As congregation sizes dip, local religious leaders talk causes, solutions

Tony Casey • May 17, 2014 at 10:32 PM

Next time you’re at your chosen place of worship, look around and estimate whether there are more people or fewer present than the previous year.

Representatives from different denominations around Johnson City think either the people who used to fill those seats have moved to another place of worship or just stopped attending all together and gave a variety of reasons that may be the case.

Recent numbers from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center showed that between 2003 and 2013 the number of people who seldom or never attend worship services increased from 25 percent to 29 percent.

John Shuck, minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton and host of Religion For Life, a weekly radio show on local National Public Radio stations WETS and WEHC, thinks Christianity and religion should be on the defensive as to why attendance numbers are declining.

Shuck says the fix for dropping numbers can’t be solved by style, but rather with substance and that the bigger questions might frighten leaders of other denominations out of talking about it, but that it’s a conversation he welcomes and wishes others would.

“You aren’t going to fix it by playing soft hits of the ’80s,” Shuck said. “The bigger question is, ‘Is faith credible any longer?’ I think it’s a bigger question than just getting people back.”

When Shuck joined the Presbyterian church in the 1980s, he said, the number of members was at 3 million, and since he has seen that number drop by about 1 million. His church in Elizabethton is “holding its own” in attendance, which he says means they aren’t losing members as quickly as other churches across the region. One issue he sees with churches is that they’re being shaped by a corporate model and the result is shown in the numbers.

Shuck believes the substance of the message of churches is going to be important moving forward and that many people, especially in the younger generations are looking for more of an emphasis on community, social justice and proper science compared with dogma.

“Science is showing us these incredible things, and religion is showing us the same thing it showed us in the 17th century,” Shuck said.

This big conversation will lead to the bigger and more important questions that always seek to be answered, he said.

“We have a vital need to find out what it is to be a human being,” Shuck said.

Douglas Grove-DeJarnett, minister of Music and Congregational Life at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church, said, like Shuck’s flock, his is holding steady in the sense that they’re keeping steady at around 1,900 active members, though numbers have steadily grown over the years. He attributes the growth to the way the message is delivered and that Munsey is able to offer a personal experience to members through different programs and a variety of services offered on Sundays.

Grove-DeJarnett acknowledges that nationwide numbers are declining for major denominations but that his church is different from megachurches in that it’s easier to personalize the message.

“People want to be known and to be involved,” he said. “Larger megachurches have to work at it harder to give that personal experience.”

For Grove-DeJarnett, it is style over substance, saying that the new members who are replacing members are attending contemporary services and traditional services equally.

Dr. Keith Green, associate professor of philosophy in ETSU, would agree, at least to certain extend, that people from certain religious backgrounds might leave or look elsewhere based on beliefs held by congregates or the churches as a whole. An example Green gave was the Episcopal Church’s change of deciding to allow liturgy to bless same-sex marriages in 2012, which resulted in the lose of members, who frequently didn’t stop going to church all together, but moved to another church that better suited their beliefs.

“Those people tend to go to the Roman Catholic Church,” Green said about the exodus of Episcopal Church members.

According to data from The Association of Religion Data, which collected numbers for Washington County, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) made gains of from 2000-2010 in the way of a 100 percent gain. Those gains appeared to have come with losses from, like Shuck and Green said, the Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, who lost 34, 15.6 and 11.8 percent, respectively. At the same time, Catholics increased numbers by 41.3 percent in the 10-year period.

Jacqueline Luck of the Holston Valley Universalist Unitarian Church might be making gains where others are charting losses in terms of members. She takes pride in drawing in the “nones,” or people who don’t identify with other religion, a group which the Pew Research Center has shown to be growing. A 2012 study showed that the number of unaffiliated U.S. adults went from 15 to 20 percent since 2007. This group would include those who left churches, atheists and agnostics.

In Tennessee, the number of religiously unaffiliated was last logged at nine percent, lower in comparison to the other states and U.S. territories, coming in at 46 of 56.

“We’re bringing in people who’ve never gone to church,” Luck said, referring to those as “unchurched.”

She says at their church it’s not as much “god talk” as it is general positive spirituality.

One thing Luck boasts about is being a welcoming congregation, opening its doors to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. She says everyone assumes that means they’ll accept everyone, but that’s not the case. There’s one standard that needs to be met by those who come through the doors.

“We welcome anyone who comes in the spirit of love,” Luck said.

Contrary to the belief that all who attend her church, Luck said they have people all across the political spectrum, but joked that they are a bunch of “tree huggers,” which has been evident in recent weeks with the changing weather.

“We can’t compete with mother nature,” Luck said of less Sunday attendance numbers since the seasons changed.

The nones that Luck speaks about are not something new, Green contends, pointing to ethical societies and groups of freethinkers that formed at the turn of the 20th century. While “atheist churches” might be catching headlines, Green said, the practice is just part of a cycle.

“It’s an older pattern that’s playing out again,” Green said.

The strength of what he calls the “mainline” Protestant churches has been dwindling in the last few decades, often with evangelicals, moving to non-denominational Christian churches. Green calls these the “emergent church.”

Race, the roles of women and other hot-button issues often lead to a change in a person’s membership, he said, but it’s very difficult to make generalizations about the entire topic, because it frequently depends on from where a church member is coming to know where he’s going if he decides to leave.

Something that’s changed in the last year in the Catholic Church has been a new leader in Pope Francis. St. Mary’s Pastor Peter Iorio says his church holds steady at about 2,500 people and that part of the success of the church can be attributed to the new Pope’s popularity. Recently, his comments on homosexuality, non-believers, income distribution and other social topics have shaken up the church, but, like the St. Mary’s numbers, the Catholic Church, worldwide, has held steady at around 22 percent in U.S. adults, according to the Pew Research Center.

Iorio, who’s been at the church for almost three years, says the message is always putting faith into action and this is something he thinks keeps people coming back. He says there are new opportunities for Catholic churches in more rural areas, like a recent group in Erwin that has somewhat taken people out of St. Mary’s pews. Whether they’re leaving St. Mary’s, leaving the Catholic Church, or leaving religion in general, Iorio admits he does wonder what it is that they’re looking for that St. Mary’s isn’t providing, but says it’s all out of his hands.

“It’s not in my control,” Iorio said. “God is the one under control.”

Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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