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I saw this story about a very old church in Harrisburg closing and I couldn’t help but reflect on the growing trend in Christianity for these respected, venerated old churches to shut their doors once and for all, joining a great many churches that have proven unable to survive.

The abandoned west gate of an Augustinian priory. (Credit: Archangel12, CC license.)
The abandoned west gate of an Augustinian priory. (Credit: Archangel12, CC license.)

A long time ago, after Biff made a huge embarrassment out of himself at the deathbed of one of our church’s pastors, we transferred to a small church plant so he could work off his shame. Brother Gene and his dear wife, Sulane, had married late in life but were both very fervent and lovely people; we liked them both a lot and they clearly felt parental toward us in the best possible sense. They lived in a suburb of Houston known for its high number of rocket scientists and dentists, and they thought that a new Pentecostal church might do well there.

At the time, Pentecostalism was growing fast all over the world, or so we thought (I don’t know either way for sure now if it was; we sure thought so though), but even so, it is weird to think that we seriously thought that a suburban area full of NASA contractors and healthcare workers would be attracted to the seriously oppressive, regressive message preached by the United Pentecostal Church. Either way, Gene and Sulane threw themselves into acquiring, cleaning up, and decorating (in tasteful mid-90s shades of dusty rose and cream) the new little storefront church.

Gene preached; Sulane played the electronic organ and handled most of the church’s paperwork and secretarial stuff–a serious fall in rank from her day job as a NASA chemical engineer or something, but she always seemed cheerful about it. Biff was their “youth pastor,” which meant he taught Sunday school to the three kids or so who swelled the church’s youth ministry. All told, from babies to preacher, the little church hit a high of about 12 people the whole year or so that I attended it.

When membership did not immediately skyrocket, Gene began to question whether or not it was “God’s” will that he have a church. Though Biff and I tithed, and I’m sure the other couple of families did as well, we knew that the lion’s share of upkeep and costs of the church were being paid by Gene and Sulane themselves. Like most folks in ministry, Gene judged whether or not he was actually doing what his god wanted by how many people attended his church. Later he’d hint that the denomination’s superiors were giving him side-eye over his lack of ability to increase membership. I would always stoutly tell him that it didn’t matter; deep down I knew that Gene was not a flashy, charismatic minister type of man; he just wasn’t the kind of man who did really well at preaching and evangelism. He was a solid salt-of-the-earth man who worked hard, treated women with a lot more decency than our denomination called for, and was likely one of the most practical people I’d ever met–second only to his wife, who talked and acted like she’d just stepped off the set of The Grapes of Wrath. By the time Biff and I moved away for Japan, Gene wasn’t sure how much longer he’d be able to maintain things. At some point Gene died, probably long after the church had, and his widow ended up moving away back to her own family’s hometown. I can’t even find any references to the existence of his church anymore. Judging by the metric that my denomination had decided was the barometer of divine approval, “God” had certainly not blessed Gene’s little church.

Well, “God” isn’t blessing a lot of churches nowadays.

A fellow blogger here at Patheos, Jack Wellman, has some shocking statistics to share: 80% of American churches are either stagnant or in decline; 4,000 close each year, thanks in large part to the 3,500 Christians every day who stop attending. I’ve seen guesses that hover in the 8,000-10,000-churches range too. Here’s a site that repeats the 3,500-people number and some more besides; here is the updated link that I think provided the statistics in Wellman’s quote.

It’s some sobering stuff–for Christians. And bee tee dubs, that’s mostly Protestant churches; Catholicism is in full-fledged freakout mode.

According to that link from Pastoral Care, Inc., which draws on surveys from various sources, that 3000-churches-a-year figure comes from simple math: 4000 churches open a year, but 7000 close in that same time. 90% of pastors will leave ministry before retirement age to  go do something else. 1700 pastors a year quit their jobs; 1300 a year are fired. Empty pulpit crisis is a real thing–many churches simply cannot find a minister to tend their dwindling flocks.

There are no shortage of guesses about why this trend is happening–and why it’s accelerating despite huge efforts to at least halt the tide. Here are some from Thom Rainer, who is the leader of the Southern Baptist Church‘s research arm, Lifeway: Churches drive away first-time visitors; denominational churches are just too damned liberal; churches just aren’t demanding enough out of members (indeed, one Christian blogger took major offense at a book by Thom Rainer about how to be more demanding–and that Christian is right; the book sounds like a guidebook for how to groom victims). Other Christian leaders guess that people are just too damned entitled, or that there are just aren’t enough TRUE CHRISTIANS™ around here. Pastors just don’t use enough technology like text messaging. Another is positive that the big problem is that churches “water down” their message to make Christians more comfortable, ironically driving them away.

I did see one, exactly one, piece that kinda gets it, though they bury the lede in rhetoric and rah-rah that’ll sound more acceptable to their audience of ministers: people stop attending because they realized that Christianity’s claims aren’t true. You don’t usually find that kind of honesty, though; usually the response is a lot closer to what’s shown in this humorous video regardless of the person’s stated reason for leaving. People who leave or even just pull away from attendance get accused of “wanting to sin” (meaning: wanting unapproved sex), of “being in rebellion,” of having some moral shortcoming, and of even worse stuff than that. But the real reasons so many of us leave–because we discovered that Christianity’s claims weren’t true–doesn’t often get engaged.

Detroit's seen its fair share of churches fall into disrepair and abandonment. (Credit: Rick Harris, CC-SA license.)
Detroit’s seen its fair share of churches fall into disrepair and abandonment. (Credit: Rick Harris, CC-SA license.)

With that kind of confusion about why people are leaving, churches have generally decided that the best solution is to drill down harder on what they think are their core values. You can probably guess what that means: acting even more hateful to groups standing outside their circled wagons, being more politically aggressive, being more controlling toward others, and forcing members to sacrifice more and more for their message. If doing that is driving off members, then clearly the solution is to do it more and harder to keep people in pews and attract members. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me either, but it’s what they’re doing–mistaking dogma for truth. One of those links even puts it succinctly: “We have to be on guard against the erosion of biblical values and damage to our beliefs and biblical mindset (Psalm 123:3; Mark 4:19)!” The SBC, in response to what it called a “baptism drought”, released a report that says almost exactly the same thing: the problem as they see it is how hard pastors work and how fervent people are.

Can’t really blame ’em. If they’re this incapable of engaging with the real reasons people leave Christianity, then they sure as hell won’t be able to engage with the real things that’d draw people back. Of the folks who leave who realized Christianity isn’t dealing with facts, facts would draw many back–but there really aren’t any facts to draw such apostates back with. Of the ones who leave for other reasons, those who may still identify as Christians, there’s a possibility of winning them back still–but not by doing more of the stuff that made them pull away in the first place. If you listen to and read pastors’ thoughts on that subject you’ll start feeling like you’re reading a business plan–and for good reason; churches are businesses, plain and simple, but unlike businesses, churches often live in fantasy-land and make plans that don’t even vaguely hinge on reality at all. (Show me a business plan that includes things like “And then God will do this huge miracle”, which is what it really sounds like churches are banking on!)

Barring the discovery of facts that will lure back apostates, churches will need to be places where Christians want to be. Therein lies the rub. There are still tons of Christians around; they just don’t want to be around churches.

At this point, very few people feel compelled to attend church. Most folks get their social needs met, like Sims in a game, via non-religious means for the most part; many don’t even feel like they must leave their homes to interact with other people. Churches don’t do a lot of charity anymore, if they ever did; people get help with groceries and healthcare through local or federal government agencies. In the past, if someone didn’t attend church, the neighbors noticed and this lack of attendance might seriously hurt reputations and prospects; now, most people don’t even know their neighbors, much less care if they attend church. There are a huge number of denominations and religions in even small rural areas, further diluting religion’s control over specific towns. If a person or family even wants to attend church (and many do not; regular attendance is pegged at around 10-18% at this point), they aren’t confined to the church nearest them; they can drive until they find someplace they like.

That’s what seems to have happened in that Harrisburg church I mentioned at the beginning of this post. There’s a domino effect in place about churches; as membership and thus tithes fall, the church can offer fewer and fewer amenities, which makes people want to be there less and less often. Enter the popularity of megachurches, with younger-than-average pastors and higher-than-average engagement. Many have coffeeshops, bookstores, bowling alleys, and even parking garages; daycares are all but standard issue. They tend to be places where members want to be. If their theology is considered by their smaller church sisters to be “watered down” and almost ecumenical, such criticisms come off as sour grapes to outsiders like me. Like an unpublished author who sniffs at the horrible writing in books like Twilight and its fanfic-wannabe offshoot Fifty Shades of Grey, these less successful ministers can’t deny that people like what megachurches are offering–or that their leaders are crying tears of blood over their watered-down message all the way to the bank.

One of the commenters in that piece, jimbari, echoes this exact point regarding Harrisburg Church of God:

Years back I was on a group when a city Lutheran Church closed its doors. Reasons why main stream inner city Protestant churches are in decline are due to changing demographics and the auto. IOW doubt if too many members of this demonination live near 4th St anymore. And if you have a car you don’t have to go to the local church, you can drive to where ever you want. So why drive to 4th St (not so great neighborhood, lousy parking) when you can drive to a suburb church with more members and activities.

Then he goes on to mention a few other inner-city churches that have closed for what he views as similar reasons. He may well have hit on why Gene’s little church never did that well; Houston tended to be very car-centric, so it wouldn’t have been difficult for someone to drive to reach a larger and maybe less extreme church. But I’m wondering how much of it is that people are getting tired of the polarized, science-denying, humanity-impeding nature of fundagelical churches, and how irrelevant they’re finding Christianity in general.

So the churches that most need a wake-up call think that the solution is to drill down harder on the tactics that aren’t working now–or to take the second route, which is to demonize doubt and dehumanize those who either leave or were never members. We’re seeing a lot of that now too–but despite religious leaders’ efforts, people are still doubting and still leaving. Those who remain circle the wagons even more tightly and look with even more revulsion and anger upon those leaving.

Like many churches scrambling to maintain their lives, Harrisburg Church of God went through some predictable phases. It gave up its land long ago; it’s sold the building itself to a theatre group, which means they were guests in their own 150-year-old sanctuary. The bell was given away some time ago. But these measures failed; “Jesus” apparently didn’t care to see them continue.

The pastor blames the trouble on stuff that happened before he even got there, mentioning vaguely that the church faced “a lot of issues” that he termed “volatile” and “delicate.” The mind boggles at what he might mean. A commenter mentions that many people left to follow the previous pastor, which makes me wonder just what internal schism happened to make that previous pastor leave. Alas, churches don’t tend to talk about their troubles to outsiders. Maybe a bunch of the people there wanted to be nicer–or meaner–to gay people, an issue splitting other denominations.

Either way, churches don’t have a lot of time. I get the strong impression that many of their leaders thought that if they set their shoulders against the trend, it’d pass and things would go back to normal–but that isn’t what happened.

Christian churches may be simply abandoned, as in this eerily haunting slideshow, or may be repurposed into businesses like the Harrisburg church was–or into barns or even residential single-family homes. In Europe, the trend is similar and, if anything, even further along. It’s like beating swords into plowshares! The Christians drooling for conflict, tribulation, and war don’t care for losing their swords, maybe, but it looks like the Armageddon they’ve been jacking off over for decades is becoming less and less likely to happen.

I’m a-tremble with excitement over the idea that maybe in my lifetime, Christianity’s stranglehold on culture and politics may be fully broken. Church culture has become so anemic and toxic by turns that even Christians are getting turned off by it. Imagine that!

I wonder sometimes if this is what it was like for Mithraism when it was fading away. I wonder how long Christian leaders will hold fast to their growing irrelevance before they figure out why folks are rejecting what they’re selling. Will they bend? Or will they ride that irrelevance all the way to the bottom? How many more churches will close before they get a clue? It’s heady stuff.

Pay attention to these stories of closings; listen to the undercurrents. There’s a greater, larger story going on behind the scenes, and it’s only going to get more interesting as the religion’s death spiral tightens. We’re standing at a truly momentous time in history.

I only hope we’re careful about what replaces Christianity.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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