Sometimes the biggest news stories are sitting right out there in the open where everyone can see them. But that’s the problem. There are trends that are so big that we can’t see them. This makes the big story hard to write because it is hard to pick one piece of it and get it into a newspaper.
So here is a big shout out for reporter Tom Breen of the Associated Press, who locked in on a set of churches in West Virginia and — in a short format — used that snapshot to stand for a big-picture story on the American religion scene. The story? The struggle that small-town churches face keeping their doors open in the age of (a) the fading of America’s old, old mainline Protestant churches and (b) the growth of the whole megachurch ethos in evangelical and charismatic Protestant life.
Breen starts in West Virginia, but quickly expands the scope:
It’s an idyllic setting for Sunday worship: a small, white church on the slope of a gentle hill. Outside the sanctuary, two dogs lie in the shade.
The only problem is that there are just 20 worshippers inside, a situation that’s become common in rural America as small churches struggle with dwindling memberships, aging congregations and less money to keep the lights on, let alone to pay full-time salary and benefits to a minister.
Across the denominational spectrum, rural churches are trying a variety of approaches to the challenge. Some are focusing on recruiting full-time ministers to rural towns. Others are adopting the style of suburban megachurches to attract those who might not normally attend services. Some are holding fast to the traditions of their forebears.
About 52 percent of American churches are in rural areas. Yet more than half of weekly churchgoers attend services in places that are among the most populous 10 percent of congregations, according to the Hartford Institute on Religion Research. That leaves some of the estimated 177,000 rural churches scattered across the country with as few as two regular worshippers.
The emphasis here is on the United Methodist Church because, as anyone knows who regularly drives two-lane highways, the Methodists once dominated middle America and mainstream religion. Now, all of those churches are part of the demographics of an aging, urban, progressive denomination. The result is a lot of pain in small towns.
The story ends, however, with a strange twist — a Baptist who took a tiny church and turned it into a rural megachurch, with nearly 2,000 people. Where did all those people come from? I would assume from other nearby churches that now stuggle to compete with the big show.
There are all kinds of stories that grow out of these small-town, small-church realities. Here are three that I saw firsthand, back on the beat in Colorado — a state with a tremendous urban vs. small-town divide.
• Breen briefly touches on the drive to find laity to lead small rural parishes. The Catholic priest shortage is, of course, putting the Church in a double-bind in large cities and the situation is even tougher out in the small towns. How many priests can the typical bishop spare to ride the circuits in these small parishes? How tough does this make the life of a priest? What happens to the rites that connect priest to people, such as confession?
• What happens to the small churches that are closed? To the precious treasures at the altars? What about the cemeteries? The gifts that families have, for generations, given to these now-shuttered churches? Or what if the churches are sold and they turn into, oh, shops, bed and breakfasts, restaurants? Do you simply sell all that history?
• In Colorado, I thought it was interesting that — in the liberal churches — so many of the ordained women ended up in these small, fading rural parishes. The huge suburban and urban churches (or those that were once huge) tended to be led by men. Interesting, huh? The rural churches, by the way, tended to be more conservative, creating an interesting dynamic with the ordained women. Once again, check the United Methodist churches first, since there are so many of them.
I am sure that I am only scratching the surface on the stories that are linked to this small-town, small-church story. Again, here is a salute to Breen for taking the first step. I hope the Associated Press follows up on this.