The First Presbyterian Church of Bellefonte, in Pennsylvania, just held its final service on Christmas Eve, 221 years after it first opened. The church as locals knew it is now dead.
The reason has nothing to do with COVID. At least not just COVID. Membership was on the decline and attendance was in the low double-digits. There simply wasn’t enough money coming in to justify having a building and keeping up with the necessary costs of maintenance.
The Centre Daily Times’ Bret Pallotto went into the church’s history as well as the challenges it’s been facing:
The church that was organized at a time when there were only 16 states had no shortage of movers and shakers throughout the years. It was established by the same men who founded Bellefonte, while other members included two former Pennsylvania governors.
[Church elder Candace] Dannaker estimated the church had about 40 members before the pandemic, a number that is down to about 25. Only about a dozen attend services in person. The church did not have in-person worship from March 2020 until Easter Sunday.
Attendance is down even more sharply from when Dannaker joined 34 years ago. She estimated there were about 200 people in attendance then.
In short, this church may have been closing even without the pandemic; COVID just exacerbated its problems.
Want more specifics? One elder was extremely blunt:
“We have classrooms that haven’t been used for years. We have a nursery with items for babies that hasn’t been used for quite a few years,” said Robert Dannaker, elder of the Bellefonte First Presbyterian Church. “Now in 2021, we are closing our doors.”
There’s no need for classrooms or nurseries when the average age of the church’s members gets higher and higher.
If you watch the final service, it’s not hard to see why people aren’t rushing to join. I don’t say that to mock them, only to point out what’s already obvious. It’s an old-fashioned church that clearly didn’t adopt to a digital world or make any real attempt to get new young members to join at a time when more young Americans are drifting away from organized religion. This is a place designed purely for in-person worship, as if its size and history should outweigh everything else. If tradition is your primary selling point, and there’s no other reason to make it the center of your life, it’s not surprising that they’re struggling with membership.
(I’m not kidding about the lack of digital outreach: The church’s website has been down for a while. There’s no YouTube channel. There’s no microphone for the preacher.)
Just listen to how one long-time member, 77-year-old Pam Benson, describes why she attended:
“It was so different. It was just what you did. Unless you were really sick, it was just what you did,” Benson said. “It’s just change, it’s progression. It’s what happens. Not that I like it, but it is what it is.”
She’s proving a key point about why religious institutions are losing members: What keeps so many people in the pews is tradition, not some deep desire to hear the words of Jesus for the umpteenth time or because the church gives them some greater purpose. It’s just on the schedule. It’s something you do because your parents did it. You go because you think you’re supposed to, not because you necessarily want to. And when no one’s forcing you to do it, you’ll find better things to do with your time.
If Benson, who’s been attending the church for 73 years, can’t give a better pitch for why people should join other than saying it’s “just what you did,” good luck finding single 20-year-olds lining up to join.
The final service was more like an optimistic funeral, with lines about how “challenges aren’t anything new to humanity” and “hope is ours once more.” It can be sad when old traditions die. I doubt the previous generation had to spend a lot of time worrying about drawing in new members. The fact that it’s a serious issue for churches like this today isn’t a bad thing at all. But let’s be clear: The building should never be the most important aspect of church anyway. The people who still belong to this institution can always find a new place to worship — or just worship on their own.
The Associated Press notes that the future of the building is undetermined for now. I would bet good money that it won’t exist in the form of a church for much longer. It’ll either become something more useful for people in the community or become some kind of historical relic that requires money to maintain but offers very little value to anyone who wasn’t aware of it already.
Ah well. It’s hard to mourn something that’s been as good as dead for a long while already.
On a side note, I find it incredible that the major articles written about this church’s closing focus so little on its beliefs. They’re just completely irrelevant to the story — which says something about the faith itself. No one seems to be attending because they care about the message. No one’s bragging about it anyway. No one’s saying the preaching was stellar, or this church helped solidify their views about various controversial social issues.
For what it’s worth, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is generally progressive on things like LGBTQ rights, but it’s telling that none of that seems to play a role here.