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Stark Spiritual Extremes: As Some Churches Die, New Life Is Born


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WASHINGTON – While the immediate strain of the global economic slowdown is felt financially, its impact also reaches into the realm of the spiritual – evidenced in the decline of America's churches and other houses of worship.

Studies consistently show the benefits of church attendance for people of faith on their emotional and relational health. Despite the positive outcomes, 4,500 Protestant churches closed in 2019 according to the latest data available from Lifeway Research. That number far outpaces the 3,000 churches that launched in the same time span.

Those statistics underscore a major shift in society.

"People used to go to church because that was the thing you did if you were a good person, and now they don't anymore," said veteran religion reporter Bob Smietana who writes for Religion News Service.

Americans Losing Their Religion

The decades-long decline reflects a new religious landscape due to changing demographics and evolving cultural values, where over the last 20 years most Americans no longer belong to a church, according to a Gallup survey.

That dramatic dip coincides with a drop in median weekly attendance falling to 65 people. In 2000, that number hovered comfortably above the century mark: 137.

Smietana examines the phenomenon in his book Reorganized Religion, in which he paints a picture of how American society arrived at this point. He also offers potential paths forward.

"Churches were built for a different time than we're in now, and it doesn't mean that you have to change your beliefs," he told CBN News. "But it does mean you have to say, how do we adapt in this world?"

What's Fueling the Trend?

He writes that it can be easy for struggling churches to blame themselves, even though a variety of factors fuel the trend.

"When a church declines, sometimes people think, 'This is my fault. If I'd had a better pastor, or if we had different music?'" he explained. "Even if you'd done everything perfectly, this kind of decline would happen because [of] these kind of demographic forces."

COVID-era lockdowns during the initial stage of the pandemic only worsened the trajectory. Many congregations are still trying to make up for fallen attendance and giving.

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Smietana argues church closures create a void felt well beyond a local congregation, highlighting how churches benefit society through their charitable works and disaster relief—in addition to the moral instruction of their adherents. He warns those benefits disappear when churches shutter their doors.

A Path Forward

The book includes various examples of churches on the brink of closure making unexpected choices, like merging with other houses of worship or ceding the reins of leadership to another pastor and congregation.

He writes about two Seattle congregations – one aging and on the verge of closure and the other a newer multi-ethnic upstart – deciding to become one church, with the older, Interbay Covenant, yielding to the vision, call, and leadership of the younger, Quest Church:

"Interbay had to die for its ministry to live on—a process Ray Bartel [then pastor of Interbay] compared to a saying of Jesus: 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit' (John 12:24 RSV)." – from Smietana's Reorganized Religion.

These choices highlight very difficult circumstances in which some congregations are forced to reimagine their call to serve communities that no longer look the same as when their churches started.

"Instead of saying you can come join our church, they said what if we join their church?" Smietana explained. "They have a continued ministry because this church said there's something bigger than just us and our survival."

A Story of Survival

All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna, Tennessee faced a similar future but was spared the prospect of closing when a lifeline appeared on its doorstep.

"A bunch of refugees show up, and that group of people showed up [and] saved that church," Smietana explained. "It wasn't the future they thought they'd have, but it's a future. That was possible because even in difficult times, they kept going."

The story of how Karen refugees – a persecuted ethnic minority from Burma – found a home and breathed new life into All Saints was portrayed in a 2017 film by the same name. Today, they make up the majority of the congregation, although the small-town church had to adapt, learning each other's customs, culture, and language. 

"I'm blessed, because not many congregations our size have this type of demographic," said Robert Rhea, pastor of All Saints.

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More than 15 years later, the doors of All Saints are still open. It even shares its physical space with another smaller church. While Rhea is grateful, he holds a sobering perspective that takes into account the long arc of the beginnings of the early Christian church.

"Churches closed all the time throughout Christian history," he said. "Can we find some of the churches Saint Paul founded in Eastern Europe and Rome? Can you find the exact congregation that has that linked heritage? I don't think you can."

"We've got to remember the church are the people of God, the buildings are buildings," Rhea added.

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About The Author

John Jessup

John Jessup serves as the main news anchor for CBN, based at the network's news bureau in Washington, D.C. He joined CBN News in September 2003, starting as a national correspondent and then covering the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. His work in broadcast news has earned him several awards in reporting, producing, and coordinating election coverage. While at CBN, John has reported from several places, including Moore, Oklahoma, after the historic EF5 tornado and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. He also traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during the height