Skip to comments.Fading Away: Aging congregation, demographics, force church members to face an uncertain future
Posted on 01/17/2010 8:30:13 PM PST by hiho hiho
There is no hospice for congregations facing the end of their days. No advanced directives telling caregivers when to take action and when to let go.
Dying people make out wills to direct the inheritance of their remaining possessions, but there is no legal equivalent for a dying church. Jewish tradition directs fathers to write ethical wills that explain the values by which they have led their lives, to be read by their children after they pass.
But when a church dies, there is no one left to do the reading.
On a chilly Sunday morning, congregants of Eastminster Presbyterian Church gather together to pray in their Northeast Halsey Street chapel. They shed their heavy coats and hats and set them on empty seats. Smiles abound. Many seem to visibly relax as they greet old friends with a gentle hand on a shoulder or a quick embrace. Here they have found sanctuary.
And, too, the people of Eastminster are more vulnerable than most to the harsh realities of an unforgiving Columbia River Gorge wind. They are old.
Thirty-five years ago, Eastminster was a vibrant church, with two services because the sanctuary was not large enough to contain the crowd. In 1972, the church had 450 members and 250 children in Sunday School.
This Sunday, there are fewer than 30 people attending services. The congregations average age, according to the churchs latest survey, is 79.
In February, the churchs Session essentially its board of directors will meet in the culmination of a three-month process intended to guide Eastminsters future. The most likely option is that some plan will be put in place leading to the closing of the church.
Portland is often referred to as the least-churched city in the country, and while national statistics show a few areas of New England and the West reporting similarly low or even lower numbers of religious observance, Eastminsters story is a tale about local attitudes toward organized religion and spirituality.
There are explanations for Eastminsters failing attendance and unsustainable economics, and for the fact that none of the adult children of these elderly parishioners are bringing their own families into the church where they grew up. Those same explanations have been cited in dozens of local churches that have either sold their properties or evolved into different entities.
Eastminsters pastor, Brian Heron, says he knows of two local Presbyterian churches that have closed in recent years, and he estimates that at least a dozen others are facing similar situations.
Theyre all just hanging by a thread, surviving month to month, year to year, Heron says.
David Leslie, executive director of nonprofit Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, a statewide association of churches, says there is no precise count of how many Portland-area churches have failed, but many are searching for new models as a way of staying alive. Some rent space to community organizations; others have sold their buildings to nonprofits and simply pay rent to hold services.
Leslie says it is likely that in the future there will be church buildings shared by three or four congregations.
Some of the failing churches are simply victims of changing neighborhoods, Leslie says.
At the base of this is the eternal reality that nothing is permanent, Leslie says. You look around Portland communities, some neighborhoods were middle class and they became lower income, and some of those neighborhoods became high income. A lot of it is demographic change, economics shifting.
If the question comes back to why are some of these churches on life support, I think the fundamental question is how in tune are they to the question of who is my neighbor? Is the church a place that is doing constant outreach to the neighborhood and the people who are around the church?
Like a family That, more than any other factor, helps explain what has happened at Eastminster. The church last year adopted a slogan, A Caring Community in a Changing World. For most of the past 55 years, that caring has been focused in one direction inward. In the process, congregants neglected the invigoration that comes from opening their doors to the world outside.
Barbara Rock, Eastminsters last remaining charter member, remembers the day in 1954 when a minister knocked on her door saying he wanted to start a church in her neighborhood. By the end of that year a charter had been signed by about two dozen people in a makeshift chapel in her basement, with curtains hiding the plumbing pipes, a picture of Jesus temporarily attached to a curtain and a gathering of children off to one side.
It was like a family, Rock says. All young couples with little children, and we all had the same things in common not much money and the church was our social life.
In 1960, Rock moved to Northern California. When she returned in 1983, going back to Eastminster felt like coming home. She loved the fact that the church looked exactly the same as when she had left. New faces and new programs to attract young members were not what she was hoping to find.
We were looking for a haven. We were looking for peace and our friends, Rock says.
Jerome and Lucile Harden needed and found comfort in the Eastminster community when their daughter Debbie died suddenly in 1991. Church members brought meals to their house and all the companionship the couple needed. Friendships deepened.
Having dealt with a much greater loss, the Hardens are able to face possibility of Eastminster closing philosophically.
I personally dont really see us surviving, says Jerome. Its sad because that building, that community, has been a part of our life for 30 years. But that doesnt mean you stop living. Life goes on.
Longtime congregant Walter Lersch says hiring Heron was among the best moves ever made by the Eastminster parishioners. But it happened way too late.
When our children were little I saw the problem. I felt we were going to die, Lersch says. A lot of people had left, and nobody new was coming in. This was 20 years ago.
Lersch and others say there were discussions, but nobody in the congregation was willing to take the lead toward a more open and inviting church. The parishioners of Eastminster grew old together.
But new members did not solely have to come from the outside. There were always those children.
Weve lost two generations, Lersch says. Weve lost our own children, and we have lost our childrens children.
Going through cycles Lersch and his wife, Florence, met at Eastminster. She was in the choir and he started attending services on his own in 1978. They raised their children there, among them daughter Christine Yanik, who has children of her own with husband Grant.
Christine says she would never raise her two children there, though she reluctantly allows her parents to take their grandchildren to Eastminster some Sunday mornings.
In some ways, the reasons Christine gives for rejecting Eastminster put her smack in the middle of her own generation and Pacific Northwest attitudes toward religion. She and Grant talk about believing in a divine being, and exploring their own version of spirituality, combining elements of Wicca, Buddhism and other religions they have studied.
Nearly all their friends classify themselves as spiritual without formally attending a church, synagogue or mosque.
What Christine found most off-putting about Eastminster is the very thing that Barbara Rock longed for when she returned from California, and found at Eastminster familiar faces, familiar liturgy and real community.
Everything goes through cycles, Yanik says. Youre born, you start to grow, you get smarter. With that comes maturing and change. Eastminster never changes. It never grew; it never matured.
All those years Christine saw her parents comfort other congregants during times of need, and finding fellowship with their Eastminster friends. But it always seemed to her that, given the message of the religion, it wasnt enough.
She heard the minister talk about welcoming in the stranger, and taking care of the poor. But Yanik didnt see that happening through church activities. Nobody was offering to shelter the homeless on Burnside, or feed the hungry of outer east side Portland.
Theyre very good about taking care of each other, but its taking care of each other, not helping take care of the community, Yanik says.
Lersch says his daughter could be right, and that he has learned a lesson, even if it may be too late to save Eastminster.
We understand now that our community changed and we didnt, he says.
Changed thinking Ironically, Eastminster has changed. Three years ago, the church hired Brian Heron to take them through the process of either facing its final days, or emerging as something different. Members of Eastminster didnt just want to let their church die, Heron says. At the very least they wanted to leave a legacy, something to mark what they had been.
Heron talks to congregants about learning to let go of their church as they have known it. Years ago, in California, Heron ministered in a hospice, helping dying patients through the last days of their lives. He knows this process. But he isnt ready yet to declare Eastminster lifeless. Not quite.
Maybe theres another congregation out there, he says, which lacks a building but could supply members in the space-sharing model predicted by David Leslie of Ecumenical Ministries.
Maybe a younger, homeless congregation will come to worship with the members of Eastminster, and eventually take over the building.
Maybe all of this could be combined with using Eastminsters three acres of property and empty classrooms for community gardens and housing the homeless, and make up for some of those years when such ideas were largely ignored.
Heron has also introduced a much more progressive, and liberal form of Christianity to Eastminster, and has found his ideas welcomed. The traditional Sunday morning Bible reading now is accompanied by a second reading from sources that have included Buddhist text and childrens books.
Im just amazed at how our thinking has changed, says Florence Lersch about Herons leadership.
On Feb. 14, Eastminsters three months of introspection and planning culminates in a meeting of the churchs governing Session. Whatever is decided, the choice need not be viewed as tragic, or even failing, says Heron.
Part of (Christianitys) story is a story of death and resurrection, Heron says. Were trying to trust that process. We dont have to fight death. We can face it, we can move through it, and live through it gracefully and see what new life looks like on the other side.
Frankly I think if you change the church to suit the neighborhood you’re saving a building, not a congregation.
There’s your problem right there.
**a second reading from sources that have included Buddhist text and childrens books.”**
No wonder it is fading.
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I’m sorry, but I find most of mainline Christianity to be self-rightous atheism at heart. No wonder people aren’t flocking to it.
Must be PCUSA....I think the PCA’s are growing...
I grew up in the Presbyterian church, taught Sunday School there as a teenager, was married in that church and took my kids there. Back in the 80s, some of the high school age SS class material had evolution information. That church isn’t dying, it’s growing. But as I grew older (and up) and really started listening to the sermons, I started to feel totally worthless and that there was really no hope.
Perhaps its just that the minister made me uncomfortable, although I could never put my finger on *why* and the pillars of the church think he is the greatest thing ever sent to them. Maybe I was just not meant to be a Pres., I don’t know. But that’s why I stopped going. It didn’t seem to a very happy or hopeful place that he’s talking about. I’ll never be as perfect as I supposedly should be. So why bother?
Yes, and sometimes it’s not so much the church’s message (as in my case) but the people. You get people who have attended a church for years and when there is new, fresh blood that starts attending it’s ‘We’ve always done it this way’ etc etc. My cousin was instrumental in setting up a youth groupo and revitalizing the choir and music for her new church when she moved. But then people complained that she was ‘running it all’ (even tho’ no one else stepped up to start or help with this).
Sometimes you get the feeling that those who are able to help with more stuff in the church are fairly smug about their ‘higher Christian status’ as I call it.
Reading a few lines of a beautiful bit of Buddhism isn’t going to ruin a church. Many parts of many religious readings and texts are considered world literature.
Perhaps its just that the minister made me uncomfortable, although I could never put my finger on *why* and the pillars of the church think he is the greatest thing ever sent to them. Maybe I was just not meant to be a Pres., I dont know. But thats why I stopped going. It didnt seem to a very happy or hopeful place that hes talking about. Ill never be as perfect as I supposedly should be. So why bother?
Sounds like the typical works-oriented church. The sermons will usually describe great works from the Bible, and end with an exhortation for the flock to "go and do likewise".
IMO, we should learn in church that we are indeed "worthless", but we should also learn that you are not capable of being otherwise. They should then stress that belief in Christ provides the righteousness that we all lack. We then will feel compelled to give thanks and worship the God who saved us even though we did not deserve it.
Where are the people?
At the contemporary church, where they have a rockin’ good time in the song portion of worship and a message that hits hard with truth and hope.
"Eastminster Presbyterian Church, located in Wichita, KS, is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA)"
“Ill never be as perfect as I supposedly should be. So why bother?.
That’s the whole point. You will NEVER be perfect. We are saved by grace, despite how rotten we are. The punishment we deserve for being far less than perfect was taken by Jesus on the cross. It is His gift to you. Take the gift. Embrace it. Tell everyone about it.
Beautiful as some Buddhist texts might be, they make a poor substitute for the inspired and inerrant Word of God, and thus have no place in Christian worship.
Three acres of property in the middle of Portland is a gold mine. They should sell the building and divvy up the money to fun their retirement. (Not sure who owns the church?).
Lots of empty churches in Portland, that is for sure. On the other hand their are so many people going to church in Beaverton that the police come out to direct traffic every Sunday. I think the believers have moved out of the city, which is now full of Wiccans, as the article explains.
Not too many families want to send kids to Portland public schools.
Except the article is about a church in Portland. What happens when you call bingo but you have the wrong spot marked? :-)
I didn’t feel that way when I went to church. Listening to sermons, it felt pretty useless to try. I’m not sure that’s how you should feel when you go to church.