No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.
You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.
These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.
Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.
First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:
WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.
Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.
All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.
But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.
What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.
Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches. “Mainline,” of course, is news code for the “Seven Sisters” of liberal Protestantism, including the highly symbolic Episcopal Church.
The bottom line: Quite a few denominations have seen their numbers decline in recent years. However, declines in the oldline Protestant world has, since the glory years of the 1950s, have been stunning. Look at the numbers in the tweet by conservative activist Mark Tooley at the top of this post. Click into that debate and check out the reaction tweets.
Yes, it is certainly true that — without growth among Latinos — Catholic numbers in North America would be falling like a rock. It’s also true that the Southern Baptist Convention has lost a million members in the past decade, out of 16 million or so. SBC numbers would also be much lower, if not for growth in its black and Latino congregations.
But note the life-and-death question hidden inside that trend: Why are Southern Baptists opening more black churches, while liberal Protestant flocks are closing them? What about trends in other more conservative denominations — especially those linked to Pentecostalism — that include lots of African-American believers?
The RNS story focusing on black Episcopalians in North Carolina is timely and totally valid.
My question is whether it was also relevant to ask: Why are church leaders seeing so many locked doors on parishes of this kind, in these communities, in this particular tradition? Are there valid questions here linked to family life, demographics and doctrine?
As the RNS story notes — a solid news hook here — it is hard to stop this kind of down spin once it gets started. I thought this passage was especially strong:
The Rev. Jemonde Taylor, rector of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Raleigh, another historically black church, worries about what the decline of churches like All Saints might mean for recruiting black clergy.
“More than 75 percent of black priests come out of historically black congregations,” said Taylor. “Those black churches lift people up for ministry. So if we don’t have black churches, will we no longer have black priests?”
The Episcopal Church does not keep records on race, but a Pew Research survey found that about 4 percent of Episcopal Church members identify as black.
The remaining members of All Saints now attend other Episcopal churches nearby. But they are not quite ready to abandon their old home. A group is exploring the possibility of reopening the closed structure to house some kind of ministry for the community, perhaps in partnership with another group. First, it needs some repairs, which is why the closing service was held at the elementary school.
Read it all. Then go back and read between the lines, looking for the stories that will unfold in the future.
For example: How will these trends — church growth and church decline — affect the painful debates about the future of the United Methodist Church, which faces a crucial showdown this coming February on issues of sexual morality?
FIRST IMAGE: All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Warrenton, N.C.