Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 16, 2014

'The old faithful'

Some area churches struggling to draw young people to their congregations

By Lindsey Ziliak
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Keith Martin watched his church congregation slowly dwindle to almost nothing.

He, the other board members and the pastor at Windfall Church of the Brethren felt powerless to stop the exodus.

Sixty years ago, the small country church thrived. More than 80 people called it their spiritual home.

There were two Sunday services and even a mid-week prayer service. Women’s groups volunteered in the community.

As the years passed, children in the congregation grew up and started their own families. When they did, they often left the church in favor of a bigger one with more programs for the kids, Martin said.

As more young couples and their children left, the church was forced to offer even fewer programs, making it that much harder to retain members and attract new ones.

It was a vicious cycle, he said. It's one that some area churches are becoming all too familiar with.

Tough decisions are ahead for some of those churches, which are struggling with declining membership. While older members are dying, young adults are often either choosing big, non-denominational churches or foregoing church altogether. Area churches are looking for new ways to minister to young people, in the hopes of sharing the good word, as well as saving their endangered faith.

For Martin and the other members of his congregation, though, the fight to save their church proved futile.

For 25 years, people continued to leave Windfall Church of the Brethren. By 2010, only 13 or 14 active members remained. Four of them were from Martin’s family.

His daughter played the piano during the Sunday service. His wife often gave their granddaughter private Sunday school lessons because she was the only child left in the congregation.

But still, they trudged forward, hoping they could somehow find a way to save their dying church.

They knew already, though, that the damage was likely too severe. The church was bleeding money, and something would have to happen soon. Unless there was a miracle, the church would close its doors.

“We knew it was coming,” Martin said. “We kept putting it off and putting it off.”

Then, one day, the board met and voted to officially shut the church down. There was no other choice, he said. They couldn’t afford to keep it open any longer.

Martin said he hopes the region's struggling churches never have to make the decision he did. It was indescribably difficult to cast that vote to disband his congregation.

He was baptized at Windfall Church of the Brethren when he was 10 years old. His parents went there. His children grew up there.

“It was rough,” he said. “When you go to one place all your life, and you see it closed… It’s a shame. That’s just the way it is.”

Martin said he went to two or three churches before finally finding a new spiritual home.

Arley Mitcham, the church’s pastor when it closed, said there are a lot of little, country churches in the area, and they’re all in trouble.

He said it’s hard to get people to travel to rural areas for services. The “old faithful” are the only ones who show up anymore, he said.

Martin didn’t disagree.

“It’s a shame that all the little churches are suffering,” he said. “They don’t have a chance anymore.”

RISE OF THE NONES

Judging by the experience of local real estate agents, things aren’t that bad yet. While they’ve seen decline in the area, they’ve also seen growth.

Paul Wyman and Kevin Hardie each estimated they’ve handled about 10 church sales in the last decade.

That’s a slight uptick from decades before, they say, but it’s not all bad news. Many of those churches were selling so they could buy a bigger building for an expanding congregation.

Nearly all the church buildings, they say, are sold to other churches looking for a new home.

Wyman said he hasn’t handled any sales for churches closing their doors altogether, and very few that were downsizing.

“Some are buying large commercial buildings and converting them to churches,” he said.

That may not be the case for long, if trends in religious affiliation for young people continue.

A Pew Research Study suggests that fewer young people today are searching for a church home. More and more are choosing not to attend church at all. The study calls it the rise of the “nones.”

The October 2012 study said the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. Twenty percent of the U.S. public and a third of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated — the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

According to the study, they overwhelmingly think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

“The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans — sometimes called the rise of the ‘nones’ — is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones,” the study states. “A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older. And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.”

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean these people don’t believe in God at all.

A survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” found that many of the 46 million unaffiliated adults in the United States are religious or spiritual in some way.

Two-thirds say they believe in God, and 21 percent say they pray every day. A third classify themselves as spiritual but not religious.

MAINLINE DENOMINATIONS STRUGGLING

The young people who are attending services in the region are heading to non-denominational churches like Crossroads Christian Church, Oakbrook Church and Abundant Life Church where there are already large populations of young people who have created a “synergy” of sorts, said Main Street United Methodist Church Pastor Nancy Blevins.

All mainline denominations are facing a decline in that 18 to 35 demographic, no matter where they're located, she said.

Her church, at 830 S. Main St., Kokomo, still struggles to bring in new members, even though it is nestled in downtown.

While average daily attendance for the Methodist churches in Kokomo is up a little, the congregations are aging quickly.

Blevins said she has 30 members who are over the age of 85 and many more who are at least 70. Last year, she led funerals for 22 members.

The church is finding it hard to fill the gap with younger people, as they continue to follow their peers to bigger churches.

Blevins understands that.

She attended a large church with 2,500 people when she was young.

Now she leads a church that draws in about 200 people for services each weekend.

“We don’t have a lot of people," she said.

BEYOND THE PEWS

The challenge now is to find new ways to minister to the people who may not show up for a Sunday service. Churches have to think outside the box.

“The days of being raised in the church are gone,” Blevins said.

Blevins turned the neighborhood around her church into a Neighborhood of Hope with the help of Pastor Jeff Newton, also executive director at Kokomo Urban Outreach.

She’s trying to engage her community as much as she can.

On Sunday nights, she hosts community meals at the church. It started with a hot dog cookout that brought in 17 people. Now, anywhere from 55 to 75 people come for meals weekly.

They also have crafts and games for children.

The people it brings in are all different, both socially and economically, she said.

Some of them ultimately choose to become members of the church. At least eight people have joined since coming to the meals.

Some are in that 18 to 35 demographic.

It’s not enough to make a huge difference if you’re crunching numbers, Blevins said. But to her, it’s a victory.

“It’s not just about numbers on a page,” she said.

Blevins said because there aren’t 1,000 members in her flock, she knows most of them personally. They’re like family.

That’s what drew one young man to her church, she said. He felt bullied and ostracized at his previous church home but was welcomed at Main Street.

“The big churches may speak to the volumes,” she said. “But this young man felt safe here.”

The ultimate goal is to reach people and deliver the word of God to them. Sometimes that’s in the pews at church, and sometimes that’s out in the street.

If church attendance dwindles further, Blevins said her congregation will have to find new ways to minister to people.

She will never stop delivering the good news, though.

“The pathway may just look a little different,” she said.

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune Life & Style editor, can be reached at 765-454-8585, at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @LindseyZiliak.