“Where have the people gone? »

One of the most difficult questions to answer when pursuing the story of closed churches is, “Where did the people go?”

Click for more information on this series.

Find “Where Have All the Churches Gone?” is doable. Public records reveal when properties are bought and sold. Christians around the world can tell the stories of the church that “was” or “where I grew up” or “that closed its doors.” Photos can be taken. Documents can be archived.

But the people who are gone – over time and at the end – are much harder to find. The Churches of Christ directories that 21st Century Christian has published since 1960 document the names and details of congregations, not individuals. We do not have a directory of deceased church members. We don’t even have a directory of active church members.

The Churches of Christ are “so autonomous that we are anonymous,” likes to say Grady King, co-leader of HOPE Network Ministries.

This is never more apparent than when you try to find the people who sat in the pew in front of you, or who once taught Third Grade Sunday School, or whose weddings and funerals took place in this old church. Until they are no longer.

A recent online survey conducted by The Christian Chronicle didn’t help clear things up. This is a sentence that no journalist wants to write.

With only a few dozen responses, the results are anecdotal. But they represent former members of closed congregations scattered across more than a dozen states, congregations roughly evenly spread across a conservative-to-progressive continuum, according to respondents, skewed slightly toward the conservative end.

Stan Granberg

Stan Granberg

Stan Granberg, vice president of the Heritage 21 Foundation, has conducted extensive research on church closures. The foundation works with churches nearing the end of their life to help them reinvigorate or close with dignity.

Granberg said church members leave a congregation in waves. The first to leave a reasonably healthy church are the people he describes as more progressive, “people who want to see something different, something more relevant.”

“Then the leaders get worried and try to do something in response, so there’s the second wave, the more conservative people,” he continued.

Finally, it boils down to congregations of about 50 people, what he calls “people in need of extra grace – people who are in great need, emotionally and physically. They stay and will stay until the church can no longer survive.

Of course, in some parts of the country, congregations of up to 50 people have survived and thrived for many years.

But when the doors close, where do people go?

Granberg said more progressive members tend to attend independent Christian churches or community/non-denominational churches. Conservatives will go to a more conservative Church of Christ if they can find one.

But not always. Sometimes, he says, members of both groups just stop going.

Survey respondents echoed Granberg’s explanation. About three-quarters had found another Church of Christ congregation after theirs closed, but the rest fell into a few categories, including those he listed: community/non-denominational churches, other denominations, church of home or worship online with a Church of Christ in another city. .

Geography plays a role, but so does demography. In some parts of the country, there is nowhere to go.

Allen New House

Allen New House

“In the northeast or the northwest, people don’t have any other options,” Granberg said. “If their church closes, they may not have a choice within 45 minutes or an hour. They rarely go to another church of Christ because they just aren’t there, so they either go to a community church or just don’t go.

Such was the case for the Fargo Church of Christ, a congregation in North Dakota that closed in 2019 after attendance fell to about 15. Allen Newhouse, a member for 30 years, now attends a community church. Others go to a Christian church.

Newhouse said efforts have been made over the years to work with another Church of Christ on a vacation Bible school and other projects. “But they wanted us to be okay with everything they did. We had a good relationship for a while. … We agreed on the majority but not on everything, and they would no longer have fellowship with us. Heritage 21 helps the congregation sell its building.

In 2018, 21st Century Christian listed only seven congregations in all of North Dakota, the largest in Minot at about 80 on Sundays.

Ron Clark

Ron Clark

Likewise, the Agape Church of Christ in Portland, Oregon, began as a church plant about 15 years ago. Before it ceased operations in February 2020, Sunday attendance averaged around 65. But when Minister Ron Clark left to become director of Kairos, a church planting organization associated with Churches of the Christ, he said leaders “felt it best to close and bless others from the churches.”

Jessica Knapp

Jessica Knapp

Clark said in his response to the survey that “about half the members went to another Church of Christ, and about half to other conservative denominations.”

Jessica Knapp, a former member of Mountain Avenue Church of Christ in Tucson, Arizona, responded that when it closed around 2017, many left the church altogether, but some went to Church of Christ in Tucson, Arizona. ‘Ina Road, and several, including Knapp, came together to form a seed team for church planting.

Then there is demographics. Churches in rural communities or aging urban areas become increasingly gray with the neighborhoods around them. Or sometimes a grizzled church is surrounded by neighborhoods that are ethnically or economically very different from its members. If a church is unwilling or unable to accommodate its community – often a community that looks very different from when it started – the congregation will die as most members will leave for the cemetery, not another. congregation.

The first story I wrote for the Chronicle in 2019 involved a small church in Abilene, Texas. His minister, Pat Andrews, since deceased, told me during our first conversation: “We spend a lot of time at the cemetery.

Church members and visitors from 21 congregations pose for a group photo outside Ragsdale Christ Church on March 6.

Church members and visitors from 21 congregations pose for a group photo outside Ragsdale Christ Church during its final meeting on March 6. Click here for the full story.

The first story in this series, about the closing of Ragsdale or Christ Church in Manchester, Tennessee, describes a congregation that was down to just eight attendees on Sunday morning before its final service, all over the age of 60 and several much older. The handful that remained said they would find a new church home in one of the nearby Church of Christ congregations, and the most recent 21st Century Christian Directory lists 15 congregations in Manchester.

But two-thirds of them had pre-pandemic attendance below 60.

The commotion of church members moving between multiple congregations or drawn to large congregations in cities further clouds the picture. Just 32 miles north of Manchester, the North Boulevard Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has nearly 2,000 members, according to its website.

North Boulevard has three campuses and hosts worship services in Korean and Spanish in addition to English.

Too often, unrest is fueled by doctrinal disputes and worship preferences. One survey respondent described his former congregation in a major Midwestern city as having closed, but in response to another question said the building was “still in use by those who chose to continue on the way of iniquity”.

Indeed, with just one phone call, I was able to determine that over 200 were still attending the church that the survey respondent considered “closed,” much smaller than it once was but still viable.

Related: The trend of church closures began before COVID-19

Changes in outlook on religion are generally among the many trends that the Churches of Christ share with other religious groups. Gallup research reported a year ago that in two decades the number of Americans who identify with no religion has risen from 8% in 1998-2000 to 21% by 2021. researchers have observed: “Americans with no religious preference are very unlikely to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque.

So where have the people gone? It’s still not clear. But I’m sure some just went home.

BACON CHERYL MANN is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as director of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected]

Filed Under: Church Decline Church Planting Closing Churches Closing Churches Heritage 21 Foundation HOPE Network Ministries Ina Road Church of Christ Kairos National North Boulevard Church of Christ Perspective Top Stories

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