Skip to comments.A Shocking Loss of Faith: Reflecting on the Closing of So Many Churches
Posted on 12/07/2018 8:54:49 AM PST by Salvation
As I walk or drive through my Capitol Hill neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., I pass by more than twenty churches (all of them Protestant) that have been closed in the past decade. Many of them are grand and prominent buildings. (Click here to see four of them.) Most of the them have been converted to condominiums, likely due to historic preservation norms that seek to retain the exterior appearance of historic buildings.
A recent study by the local non-profit organization Sacred Spaces Conservancy confirms my anecdotal evidence about the large number of closures. On Capitol Hill, a growing neighborhood with a tremendous number of row houses, about 40 percent of buildings used for worship have closed [*]. Such a figure is shocking and demonstrates a collapse of religious observance. Our Catholic parishes have suffered as well, but thankfully none of them have closed.
As always, there is important detail behind the numbers. At the root is a dramatic demographic shift in the population of the District of Columbia. The once majority-black city is no longer so; African-Americans now make up less than 50 percent of the population. The new arrivals to the city are also younger. To say that the city is undergoing gentrification is not really accurate. The majority of the new residents are not gentry at all; they are largely young adults, saddled with college debt and unable to afford to own property. The median home price in this area is close to one million dollars. Because most of them do not have the means to buy a home, they rent, and even then must usually share with others to make it affordable.
This is the new demographic reality: A once solidly African-American area is now more racially diverse and younger as well. The new residents are in general less religiously observant and those who are religious are less tied to particular denominations or congregations. This is a challenge to institutions established in a very different world.
This has affected Protestant and Catholics in different ways.
The Protestant Experience:
There are reasons that the Protestant congregations have been more affected by the changes than the Catholic parishes. In general, Protestant denominations were and are divided in that they served specific groups defined by both racial and sectarian lines. For example, there might have been ten Baptist churches in a fairly small area, but they werent serving just different Baptist denominations; there were White Baptists, Black Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and so forth. Add to this a slew of other denominations and distinctions such as African Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Missouri Synod Lutheran, High Church Episcopal, Low Church Episcopal, and Broad Church Episcopal. The city churches were built during a time when these distinctions mattered.
However, it is the racial focus of Protestant churches that looms largest of all in this city. Dr. Martin Luther King once observed that the most segregated day of the week is Sunday. This still rings largely true. It wasnt just race, it was the length of the service and styles of worship, preaching, and music. Black churches in solidly black neighborhoods could flourish in many varieties from storefront churches to megachurches to historical anchor churches such as Metropolitan Baptist and Foundry United Methodist. African-American congregations that identify strongly with black traditions of worship have not adjusted easily to the demographic shifts of recent years. Thus, they face the choice of either moving to where their congregants have moved or closing. It isnt just inflexible niche marketing that is the problem; whites who move in are not easily persuaded to attend their services. Whether it is liturgical style, preaching content, or just the awkward experience of being a minority, whites and other non-African-American arrivals dont join in large enough numbers to shore up a declining congregation.
In short, the combination of changing demographics and denominational division has spelled disaster for many traditionally black congregations. Some of them have moved to the suburbs; others have closed. Focusing on a niche market is a problem when the niche disappears or moves away.
As for the mainline (largely white) Protestant churches, I would argue that a collapse of faith has depleted them, at least collectively. Many of them ceased preaching the old time religion a long time ago, having largely assimilated to a post-Christian world and acclimated to the sexual revolution. Gone are the moral demands of the gospel, which have been replaced by a social gospel. Gone is the drama of salvation. Jesus is less Lord and Savior and more a good man and ethical teacher. For those who think the Catholic Church should chart a similar course, please note that as much as we have declined, the mainline Protestant churches have collectively seen an utter collapse in attendance [**].
The Catholic experience:
The experience of the Catholic parishes on Capitol Hill has not been ideal, but it is better, and we can survive collectively. There are reasons for this.
Our first commitment is generally to serve a neighborhood or region. In a certain sense, the whole world is divided up into parishes. Every diocesan parish has a boundary. Boundaries used to tell Catholics where they should attend Mass. Today, boundaries tell the Church where we are supposed to go. A parish is responsible for every person who lives within its boundaries. Thus, with few exceptions, the parish stays put whether its founding parishioners remain or move away. Although there are a few ethnic parishes here and there (mainly due to language and/or a special rite) that aim to serve only a particular group, this sort of niche marketing is generally frowned upon.
The Catholic Church is catholic (universal). My own parish has gone from a solidly African-American parish to one that is more than 40 percent non-African-American. In this, it is beginning to reflect the current makeup of the neighborhood, which is more racially diverse and much younger than it was. Noting this, we did a very Catholic thing. Although the changes brought stress, we went out to meet our neighbors. We knocked on doors; we talked to them in the park and at the local market. Over time weve adjusted to their needs; at their request we began an evening Mass that has become quite popular (it seems that younger people tend to be night owls). We still have our longer, vibrant Gospel Mass for the benefit of our traditional parishioners, some of whom have stayed in the neighborhood and others who have moved away but continue to attend Mass here on Sundays. This has been the second big sea-change in this parish and neighborhood. (The first one took place after World War II, when the neighborhood became solidly black.) Through it all, our parish stays and cares for whoever lives here.
That said, things are not nearly as good or strong as they should be in the Catholic Parishes of Capitol Hill. Not one of them has more than 1000 people in attendance on Sunday. The largest has just under 900; mine has 600; two of them have fewer than 200. Several of our schools have closed. Part of the reason for the smaller number of parishioners is that all these parishes were built before the advent of the automobile and thus are much closer to one another than is true in the suburbs. People in my neighborhood have three Catholic parishes within walking distance, with Masses offered at all sorts of different times, lowering the number in any one parish.
Yet, truth be told, all our Capitol Hill parishes were once much fuller. The parish schools were bursting with children and our rectories and convents were brimming. To some degree, the fact that all our parishes are still open is based on inertia from prior times. We were bigger than the Protestant congregations to begin with and so its taken longer to erode. The danger is that we are parking on someone elses dime; the fuel that those of the past left us is dwindling to mere fumes. The generation that built our parish churches was poorer than we are in a monetary sense but seemingly richer in faith. There was a time when more than 80 percent of Catholics went to Mass weekly. Today its only about 20 percent and the figure has been dropping by the year. The current scandal has surely not helped, but the problem is deeper, older, and wider than that. Despite the steep drop in attendance, it has often been business as usual; our focus seems to be institutional more so than Christological or eschatological.
The problem is not a local one in Capitol Hill. This steep decline has occurred throughout the Western world. A secular world has, by definition, a worldly focus and little time or thought for God. The Catholic Church has not always responded well to this.
There isnt the time to set up a complete scheme for evangelization, but as most of you who read here know, I think accommodation/watering down of the faith is precisely the wrong path. We must shine brightly in a world of increasing darkness. As Catholics and Catholic parishes, we are called to love everyone, but we must love them enough to tell them the truth. A fiery love for Christ that holds Him in awe and deeply respects His teachings must be combined with a true love for souls such that we strive to save them rather than merely pleasing them.
In a neighborhood with an increasing population, no church that was once full should close. We cannot simply blame demographics for decreasing numbers of parishioners. If every parishioner found one convert or returnee, the parish would double in size. Is that really so hard? What percentage of our parishioners can say they have ever gotten even one person to return to Church and the sacraments? Blaming demographics is a convenient excuse.
If secularism has swept in, we cannot simply lament it; we must accept the responsibility that it has happened on our watch. We must meet the challenge with fortitude and with the knowledge that the Lord built a worldwide Church with a cadre of leaders who hardly looked promising. He did it against all odds. He asks that we bring our five loaves and two fishes and promises to multiply the harvest of holiness and the numbers as well. His graces are not exhausted, and His mercies are not withheld if we but ask and act.
What are your five loaves and two fishes? What are your parishs five loaves and two fishes? Not one Catholic parish should close in a neighborhood where people still live. Even if the old-timers have moved on, there is still a harvest of human beings to bring in. The harvest is plentiful, so ask the Lord of the harvest, Lord, who is that one person in my family or among my friends to whom you are sending me? Show me, Lord, and I will go to work.
Monsignor Pope Ping!
The myth is that they can fill the pews again by importing Hispanics. I’ve got some bad news for those puppies. Ain’t gonna happen. That myth about the Hispos being family and church oriented is from the 40s an 50s. Those days are long gone. They only have kids these days for use as political props and golden tickets into the Land of the Big Pinata.
Gotta make room for all the new mosques.
Loss of faith in God, or abandonment of a corrupt ecclesiastical hierarchy?
The two are not the same Msgr Pope.
When the Mall and the Nanny State supply everything one could possibly want in life, there is no need for churches. Brutal, but true.
Creeping materialism leads to atheism.
I’ve heard that in some places, churches have been converted into mosques.
With decline in overall church attendance, it is sad that closing of churches will be inevitable.
I’ve also heard of church closings/consolidation of parishes , in an area of economic decline, where population has declined because people have moved away.
It’s a tough problem for many denominations.
It’s not something that makes up for all the closing churches but it should be noted that many churches are broadcasting on the web now. The attendance picture that we see is not all there is because some are still “attending” that way.
1Tim.4:1.....We are in Apostacy;the great falling away from the faith. Hold fast the faith, keep sound doctrine, be a good soldier for our Lord Jesus Christ unto the end. Look for His coming saints of God!
Yes, the mental default of a lot of people is secular. Technological marvels and miraculous cures are produced by science... and, in fact, man’s abundant generosity to peoples of the world is due, in great part, to science. The message in the Gospel of Luke — help the poor — is taken up by a predominantly secular mindset, as if, one can speculate, that God poured himself into the flesh of his people and removed himself from the scene so that they can accomplish his will. God has been allowing man more power to determine its destiny ever since he grant them the right to have kings in the Old Testament. God started off from afar on Mt Sinai in the OT and slowly came close to man. The closest he came was with Jesus. But then he slowly has moved away till we now have the secularism of our century. But he hasn’t left us and we experience grace, our source to the transcendence, and we either accept or reject him — and judging by our fruits, by our generosity to our fellow man, we have accepted him.
“Loss of faith in God, or abandonment of a corrupt ecclesiastical hierarchy?
The two are not the same Msgr Pope.”
So important a statement that I thought it bore repeating.
Yea, I work with several hispanic women. Yes, they are church oriented - if by "church oriented" you mean having out of wedlock babies with different fathers.
Thank you for posting this.
I’m afraid that the Catholic Church in the US will be experiencing closures on a grand scale in the near future. Current attempts on the part of bishops to move and protect assets is thinly veiled and will be pierced.
The Church will survive the loss of many of her buildings. What is sorrowful is to see many of these buildings, which were monuments to faith and hard work, lost to time. Perhaps it will spur those young faithful to find their architectural voice. One can pray.
My thought is that the Grim Reaper no longer harvests the very young as he used to, thanks to modern medicine, so the young people scoff, and deaths are relegated to “accidents”.
Families no longer have 10-15 children, knowing 2/3s would never reach adulthood. Today’s families are much smaller.
Still, death lurks at the door, too close for some of us.
I believe our country’s moral direction is dictated by our Commander in Chief. Since the days of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama- who both exhibited no moral character and instead embraced social perversion as the norm, our country’s moral compass has been adrift. Neither one of these “men” have ever shown grace, morality, or any other traits synonymous with great character. We are seeing the evidence now of having 8 years of “your country is not great, it is the cause of a lot of ills yada yada yada’ spewed from the lips of Obama and reinforced in every policy he ever endorsed. We have a younger generation that does not feel pride in our great country- which makes them less inclined to defend it and/or our founding principles. This creates a situation where what we have long fought for is easily discarded by our youth- and pilfered and destroyed by those who do not share our values or virtues. Spiritually, these two “men” have led the way far from churches and the important life lessons taught there. Instead of having the ideas of self-sacrifice for a better good instilled, we have the ideas of selfishness and all the heartaches that sin causes. Clinton and Obama did more damage to this country than many of us will ever realize. Donald Trump has done great things, and I thank God every day he is our President. He understands the importance of church and has started to show that side of a leader we have had lacking for so long. Prayerfully our citizens will follow him back to church and back to a better society.
I firmly believe this part of the essay identifies the major cause for so many churches and synagogues failing - As for the mainline (largely white) Protestant churches, I would argue that a collapse of faith has depleted them, at least collectively. Many of them ceased preaching the old time religion a long time ago, having largely assimilated to a post-Christian world and acclimated to the sexual revolution. Gone are the moral demands of the gospel, which have been replaced by a social gospel. Gone is the drama of salvation. Imho, perhaps 5 percent of people want or like or will tolerate a socialist church program. Most everyone else, EVEN IF COMMIE PINKO politically, want a meaningful / Biblical faith message in church/ synagogue. I further think that almost everybody at least sees through the socialist political liberal church propaganda as false - ( also as unnecessary and not helpful for them).
Well, when you have decades of the Left teaching kids that anything pertaining to religion is bad, except Islam. Islam is good. The one religion that tells its followers to kill, is the only good religion.
Then you have all scandals of the Roman Catholic church.
You have the Left blaming all that is evil in the world being caused by all things associated with Christianity, in all its forms.
What does anyone expect?
Years ago, Stars & Stripes had an article about the mosques in Baghdad. As things started to settle down toward the end of 2008, the imams were complaining that fewer and fewer people were attending. The young kids were just going about their business.
A practice within the priesthood vigorously denied by the laity until the whole cesspool collapsed. The enormity is still slowly sinking into the laity, and as Francis rapidly destroys the last lie which much of the laity clung to (namely the lie that the Pope lacked the power to directly intervene) then people are responding by leaving Catholicism.
That does not necessarily equate to abandoning faith in God, and a thorough housecleaning might bring them back.
Canonizing JP2 was a bad idea. He casually sent away all the victims of the clergy who approached him about the issue. Now Francis is using the papal authority which JP2 should have used to clean out the perverts (proving that the power existed all along) and is attempting to guide the Roman Catholics into communism.
Overall, it's a self made mess.
The presidency didn't cause this.
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