to shoulder all the blame for that change.

I make this defense of my congregation not because I think it is unique, but rather because I know it is not. From my wife’s experiences as a pastor, my knowledge of the ministry of other pastors, my teaching of Course of Study, and my reading of stories about United Methodist and other churches in the United States, I think what is true in Decorah is true in a lot of places. I’m able to make this defense for Decorah FUMC because I know it better than other congregations, but a lot of what I have to say carries across congregations.

Changes in Attendance
Although The United Methodist Church and only mainline denominations have been losing members since the 1960s, Decorah FUMC, like a number of other United Methodist and other mainline congregations, was actually doing really well through the 1990s. Indeed, the 1990s were something of a heyday of members and ministries for several United Methodist congregations that I know, including congregations across the theological spectrum.

Since the 1990s, though, membership and attendance has dwindled, at Decorah FUMC and at most of the other congregations I know for whom the 90s was a heyday. Attendance at Decorah FUMC peaked at somewhere around 120 a week in the 90s. Currently, it’s probably somewhere between 40 and 50 on a given Sunday.

While that drop may seem dramatic, it’s more typical than one might think. One Hartford Institute for Religion Research study found that the median worship size for US congregations across denominations fell by just over 50% between 2000 and 2020. Another recent Hartford study has shown that average attendance has decline by a further quarter compared to pre-pandemic.

Put these two figures together, and one would expect Decorah FUMC to have attendance in the average low 40s these days just based on national trendlines. As dramatic as this drop in attendance figures may seem, it’s not exceptional. It’s normal.

Small and Rural
Both of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research articles cited above make clear that drops in typical attendance have been especially pronounced for smaller churches and churches in rural areas or small towns. Decorah FUMC fits both these categories. Indeed, given the unique challenges of rural and small congregations, Decorah FUMC is doing somewhat better than one would expect.

Rural churches often don’t receive a lot of attention. Most Americans live in suburbs; only 14% live in rural areas and small towns. But 47% of American congregations are in rural areas and small towns. That means while the typical American Christian may be in the suburbs, the typical American church is not.

This is true for United Methodism as well. One of the legacies of the circuit riders is that the UMC has churches in most small towns in America. There are about the same number of UMC churches in the United States as there are post offices. The typical UMC congregation is small and located in a rural or small-town setting.

While detailing all the challenges of rural and small-town life in 21st century America would go far beyond this essay, a pervasive sense of dwindling and decline applies to many aspects of rural life. Businesses close. Young people move away. Schools are consolidated. The population ages and declines. Why should churches be exempt from these trends?

Here, too, Decorah FUMC is indicative of broader trends. Decorah, IA, is in many ways a successful and thriving small town compared to others. But the population has been static since 1980, with a recent dip from declining enrollment in the local college. There are fewer people in the surrounding county now than there were in 1870. In a static to declining population, even maintaining church membership is a challenge, especially given national trend lines away from religion.

This is especially true given the outmigration of people from small towns. Looking through pictures of the confirmation classes from the years my brothers and I were being confirmed, I see that probably 75% of the kids who grew up in Decorah FUMC have moved away. It’s not that other young people haven’t moved to town since, but the experience of moving can be disruptive those with weaker church attachments. Newer young people moving in are less likely to affiliate with a church than the young people who grew up in a congregation but are now moving away.

Focusing on young families (the golden grail of so many churches) reflects another challenge that small churches have. As churches contract, it becomes harder to maintain a critical mass of young families. My family has been the only young family in some churches we’ve attended, and my kids have been the only kids under 10 in those churches. It can be rough.

For parents who care about passing on the faith to their kids, there is an incentive to switch to another church with more kids and perhaps a Sunday school. Even when I was in high school, the attraction was palpable of the larger, Lutheran youth groups when compared to the small band of Methodists. I know other families in Decorah who were connected to First United Methodist Church but switched to other churches than still had a larger attendance so that their kids would have age-level peers in church.

Exegeting the Experience
Am I making excuses and saying that it’s okay that membership and worship attendance at Decorah FUMC have dropped? No! I sincerely wish it was different. It breaks my heart to see the congregation a fraction of its former self, especially because I know the faith of those who have been a part of the congregation and the good work that the congregation has done.

What I am saying is that I don’t think we should place all the blame for these changes on the congregation itself. Has the congregation made mistakes in the past 25 or 30 years that have cost it members? Sure. Every organization makes mistakes, and the congregation and its ministers have made mistakes too.

But the congregation has also done things right and tried new things in the past 25 or 30 years, things that the experts say should lead to growth and vitality. They experimented with a new, non-traditional worship experience. They’ve been heavily involved in their local community. People are willing to talk about their faith. They have welcomed new members. When I look around on Sunday, a good portion - probably between a quarter and a third - of the people in the pews were not yet there when I was growing up.

And many of the factors affecting the congregation are far beyond its control. It cannot control the educational, economic, and cultural incentives that make young people decide to leave town. It did not control the 2019 General Conference, though its outcome did cost the church members. It certainly didn’t control the COVID pandemic, though that’s been the most disruptive impact on church attendance in living memory. And, while everyone bears some responsibility for the larger cultural shifts away from church attendance and membership, it is unfair to hold individual congregations responsible for solving a problem that US Christianity as a whole has not been able to.

Decorah FUMC is a good congregation, and it has done good ministry and continues to do good ministry, even as its numbers have declined. And as hard as it may be to see empty pews, what’s even harder is to see good, faithful people feeling like they have failed because of those empty pews.

Yes, evangelism should be a practice and a value of the church. But to fault every congregation that is not growing amidst a tidal surge in the opposite direction, especially congregations in areas with real demographic limitations to growth, is cruel. We cannot expect every congregation to be like those in growing suburbs. And to insist that they must is to abdicate responsibility for really engaging with the reality of nearly half of American congregations.

Nor is it productive to make congregations feel bad because they have fewer members. No one wants to join a floundering or failing organization. Telling congregations that they have failed because they have lost members is counter-productive to the goal of bringing in new people. Christianity is about good news, not about fulfilling obligations even though the experience is sort of a downer.

To continue to reach new people, we need to focus on what goes right at our churches, not just what goes wrong. So, in my next post, I’m going to write an appreciation of Decorah UMC and celebrate the things that go right there, and in so many other United Methodist congregations in the United States.

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