Mainline killed the local church star — paper blinks

The death of a congregation is never pleasant, and the closure of the West Side Presbyterian Church in Englewood, New Jersey was no exception. Sunday, Nov. 3, was to see a final worship service at the 117-year-old congregation.

According to The Bergen (N.J.) Record, simple demographics are to blame:

“It’s going to be a good farewell,” said Bob Ryder, president of board of trustees for the Presbytery of the Palisades, which oversees nearly 50 Presbyterian churches in North Jersey.

West Side’s closure is part of a national demographic shift away from mainline Protestant churches. Suburban communities such as Englewood, where Protestants were once the dominant group, have seen an influx of Hispanics, who are more likely to be Catholic, Asian immigrants, who belong to different faiths, and Orthodox Jewish families.

Another factor is that an increasing percentage of people are not joining any church. About one-fifth of Americans and one-third of those under 30 are religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

In the Presbyterian denomination alone, 86 churches disbanded last year after national membership dropped by more than 100,000 from 2011 to 2012, according to Presbyterian Church USA. The Presbytery of the Palisades has closed five churches in the past 10 years, including two in Hackensack and one each in Garfield and Edgewater, Ryder said.

Now, it’s entirely possible that shifting demographics and the “rise of the nones” that caused the closure of five churches in the Presbytery of the Palisades. It’s possible, but I have to wonder if the 2011 actions of the PCUSA’s General Assembly, among other moves away from historic Presbyterian positions, might have had something to do with the departures as well. Surely not all 86 PCUSA congregations disbanded over demographics alone, did they?

We get only that demographic logic from the story, but as Godbeat veteran Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal notes:

The accelerated exit of congregations came as Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations were authorized to ordain non-celibate gay ministers in 2011, a change in the church constitution that came after decades of debate. The departure of congregations had begun even before that change, however, amid growing conservative alienation over liberal trends in theology and sexuality.

I mention this not to chide The Bergen Record per se, but to suggest that there may have been other reasons than shifting populations for the Jersey bounce away from the PCUSA.

A bit of questioning might have helped here? If the reporter was savvy enough to find the statistic about the “nones,” presumably someone in the newsroom could have dug around overall trends in this oldline denomination, giving readers perhaps a more complete picture of the situation. Could they not have spoken with, say, some of the members who have not attended the church for the “20 Sundays” the edifice has been closed? Are there no church experts to consult?

It’s also worth noting that the newspaper account spent a fair amount of space on all the community-based activities in which the congregation was engaged. Not much here about, well, preaching a Christian message, spiritual formation or discipleship. In other words, religious and doctrinal issues are not linked to the rise and fall of congregations and denominations.

However:

West Side had about 150 members when the Rev. Bruce Baker became pastor in 1982. He described the church during his 15-year tenure as “a really exciting place” that reflected the diversity of Englewood.

“There were 15 nations of birth represented in the congregation — Germany, Hungary, Scotland, El Salvador, Colombia, China, India, Pakistan, Cameroon — there was just this crazy, wild mix of people,” he said.

During Baker’s tenure, the church took an activist role in the community. With the church’s support, the Center for Food Action moved out of West Side’s basement into its own free-standing structure on church property in 1993.

West Side — which, the paper said, never had more than 150 congregants on the books — also operated a thrift shop for a time, and leased space to both a daycare center and a private school serving children ages 3 to 13. Both groups, and the food bank, hope to keep leasing space from whomever takes over the property, which is valued at $2.2 million. According to the report, “Korean, Japanese and Seventh-day Adventist” congregations are interested.

Something tells me those three congregations may be a tad more conservative, theologically, than the one that closed its doors for the last time “two days after All Saints Day.” That’s my observation. The journalists on the ground needed to ask the hard questions.

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About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Darren Blair

    There are several Korean congregations near where I live, and at least one of them is officially Baptist; I think the others are either independent or Methodist.

    If this split holds true elsewhere, then I’d say that a potential Korean congregation just might, indeed, be more conservative.

  • Matt

    “Suburban communities such as Englewood, where Protestants were once the
    dominant group, have seen an influx of Hispanics, who are more likely to
    be Catholic, Asian immigrants, who belong to different faiths, and
    Orthodox Jewish families.”

    So much unverified hand-waving there! Protestantism is on the rise among Hispanics, and over 10% of the population of South Korea is in fact Presbyterian.

    I don’t know how much the 2011 PCUSA decision is specifically important in the larger demographics. As Tmatt is fond of saying in the Anglican context, that is only the latest step in a doctrinal shift that has been going on for decades. The article would have done better to put this congregation’s closing in the context of the larger dwindling of mainline denominations.

    • JoFro

      My exact thoughts! The cliche that Hispanics are Catholics in the US is not really true as such. A huge number of Hispanics go to evangelical churches now, some attending both evangelical and Catholic churches. And Asians, especially South Korean communities in the US, happen to be solidly Christian, theologically speaking!

  • geoffrobinson

    If you really want to show something, contrast the PC(USA) with the conservative PCA and OPC and compare their growth trends.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    It is rare to read articles on similar topics that delve into doctrinal or moral reasons for the collapse of a denomination or individual parishes. But maybe the real reason some parishes disintegrate is they treat their charitable work as more important than their worship -prayer life. So, maybe the media should spend more energy in analyzing this situation.
    Yet people are more likely to join (and stay with) a genuinely worshipping Christian community. They know they can always exercise their Christian charitable duties through other organizations. But there is no place else other than church where God can be fully worshipped and regarded as being the creator and center of all that exists.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Truly separate church and state, and probably support for both would grow.


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