Monday, July 9, 2018

The unchurching of America

Yesterday, Jean Hopensperger wrote an article in the Star Trbune about the decline of churches called, “As Churches Close, a Way of Life Fades.” (  Underneath the main headline was a smaller note that this is the first in an occasional series.
The article was popular.  It was the most-read article on the Star Tribune’s web site and generated over 700 comments with many more comments being added.
In the article Hopensperger shared the story of La Salle Lutheran Church who will be closing in August.  She also shared statistics about the decline of Mainline Protestant churches. The Evangelical Lutheran in America has lost almost 200,000 members since 2000 and about 150 churches have closed.  The United Methodist Church has closed 65 churches in Minnesota in the same time period.  As a PC(USA) pastor I remember when 28,000 people were part of the Twin Cities Area Presbytery. Today the Presbytery has approximately 16,000 members.

It is a tough time for the mainline church.

The religious landscape in the United States is changing.  According to the Pew Research Center 27 percent of Americans saw themselves as spiritual and not religious in 2017 compared to nineteen percent in 2012. (

As someone who helped redevelop a Presbyterian church and who started a new Presbyterian church virtually from scratch, I live and breathe the question(s) of how to build a church ministry from a mainline perspective that is appealing to the wider community.

Do I think it is possible to build a growing, vibrant, mainline congregation in 2018?  Of course I do!   I’ve seen it happen in the two contexts I’ve served.  And more importantly God hasn’t changed in the last 18 years; the stories of Jesus haven’t changed in the last 18 years; the possibility of individuals and the wider community having their lives transformed in the last 18 years haven’t changed either.  

I don’t think that the path to building a growing, vibrant, mainline congregation is easy. And the ways to do this are many. 

I do believe that one essential way to growth is to adapt continuously.

What is ironic to me about the article in yesterday’s paper is it was placed directly above an article entitled, “Theaters find more ways to keep you glued to your seat?” ( The article went on to say that movie theaters and Hollywood studios are having a near-record year. One sentence from this article has stuck with me. “From the seats to the food and drinks, theater owners are splurging to add the amenities to remain appealing to people who can now see movies virtually anywhere, even on their phones.”

Movie theater owners are adapting. From reclining seats to new food & drink options to subscription pricing to new projection systems. Theater owners are making changes.

Mainline churches have to adapt too.   

Is adaptation easy? Of course not. It leads church leaders to ask hard questions about making changes, about what is important to the culture and what traditions (if any) are important to keep.

But to ask a new person to walk into a church community and encounter something that hasn’t changed in 18 years won’t work (for the most part) in bringing that person back. I do believe that churches who continually ask themselves the questions, “what’s working, what’s not working, and how can we adapt” will have the possibility of experiencing success.

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Kathy Brevig said...

Did a doubletake when you mentioned subscription pricing for movies at theaters - my son just asked me to sign up for the $20/month AMC program that he signed up for.

I'm glad Chain of Lakes has a pastor who is open to trying new things while also maintaining certain traditions.

Sandy Crum said...

Well written, Paul. We are in the middle of a new member class and always stress the importance of change while keeping the main reason that we worship. Yes, adaptation must be essential in the life of the church.