Millions of Americans will find themselves in churches this Christmas season, including here in East Lansing. However, according to journalist Jake Meador for The Atlantic, 40 million Christian Americans have stopped attending church over the last 25 years.
Meador’s July 29 article, “The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church,” is one of many in the publication over the last year exploring the decline of church attendance and attempting to ascertain the reasons why.
ELi spoke with nine clergy of East Lansing Christian churches to inquire if they are experiencing similar changes and how the COVID 19 pandemic changed the church. (We contacted Catholic Church officials but could not reach them in time for interviews.)
Switching to online worship was a challenge during the pandemic.
“It was kind of like assembling a plane mid-flight,” the Rev. Brent Wassink, lead pastor of River Terrace Church at 1509 E. River Terrace Drive, said of the need to switch to online worship. “We just hadn’t done much of that before.”
The Rev. John Bell, pastor of Crossway Multinational Church at 4828 S. Hagadorn Road, felt he was better prepared after working as an instructor at Michigan State University (MSU).
“My work at MSU was educational technology and I studied learning environments where some of the people were physically present and some of the people were virtually present,” Bell said. “I was well prepared for it. Before the full shutdown [in March 2020], I was exposed [to the virus] and had to isolate. So I preached a sermon while everyone was in the building and I was at home. We used Zoom. But then we did make the shift to being entirely on Zoom and used breakout rooms and all sorts of interesting set-ups, pre-recorded music so it would work online.”
Bell, like all of the clergy ELi spoke with, has continued utilizing streaming technology.
“We remember that online people are there,” he said. “When I preach, I reply to online people in the Zoom. So even this last Sunday, the person doing the greeting greeted each new person in the Zoom by name, even though she was physically present and greeting the people in the room, too. We see it as something we won’t stop doing, because we have some people, for health reasons, who cannot be there. Some people, because of geographic location. We had some people at home over break in Korea joining the worship service from Korea. We find it [is] a really valuable tool.”
The Rev. Zachary Pope, minister of the Greater Lansing Church of Christ at 310 N. Hagadorn Road, said his church has some members who like the virtual service and haven’t come back in-person.
“When we resumed our in-person worship, we see the value and need of an in-person option,” Pope said. “But we have some that still value virtual. Our church has got to adapt as our society and culture does.“
Church leaders worried about finances during COVID, but parishioners were generous.
The pandemic also caused clergy to worry that financial support would dry up.
“We were very afraid of that,” said the Rev. Curt Dwyer, lead pastor of Martin Luther Chapel at 444 Abbot Road. “And we had long conversations back in April, May, June 2020 that we were afraid that all of a sudden we would be really short of cash. And I was pleasantly surprised just how faithful our congregation was in continuing their gifts. Many of our folks had already set up electronic donations, but others literally started mailing in a check each month. We didn’t face immediate financial catastrophe like we thought we were going to.”
“Everyone surprised me,” said the Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe, pastor of The Peoples Church at 200 W. Grand River Ave. “People were incredibly generous during the pandemic. We actually experienced, in terms of our normal giving, above and beyond. I want to say it was like 10 to 15 percent above. People saw that it was sort of an emergency time.”
East Lansing faith leaders agree Sunday morning worship is no longer sacrosanct.
The Atlantic articles also paint the picture of the modern American 30-something as being dominated by career ambitions and commitments to family. Nearly all the East Lansing ministers ELi spoke with found the description familiar.
“People just feel so over-programmed and so demanded for time that church is what ends up going,” said the Rev. Bryan Schneider-Thomas, interim pastor of University Lutheran Church at 1020 S. Harrison Road. “I think the example the author gave is spot on. You’ve been going to church but life is so busy that when a friend reaches out to reconnect, the only time available is Sunday morning. So you go and you miss a few times and it just becomes easier to stop going.”
Monroe said the schedule for Americans these days is no longer built around a Christian worship calendar.
“Sunday mornings are no longer sacrosanct,” she said. “There are soccer practices and hockey games at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I’m sorry that we have surrendered making time for a robust faith life, whatever faith that is. But that’s the reality.”
People think their professional careers will provide fulfillment.
Bell spoke about the appeal of finding fulfillment in one’s professional life, although that is not always the reality.
“That career space makes a lot of promises and usually it doesn’t fulfill on those promises,” he said. “It says you’ll find a lot of meaning here. You’ll find community here. And sometimes that is true. But often, even in my own experience, it failed to really live up to that promise unless I was a perfect employee. So I struggled being as successful as I wanted to be in the academic world. I struggled managing my own understanding of my identity in that space and I didn’t find it to be a space that was designed around the enrichment of me. It was designed around the enrichment of the university.”
“I would say to my students that there are first order and second order questions in life,” Bell said. “First order questions are what’s the meaning of life, what happens when I die, what am I going to do when I get a terminal illness. Second order questions are: am I making as much money as I want to, do I like my career, do I like my roommates, is my marriage a good marriage, those types of things. The concern comes when we try to answer first order questions with second order answers. Those answers aren’t strong enough to answer the first order questions. But we’re not pressed on answering those first order questions until a crisis hits. What I said to my students is also a core to what we believe as a church, these first order questions are the most important ones, more fundamental than all the others. And this is a place where we make this a priority, figuring out who are we, why are we here, and what hope is there?”
Some East Lansing congregations are growing, not shrinking. But the boomers are still staying away.
Despite the demands on modern life, several clergy report growing, not shrinking, congregations, bucking the national trend reported in The Atlantic.
“People ask me why are there so many young people,” said the Rev. Melanie Carey, pastor at University United Methodist Church at 1120 S. Harrison Road. “I think our community trends younger than others because of the university and because of other places in Michigan like metro Detroit and Washtenaw County, housing is a bit more affordable here. What we’re seeing is there’s a lot of millennial and Gen Z folks moving to this area with jobs and then deciding they want to come to a church where they feel they can contribute and live their values and are interested in a church concerned about social justice, and inclusion, and caring about climate change. “
“We’ve actually received 35 new members in the last year which is significantly larger than they’ve received in past years,” Carey said. “Churches are either doing really well or they’re not doing well.”
Carey also theorized that the Feb. 13 shooting at MSU has brought some into the church.
“After the shooting at MSU,” she said, “we saw a number of people decide they wanted to come to church. And they’re still here. It wasn’t just an ‘I’m coming once and I won’t be here after that.’ It was an ‘I’ve decided I need to do something different in my life.’”
But the growth hasn’t appeared to be widespread among all ages.
“The people who did not return to church after the pandemic shut down part was over were baby boomers,” Carey said. “We see that. Our boomer generation, we have a number of people in that generation that were really faithful attenders who don’t attend anymore. And that’s another reason why some churches are struggling. The boomers are the ones who, compared to the millennials and Gen Xers, were very faithful givers. Not saying other groups aren’t, but their disposable income is greater. Financially, I think that’s really hurting churches.”
The Rev. Kamron Oberlin, lead pastor of Greater Lansing First at 2717 West Road, agrees.
“A lot of the people who came to church out of tradition,” he said, “they just felt like they had to because it was expected, a lot of those people quit going to church. But what we’ve seen is a growth of people coming to church out of a love for God and an actual passion for what the church should be about. So I believe it’s actually benefited the church in some ways.”
Churches are getting innovative in ways to attract busy professionals and families.
Attracting busy, young professionals and families is only the first step in building a vibrant church community, the clergy agree. Encouraging them to engage with church life has taken innovation and new practices.
“Yes [they’re showing up],” Carey said. “But unlike the previous generations, they’re much more, ‘these are the things I can do. This is the time I have.’ So we’ve had to change our offerings and make sure that we’re engaging in ways that make sense for those generations. And we’ve had to talk to our older generations and say, for example, our older generations really love to have meetings in person and they say, ‘I don’t like to be on Zoom, I don’t want to do that.’ So I had to convince them that everything we do needs to be hybrid.
“If you want people under the age of 50 to be part of these committees and groups, the meetings need to be available both online and in person,” she said. “So I got them to agree to get a Meeting Owl and that all of our meeting rooms are equipped with screens and all of our study classes are hybrids. They thought everyone should come to the church for a meeting. But that’s not going to happen. So when we offer hybrid, they’re there. And they do come out for other things, too. But they have to feel that they’re genuinely being asked to contribute. Not just, we want you there but we want you to do it the way we’ve done it.”
The younger generation approaches life differently and churches are having to adjust.
“How do you welcome a younger generation that has a very different way of living?” Monroe asked. “One of the first things you do is you adjust to the fact that nobody wants to be part of a committee under 45. They just don’t. But that doesn’t mean they don’t wanna do stuff. They just organize it differently.”
“We are asking people to do more short-term stints,” the Rev. Kristin Stroble, pastor at Eastminster Presbyterian Church at 1315 Abbot Road, said, “like will you help with this one particular lunch on this date? And that’s all you’re committing to, we promise, instead of saying, will you go on a committee and serve in perpetuity and go to meetings once a month. People aren’t going to do that stuff any more.”
“We define what the ask is,” Wassink said. “If you sign up for a small group, you don’t sign up for life. Or if you’re asked to complete a single task, there’s an end in sight. Sometimes when people started doing something, they were still doing it 30 years later. And people know that. And if you aren’t clear with what you’re asking, they’ll think it will continue like that.”
What is the future of congregations and Christian practice?
But while East Lansing churches seem to be strong and even growing in some respects, can they evade the national trends forever? ELi asked our nine ministers what they saw as the future of their congregation and Christian practice itself?
“The church will continue, the big C,” Wassink said with confidence. “Just how it will look, well, that’s above my paygrade. I just see, in our church, young families coming on board and people saying this matters and it helps us walk with God and live the life Jesus had in mind for us, and that’s not going away.”
“That’s the $50 million dollar question,” Schneider-Thomas said. “And I have to say, I love in the sense that we need to be asking it. But I have to confess that it scares the daylights out of me. I think we are in a period of transition and we won’t be the same in 50 years. What we will be, we won’t have a way of predicting. I don’t know if we’ll move to more of a house-church or congregations will merge, whether we branch out and do the hard work of engaging people in different ways. I think it might include all of that. If I’m forced to give an answer, it will be congregations forced to do the work and come up with something that works for them and that we don’t have a recipe for all of Christendom.”
“I think people still need a way to make sense of everything,” Dwyer said, “a way to understand the world. And they still need community. And a congregation, a Christian congregation, affords both ways, to see the world for what it is, broken and flawed, and what it could be and can be and – what I believe – will be in time, and to see our place in it. And to bring together a group of people who may or may not be the same as you, but are on the same path. Here at Martin Luther, we have folks who have widely different political beliefs or perspectives but who are united in the desire to better understand the world, their place in it and with other people.
“I am convinced that the church in the sense of the community of people who have this relationship with God through Jesus Christ, it will exist and it will thrive,” Bell said. “Will our church survive? I have no idea. Will church look fundamentally different? I have no idea.”
“I am not sure if the Presbyterian Church USA as it is will be around in the next 50 years,” Strobble said. “I think the church will be in some shape and form. I think the church will always be present. I think it’s going to look less institutional and I’m OK with that.”
“I hope so,” Carey added wistfully. “None of us know for sure, but I hope so. We talk about that a lot, yes. Pastors think about that. We talk about the things we can do now to shore up things for the future.
“However, I think we always have to be careful that we’re not just trying to preserve the institution or the church because then it’s inauthentic and we’re just trying to preserve ourselves,” Carey said. “We’re living in a transition time in the church and we have to just go with it and understand that we have to change and we have to see what’s working and go with that. People are still really hungry and expressions that are authentic and genuine.”
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