Church closing trend began before COVID-19
MANCHESTER, Tenn. — When the Ragsdale Church of Christ closed…
One of the most difficult questions to answer when pursuing the story of closed churches is, “Where did the people go?”
Finding “Where have all the churches gone?” is doable. Public records reveal when properties are bought and sold. Christians everywhere can tell the stories of the church that “used to be” or “where I grew up” or “that closed its doors.” Pictures can be taken. Documents can be archived.
But the people who departed — over time and in the end — are much harder to find. The directories of Churches of Christ that 21st Century Christian has published since 1960 document the names and details of congregations, not people. We have no directory of departed church members. We don’t even have a directory of active church members.
Churches of Christ are “so autonomous we’re anonymous,” Grady King, a co-leader of HOPE Network Ministries, likes to say.
Never is that more evident than when trying to find the people who used to sit in the pew in front of you, or who once taught third-grade Sunday school, or whose weddings and funerals were conducted in that old church building. Until they weren’t.
A recent online survey by The Christian Chronicle didn’t help clarify things. Now that’s a sentence no journalist wants to write.
With only a few dozen responses, results are anecdotal. But they do represent former members of closed congregations scattered across more than a dozen states, congregations about evenly distributed across a conservative-to-progressive continuum, according to the respondents, skewing slightly toward the conservative end.
Stan Granberg, vice chairman of the Heritage 21 Foundation, has conducted extensive research on closing churches. The foundation works with churches that are nearing the end of their lifespan to help them reinvigorate or close with dignity.
Granberg said church members leave a congregation in waves. First to leave a church that’s reasonably healthy are people he describes as more progressive, “people who want to see something different, something more relevant.”
“Then leadership gets concerned and tries to do something in response, so there’s the second wave, the more conservative folks,” he continued.
Finally, it gets down to congregations of about 50 people, what he calls “extra-grace-required people — people who have lots of needs, emotionally and physically. They stay and will stay until the church just can’t make it anymore.”
Of course, in some parts of the country, congregations of 50 or so have survived and thrived for many years.
But when the doors close, where do the people go?
Granberg said the more progressive members tend to go to independent Christian churches or community/nondenominational churches. Conservatives will go to a more conservative Church of Christ if they can find one.
But not always. Sometimes, he said, members in both groups just quit going.
Survey respondents reflected Granberg’s explanation. About three-quarters had found another Church of Christ congregation after theirs closed, but the others fell into a few categories including those he listed: community/nondenominational churches, other denominations, a house church or online worship with a Church of Christ in another city.
Geography plays a part, but so does demography. In some parts of the nation, there’s nowhere to go.
“In the Northeast or Northwest, people don’t have other options,” Granberg said. “If their church closes, they may not have an option within 45 minutes or an hour. They seldom go into another Church of Christ because they just aren’t there, so they’ll go into a community church or just not go at all.”
That was the case for the Fargo Church of Christ, a North Dakota congregation that closed in 2019 after attendance dwindled to about 15. Allen Newhouse, a member for 30 years, now attends a community church. Others go to a Christian church.
Newhouse said efforts were made through the years to work with another Church of Christ on a Vacation Bible School and other projects. “But they wanted us to agree with everything they were doing. We had a good relationship for a while. … We agreed on the majority but not everything, and they wouldn’t have fellowship with us anymore.” Heritage 21 is helping the congregation sell its building.
In 2018, 21st Century Christian listed only seven congregations in all of North Dakota, the largest in Minot with about 80 on Sundays.
Similarly, the Agape Church of Christ in Portland, Ore., started as a church plant about 15 years ago. Before it ceased operating in February 2020, Sunday attendance averaged about 65. But when minister Ron Clark left to become director of Kairos, a church-planting organization associated with Churches of Christ, he said leaders “felt it was best to close and bless other churches.”
Clark said in his survey response that “about half the members went to another Church of Christ, and about half to other conservative denominations.”
Jessica Knapp, former member of the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ in Tucson, Ariz., responded that when it closed around 2017, many left church altogether, but some went to the Ina Road Church of Christ, and several, including Knapp, gathered to form a seed team for a church plant.
Then there’s the demography. Churches in rural communities or aging urban areas grow grayer and grayer along with the neighborhoods around them. Or sometimes, a graying church is surrounded by neighborhoods that are ethnically or economically far different from the membership. If a church lacks the will or ability to welcome its community — often a community that looks very different from when it began — the congregation will die as most members leave for the cemetery, not another congregation.
The first story I wrote for the Chronicle in 2019 was about a tiny church in Abilene, Texas. Its minister, Pat Andrews, who has since died, told me in our first conversation, “We spend a lot of time at the graveyard.”
The first story in this series, about the closing of the Ragsdale Church or Christ in Manchester, Tenn., described a congregation that was down to eight attendees on the Sunday morning before its final service, all of them above 60 and several much older. The handful who remained said they’d find a new church home in one of the nearby Church of Christ congregations, and the most recent 21st Century Christian directory lists 15 congregations in Manchester.
But two-thirds of them had pre-pandemic attendance below 60.
The stir of church members moving about between multiple congregations or being drawn to large congregations in cities further muddies the picture. Just 32 miles north of Manchester, the North Boulevard Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has almost 2,000 members, according to its website.
North Boulevard has three campuses and hosts worship services in Korean and Spanish in addition to English.
Too often, the stir is fueled by doctrinal squabbles and worship preferences. One survey respondent described his former congregation in a major city in the Midwest as having closed, but in response to another question said the building was “still being used by those that chose to continue down the path of unrighteousness.”
Indeed, with just one phone call, I was able to determine that more than 200 still attend the church the survey respondent considered “closed,” much smaller than it once was but still viable.
Shifts in views of religion generally are among the many trends Churches of Christ share in common with other religious groups. Gallup research reported a year ago that over two decades the number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion has increased from 8 percent in 1998-2000 to 21 percent by 2021. Thus, researchers observed, “Americans without a religious preference are highly unlikely to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque.”
So, where did the people go? That’s still not clear. But I’m pretty sure some just went home.
CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected]
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